Mariatu and Me

A story of survival and hope from a child victim of Sierra Leone's civil war

By Susan McClelland
More magazine, September 2008

Kadi (Kadijatu) Nabe and I are lying beside each other, width wise on a double bed, our legs scrunched up against the wall. We’re in Masiaka, about an hour outside of Freetown, Sierra Leone, in one of the town’s guest houses (similar to a B & B). Sorious Samura, the filmmaker with whom we’ve been working, has just sprayed the rooms with a heavy-duty insect repellent — likely, I muse, one that is banned in Canada for being toxic to humans. Sierra Leone, after all, sees many of the West’s rejects, from T-shirts to a 2008 Mercedes-Benz, ending up in its markets. But that’s another story.

Mariatu Kamara, the reason Kadi and I are in Sierra Leone in the first place, is spending her first night away from us. “She’ll have a good sleep and look wonderful in the morning,” Kadi says of Mariatu’s decision to stay with her family in their village for the first time since she moved to Canada in 2002. Until recently, Mariatu has lived with Kadi, also a Sierra Leoneon, in Pickering, Ont.

“Of course she will,” I reply, recalling that Mariatu checked into her cousin’s small, two-bedroom clay-and-cement house with a tin roof with two large suitcases.

The bug repellent’s label warned to spray for no longer than three seconds. But Sorious let it rip for about five minutes. The building is nothing more than a cement block, the ceilings maybe seven feet high. Kadi and I are now choking on the fumes.
Trouble brewing

We can hear Sorious in the hallway having an argument with some men from the village where Mariatu is probably now sound asleep. They, and our driver, have just returned from the police station. The officers refused to guard our vehicle for the night unless they were paid money. “More money! They want more money?” Sorious cries out in Krio, which I am starting to understand.

“A bribe,” Kadi coughs out the words. “The villagers said this was a bad place, lots of stealing,” she adds.

“You know,” I turn to Kadi and say in a more serious tone, “I had an editor who once berated me for getting too close to my sources.”

I go on to tell her that this editor felt it was not appropriate for me to carry on conversations and have coffee with people after their stories had been published. My sources are not usually politicians, celebrities or professional hockey players — for some reason in the journalism world, it’s okay for reporters to have personal relationships with these people — but rather female drug smugglers, animal rights activists, prostitutes and child victims of war. The latter includes Mariatu, whom I first met in 2003 while doing a story for Maclean’s on the impact of war on children.

“Ahh,” Kadi exclaims, as we watch a big black spider that somehow escaped Sorious’s poison scurry along the wall. “You should have listened to that editor.”

“But then I’d miss all this,” I say. “Not just the room, or the guest house,” which we later dub roach motel, “but also this place with Mariatu, where I am writing a source’s memoir.”

This past February, Mariatu, Kadi, who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, and I travelled to Sierra Leone, completing the final leg of a journey that has, indeed, resulted in my becoming closer to any source I have ever had. The journey officially began in the summer of 2007 when Mariatu and I landed the book deal to write her story.

Now 22, she is the first child victim of war to be working closely with UNICEF Canada, supporting their work. Mariatu was only 12 years old when rebels with Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front invaded the village where she had been staying, held her hostage, then cut off her hands.

Part of the reason for the trip to Sierra Leone was to familiarize Mariatu with the programs UNICEF offers in her home country. But we also went there to fact check and complete her book, The Bite of the Mango (published this month by Annick Press, with a forward by her countryman Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier). We’re also doing a documentary with Sorious, a legendary Sierra Leonese filmmaker, examining the lives today of the child victims of Sierra Leone’s 11-year-long civil war.

None of this would have been possible, though, had I listened to that editor and just done my interview with Mariatu five years ago and then walked away. At the time, she was living with Kadi and her husband, Abou, both of whom co-founded Toronto’s Sierra Leone Immigrant Resettlement and Integration Centre. Back then, Mariatu hid her arms in her Africana dress and spoke in hushed tones in Temne, her native language, while Abou translated for me.

She was born in a small village in Western Sierra Leone. Had war never come to her, Mariatu would have led an average rural life. She would likely have married by her late teens, if not earlier. She would have farmed for her survival, selling the surplus crops to purchase supplies such as needles and thread.

The war brutalized Mariatu in many ways. While on the run from the rebels, she was raped. She conceived a child from the assault, who was born and eventually died from malnutrition at the Aberdeen Amputee Camp for displaced people in Freetown, where Mariatu lived for three years.

During our first interview, Mariatu recounted the usual story she gave journalists, her eyes cast downward, her speech monotone.

My name is Mariatu. I was 12 when rebels cut off my hands. I had a baby who died at the refugee camp. I now live in Canada.

At the end, however, Mariatu looked me in the eyes and said, using the few English words she knew: I want to go home. Maybe you’ll come home with me. See Sierra Leone for yourself.

How prescient this request would turn out to be.

Fast-forward to early spring 2007. The Globe and Mail asked me to do a story on Ishmael. I suggested to my editor that I include a follow-up story on Mariatu, and her life today.

Since we first connected in 2003, Mariatu has been in school, no small accomplishment considering she’d never set foot in a classroom until she moved to Canada. Fluent in English — initially learned, she admits, from watching music videos and from her housemates in Pickering — Mariatu is now in her second year at Toronto’s Centennial College, studying travel and tourism. She dresses stylishly, in designer jeans and trendy T- shirts. Her hairstyle is constantly changing, rotating from braids to sleek weaves. She can whip out her cellphone and call any one of her many friends faster than I can hit the speed-dial on my own mobile.

After the Globe stories were published, Mariatu asked me if she could meet Ishmael before his talk in Toronto that April. It was tense at first, with Ishmael’s publicist cornering me in the hallway beforehand and asking, “What does she want from him? An apology on behalf of the boy soldiers who did this to her?”

Nothing could have been further from the truth. “I am in the process of forgiving the boys who did this to me a long time ago,” she once told me. “What can I do to them now? Even if they were standing in front of me, what could I do? The best thing is to forgive and move on.”

Mariatu’s pretty smile disarmed everyone in the room that warm spring evening. She and Ishmael jumped right into a discussion about Sierra Leoneon food, discovering as they went along that they have mutual friends but are at an impasse when it comes to music (she likes hip hop, he prefers rap).

Obviously Mariatu made an impression: Ishmael later told his standing-room audience: “What we need to hear now is the story of a girl from the war.”

“Okay, Susan,” Mariatu said to me, slipping an arm through mine. “When do we start?”

We moved quickly, managing to finish and fact check the manuscript in six months. Mariatu was ready to talk, and I was ready to write. Our interviews usually began with Mariatu asking me about my own children. She’d talk about family and friends back home. We’d also catch up on girly things, such as new shoes, makeup and movies. Then we’d sit quietly, face to face, and move through the most horrifying and then triumphant moments of her life — one of the latter being when she finished reading Romeo and Juliet in Grade 11. “When I closed the book, I knew I was at the same level as everyone else in my class,” she said.

I am grateful for the trust Mariatu has placed in me to tell her story. But what I didn’t expect when I set out to write her book was that I would not only be invited into her life, but into those of many others as well. Mariatu doesn’t walk alone, and that’s the main reason why she has healed so well emotionally. A big network of family and friends supports her, and these friends and family all became accessible to me. The young Sierra Leoneon women with whom Mariatu now lives in Toronto would break into song and dance when I’d come to visit. Kadi’s sister sewed me an Africana outfit. Along the way, I tasted Sierra Leoneon food, from cassava leaves to groundnut soup.

London (Ont.) member of Parliament, Glen Pearson, who adopted three children from Darfur, once said to me that Westerners often look at Africa and see only its problems, the poverty and the corruption. “But the Africa I know is about love and kinship,” he said.

You see, in Africa, kinship extends far beyond blood relatives. Everyone who touches a person is an auntie, an uncle or a cousin. All of sudden, I had aunties and uncles, and cousins all wanting to share their stories, braid my hair, even wear their clothes. Mariatu has shown me an Africa where love has helped her see herself not as a victim, but as a person who can dream and bring into fruition her dreams and goals. As a result, she has, in some ways, grown up to become a typical North American young woman, who keeps me abreast of fashion and music. And through my association with her, 
I have been extended the camaraderie and support needed to write Mariatu’s memoir accurately, reflective of not only a terrible period in Sierra Leone’s history, but also the spirit of a people. “My story isn’t just about me,” she told me once. “It’s about all the people who helped me. My story is so many other girls’ stories too. Girls touched by war, and the people who make life hopeful again.”

Mariatu often thanks me for helping to bring her story to the public. But I feel she has given me the bigger gift. In addition to the Sierra Leone family into which I now feel adopted, Mariatu has become a part of my family too. Last fall, when my six-year-old daughter was learning about Remembrance Day at Sparks, she came home and asked me why the instructor didn’t talk about Sierra Leone. “Next year, I’m going to bring Mariatu to Sparks,” Lauren announced. “The other kids need to know that wars still happen.”

Mariatu is my daughters’ idol — Charlotte, who is four, even refers to her as an auntie. I can’t think of a better role model — a beautiful young woman who has a story to tell of both tragedy and success, and how to get on with life not matter what obstacles cross your path.

That night in Masiaka is just a snapshot of what has happened to me, in allowing the journalist-source relationship to deepen to this degree. Sure, the guest house was awful, perhaps even a bit dangerous. But Sorious stayed up all night making sure Kadi and I didn’t really choke on the bug spray fumes, or that a thief didn’t barge through the paper-thin walls. Our driver slept in the vehicle to make sure it wasn’t stolen. And Mariatu, well, she sent some of the village men to make sure nothing bad happened to us. She then greeted us in the morning, in high-heeled shoes, low-rise faded jeans and big silver-hoop earrings. “Sleep well?” she asked me innocently. I growled, while she exclaimed: “I had my best sleep ever!”