University of Calgary

‘Live every single day,’ says Mariatu Kamara

UToday HomeSeptember 6, 2013

By Sarah McGinnis

Mariatu Kamara began speaking out about her experiences during the civil war in Sierra Leone as UNICEF Canada’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. Photo by Nick Danziger, International Committee of the Red CrossMariatu Kamara began speaking out about her experiences during the civil war in Sierra Leone as UNICEF Canada’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. Photo by Nick Danziger, International Committee of the Red CrossMariatu Kamara grew up on a farm in Sierra Leone until civil war raged through her country. Captured by rebels, Kamara lost her hands in a violent attack. But she survived, and through sheer determination she has thrived.

After moving to Toronto, Kamara began speaking out about her experiences as UNICEF Canada’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict.

Kamara’s story is featured in Eleven Women Facing War, a thought-provoking exhibit the University of Calgary is presenting at The Founders’ Gallery located in The Military Museums.

Kamara is in Calgary this week and took the opportunity to speak with the University of Calgary.

Q: What does it feel like to be included in the photography exhibit Eleven Women Facing War?

A: It’s a privilege. It means a lot, not only to me, but also to the rest of my friends who are still in Sierra Leone and who are also victims. This is representing them, not only me. That is why it is so important that it’s here. I feel very, very good about it.

Q: What was it like writing your book The Bite of the Mango and sharing your personal experience of the violence of civil war?

A: It was tough. It was a good experience to have your story out there. But it was also hard to have your whole life out there with people reading it. It’s good, but not so comfortable. It is for a good cause though. I am not only representing myself, but many other people and what happened in Sierra Leone, to raise awareness of what happened there.

Q: What can you tell us about what happened to you during the civil war in Sierra Leone and what has happened to your life since?

A: When I was a child, I was very happy with my aunts that raised me up. It was a happy life. We didn’t have much. We pretty much spent most of our time on the farm working there. But I was happy. I didn’t have things to worry about, until when the war finally came into our lives and changed things in a very bad way.

At the same time, the result was a bit better for myself and for my family and the rest of the people in Sierra Leone. If this had not happened to me, maybe none of you would have known what happened in Sierra Leone. I think that’s the good about it.

The bad part about it was that I lost my hands. My hands were cut off when the rebels attacked the village and I was captured. That changes my life in a bad way. But I survived. I survived that tragedy.

From there, that experience took me from struggles to a better place here in Canada. Now I have the opportunity to go to school, supporting myself, being in a safe place and being happy at the same time and be able to also support my family back home. I help them as much as I can. It’s not easy, but it is gain and loss. It is a balance.

Now I’m a student at George Brown College. I started it a few years ago, but I took some time off. Now I’m going back this September to finish up social work and counseling for assaulted women and children.

It is very hard. It is challenging. But I never lost hope. I had faith in myself and for the future. I live by those things. They keep me going every single day.

I live every single day.

Q: What struck me most about the exhibit was hearing from you as a young woman asking what was your life going to be like without hands, asking yourself, ‘How can I cook and take care of myself without hands.’ Then seeing you 10 years later cooking for the photographer and living a full life. What do you want people to understand about your story?

A: I always say to survivors like me, whatever happens to you, you might not be the only person it happened to. There are other people out there who have terrible things happen. When something bad like this happens, all you have to do is use that terrible experience and turn it into motivation to be able to live again and look forward to the future.

Never give up. It might be one thing you have lost, your hand or your leg. If the life is still there, then have the faith. Everything is possible.

It doesn’t matter how tough and difficult it seems to be, if you have the determination and the faith you can do it. You can do anything. Trust me. You just have to find your own strength to re-live your life again.

Eleven Women Facing War will run at The Founders’ Gallery in The Military Museums until Dec. 2.

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