The Aminata Maternal Foundation is helping to save women and their babies

The Aminata Maternal Foundation is helping to save women and their babies

Aminata Conteh-Biger

In Freetown Sierra Leone, there’s a small women’s hospital delivering thousands of babies every year and helping to dramatically improve maternal health for women in what is often considered the most dangerous country in the world to have a baby. 

But one if it’s supporters is the Aminata Maternal Foundation (AMF), founded by the Sydney-based Aminata Conteh-Biger. AMF is a partner of the Aberdeen Women’s Centre, helping to ensure mothers and children can access free health care. 

It’s remarkable to think any one person’s experience could create something that saves and transforms the lives of so many women and babies. But it’s even more remarkable when you consider the story behind the experience, and the optimism, hope and positivity she inspires in everyone she meets. 

Aminata Conteh-Biger established the AMF in 2014. “We work day and night. I think about mothers and babies all the time. The things we are helping with is managing deaths that are preventable. We don’t need research, we’re not trying to cure anything.” Aminata arrived in Australia as the first female refugee from Sierra Leone in 2000. Her application had been fast-tracked by the UNHCR, after she was kidnapped and held as a sex slave by rebel forces in her home country. 

She recently shared her story with the Women’s Agenda Podcast, having just published her memoir, Rising Heart, sharing one of the most courageous stories we’ve ever heard.

Aminata made a home in Sydney and enrolled in a local high school, mostly keeping to herself for her first five or so years. She eventually married a Frenchman, Antoine, and how she speaks of their relationship is nothing short of magic. 

She had her two children (now seven and eight) in Sydney, but the first birth of her daughter was traumatic. She recalls multiple doctors being in the room and fears that the baby would not survive. She realised that had she been in Sierra Leone where women are more than 300 times more likely to die in childbirth, she and her daughter would not have survived.

It was this that inspired Aminata to set up her foundation and return to Sierra Leone, a difficult decision given what she’d experienced as a teenager: unimaginable horrors during the war that followed an otherwise happy childhood, growing up with a father who travelled all over the world as a businessman.

Now she’s working to support the safe birth of babies, and helping to cure thousands of women of the injuries they’ve suffered through childbirth and pregnancy that can leave them shunned by their communities.

You can help support Aminata’s hospital and it’s mission to save and support women and their babies, by donating to the Aminata Maternal Foundation. See here

Please note, the next section discusses distressing content.

Living in Freetown

Aminata’s family lived well and were mostly protected from the continued threat of war. Aminata’s father would drive her to school and back home again, she recalls always feeling safe in their big house, living what was closer to an English lifestyle because that’s what her father loved. 

While Aminata knew about the war going on throughout the country, it became normal to push those conversations aside.

Still, she was aware of what could happen to girls.

And then it did happen on the 6th January 1999, when the rebels stormed the city. 

“We looked through the window and there were houses that were burnt down. And you could hear this massive voice of sound, people screaming, coming towards and running like they had been chased or they’d be burned, they’d be running miles and miles,” she says.

Aminata thought that they would die together, her family and their siblings as they hid quietly upstairs. It was the biggest house on the street, it stood out. When they heard knocking on the door and eventually opened it, dozens of people came in to take refuge. Aminata’s father closed the door and they stayed together, hiding, for weeks. 

Eventually, the rebels did come to the door, threatening to burn down the house and forcing everyone out. Hundreds of them were taken to a field, thinking they were going to be shot. Aminata held her fathers hand. 

“And you see all these rebels. All these young, young, young boys. 8 years, 10 years, and they are the ones you’d mostly be frightened of, because they had been brainwashed, and they had been drugged, and they’ve done more vicious things. Even if you cross eyes with them, they just shoot you. So you’re literally putting your head down and not looking at anybody. Any of them.” 

Aminata’s eyes crossed with a one of the rebels, and she knew immediately, as he looked at her, that he would take her. He ordered her to go with him, she let go of her father’s hand, walked away and never looked back. 

“I didn’t want to look at him because I knew they would either kill him or they’d ask me to shoot my dad, or – something else. There were so many scenarios that could’ve happened that we knew of.”

She recalls walking with other girls, seeing sights that made it difficult to process what had happenned: dead bodies, people being shot, people missing limbs, burning houses. She can describe what she saw vividly, the sounds, sights, smells, but says she didn’t have the time to think about it ine the moment. 

“You see horror upon horror. It’s escalating. The horror’s escalating. So you do not have time to think…. How do you describe war? I can see it, I can smell it, I can see the movement, I can see everything while I’m walking up the hill.”

Aminata was held for months and was raped and abused. She said she learnt incredible survivals skills.

One night after her captor brutally raped her, she believes he felt so much shame — despite being the most vicious man imaginable — that he had to release her, in order to release himself.

The government had negotiated with the rebels for a number of children to be released in exchange for food and medicine. Aminata became part of the negotiations. Her release was filmed on national TV — alerting her family, and her father, to the fact she was still alive. She describes the experience as being like a scene from a movie. Miraculously, no one was killed during the exchange.

“I got home and I met my dad. He was completely broken, not the same person,” Aminata says.

Arriving in Sydney

When the UNHCR heard about Aminata’s story, they got her out of Africa. Aminata chose to go to Australia because she wanted to start fresh. Knowing she would have no community in Australia, as she would have available in other places, was particularly appealing.

She arrived in Sydney, and recalls going to the local IGA for food. She bought a fridge, and the basics she needed. At 19, she also re-enrolled in a local high school so she could complete her studies.

She says she just needed to get on with living and that as her father became weak, she believes his strength transferred to her.

She recalls the many assumptions people had about her, assuming she had come from poverty, asking her questions about “seeing lions.” She realised, after a while, that these assumptions were coming from World Vision ads.

Aminata came across Oprah and Toni Morrison and learnt more about Mohammad Ali. She says she learned about racism and prejudice and history, including the holocaust, and saw that war and horrible things occur all over the world. “The only movies we had watched back home with our father were things like Home Alone. I think we watched Home Alone like 500 times,” she laughs

Aminata talks of meeting a family in a local church who provided some powerful support, and also how living by the mantra of her father kept her grounded: that wherever you are, you belong.

On a mission to save the lives and dignity of women

But it was childbirth that became that catalyst for Aminata to pursue her life’s work. There were seven doctors in the Sydney hospotal room making sure she and her baby survived. In Sierra Leone, there are only six obstetricians in the country. They need over 3500 midwives, but only have 300.

In Australia, one in 8700 women die in childbirth. In Sierra Leone, it is one in eight. Years of war, poverty and Ebola have all contributed, Sierra Leone has not had an opportunity to recover and build the infrastructure it needs. Ebola especially saw much of the progress that was made going backwards.

But with funding and support, more women and their babies can be saved. Aminata’s foundation can help train more midwives and further develop the The Aberdeen Women’s Centre.

Already, the Aberdeen Women’s Centre delivers 3000 babies every year, in what is the second busiest maternal hospital in Sierra Leone and the only hospital to do fistula surgery.

Indeed, the hospital’s staff go to villages to find women who have often been completely shunned by their communities due to childbirth injuries — and can be offered a second chance at life through a simple surgical procedure.

“When you see a woman lose her dignity (due to fistula), it’s so hard,” Aminata says.

“I’m not ashamed of what happened to me, of being raped, I don’t carry that at all. I know they didn’t break me. But when I see another human being, a woman, in a hospital and she is so broken. No woman, no human being, deserves to live like that. Starvation, poverty, can not strip your dignity away. I’ve gone through enough starvation, enough poverty, my dignity was still intact.

“I’ve gone through the most vicious way of a woman being raped, my dignity was still in tact. When a woman smells that much, they tell you their children can’t eat their dinner because of the smell? Knowing we can prevent that we can cure that, by going to the hospital and having the surgery, we have to do it.

“If this affected men, we would have fixed it. We don’t need to research this, we just need to make it available. Sadly, there will always be war, but this we can fix.”

Aminata’s dream now is to buy the hotel that her father owned and turn it into a hospital.

But before then, her goal is to get as many midwives as possible trained, and to possibly open a children’s ward in the Aberdeen Women’s Centre so they can build their capacity for check-ups and vaccines.

“It’s a miracle. When I started this foundation, nobody ever thought that it was possible,” she says. “But I always knew I wanted to be part of something good.”

“I just want to be a voice for these voiceless women. It’s been an incredibly overwhelming ride, I still don’t know how I’ve written this book.”

“The idea of bringing another human being into this world… We all came out of a woman. This should just happen, a mother should be able to safely deliver a baby. That’s the grassroots of women’s lives.

“We need to fight for childbirth. That’s where life comes from.

“And when you invest in a woman, they go back and invest in their communities.”

At the time that we talk, Aminata is proud to say that their hospital has not had a single COVID-19 case nor has it closed at all during the pandemic, something she attributes to the hospital being run locally, rather than having Westerners coming in. There have been 74 deaths as of late October across all of Sierra Leone and a little more than 2300 cases. 

She says she’s proud of her country but acknowledges the history they had with Ebola as pushing for quick action on COVID. “Ebola is still raw today. Ebola was vicious,” she says. “They took on social distancing from day one. Put up the barriers, did everything.”

“The Aberdeen Women’s Centre would have closed down if it was run by anyone not of that country.”

You can help support Aminata’s hospital and it’s mission to save and support women and their babies, by donating to the Aminata Maternal Foundation. See here

Photo credit: Jeremy Simons

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