It takes me three weeks to track down Mariatu Kamara and a perilous motorcycle taxi ride to find her house on the hills of Freetown. She's having her hair corn-rowed on the verandah in preparation for her trip back to Toronto the next day. Mariatu tousles a towel about on her head and then swings it off in one swift move. The cell phone rings, she picks it up and bids farewell to a friend. Watching her I almost forget that she is a war amputee and that her hands were brutally cut off by rebels during the Sierra Leonean civil war.
Twenty three-year-old Mariatu is co-author of The Bite of the Mango, her memoirs from the war. Unlike Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, she's not quite the household name here in Sierra Leone. The book, which was first published in Canada last year, has not been launched in this country yet. But so far international reviews have been promising. The Globe and the Mail in Canada wrote:
'Mariatu's tale, told in the first person, is never less than riveting and is notable for its emotional honesty.'
Her story is a nightmare, only real. She was raped at age 12 by a man who wanted to marry her. The rebels that captured her in the forest left her for dead. She managed to survive and was brought to Freetown for medical attention. It was then that she found out she was pregnant. Shortly after her son was born he died of malnutrition.
Mariatu moved to Toronto and was granted residence on humanitarian grounds. She's learned to use her hands without prosthetics and is studying to be a family counsellor. But that's what sets her apart from the amputees I see everyday on the streets of Freetown. She was able to leave; most of them still beg for a living. 'Every time I pass them by it reminds me of the days I spent begging on the streets,' she says. In her book she describes her experiences of both being laughed at and pitied by passersby. She writes: I would soon learn too that kids like me, with no hands, made the best beggars of all.
As UNICEF's Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflicts, she's very concerned that the Government of Sierra Leone is not doing enough to help victims of the war. That is why she's set up The Mariatu Foundation to address issues such as children's education, domestic abuse against women and micro credit for the war disabled. 'I'm also trying to set up a halfway home for people on the streets,' she says. Mariatu is hoping the foundation will raise money to provide free health care for amputees.
I ask her about the turning point in her life. I expect her to narrate an incident from the war, but she talks about going to school for the first time in Canada. In the book, she recalls the initial apprehension she felt about not fitting in. 'Now I'm able to carry on a fluent conversation in English, which is a huge achievement for me,' she says.
Back in Toronto, Mariatu divides her time between school and public speaking. She admits that it's still painful to dredge up the past for a different group every week. But she knows that the war-affected women and children of Sierra Leone need a voice and a face. So she promises to keep talking.