The speaker at the Auckland eucharistic convention dinner on April 22 had the “candle of her childhood blown out” by a series of terribly traumatic events, including having her hands forcibly amputated.
Yet, Mariatu Kamara is unafraid to tell her story, over and over again, saying that perhaps one reason God allowed her hands to be taken away was that she could touch the world with her heart.
As a pre-teen in a remote village in the west African nation of Sierra Leone, Ms Kamara suffered genital mutilation (aged 9), was raped by a much older man who want to marry her (aged 11), and then, two months later, had her hands hacked off by rebel child soldiers wielding machetes during her nation’s brutal civil war. Several family members also lost their hands in similar fashion.
She soon found she was pregnant by her rapist, and gave birth after a caesarean section. But the child only lived 10 months and died of malnutrition. Before and after the birth, Ms Kamara lived in a filthy camp for amputees, surviving by begging on the streets of Freetown, an existence she described as “miserable”.
But the intervention of “human angels” saw her eventually able to move to Canada to start a new life in Toronto, where she learned English and gained an education.
“I seized upon opportunities that came my way and never looked back,” she said.
But none of her achievements would have been possible without one vital step.
“For me, the journey into the future started when I started to let go of the past and everything that reminded me of the war. I let go of the hatred for those who maimed me. . . . I have forgiven them.
I stopped feeling sorry for myself and refused to have anyone feel sorry for me, because, as you can see, I do everything for myself.”
Ms Karama has a certain dexterity with her arms, enabling her to hold a fork or knife and to work a smartphone — using her lips to touch the screen.
Currently she is in the process of completing her college degree and she will soon be an international advocate for assaulted women and children, following on from her work for UNICEF as a special representative.
“I have a 5-year-old daughter and you wonder how I take care of her. It is a miracle how it works, I don’t even know how it works, but I do. Trust me. I might even do it better than you. We will see,” she told her North Shore audience.
Her recovery from the trauma of her childhood has been such that she was ultimately able to share a stage overseas with a former Sierra Leone child soldier, both advocating for peace. In Auckland, Ms Kamara told the eucharistic convention dinner about the child soldiers in Sierra Leone – calling them “kids [who] were turned into monsters”.
“But it was not their wish to become who they were. They were taken from their parents and some of their parents were killed in front of them.”
Some of the child soldiers were given drugs and became addicted, which enabled them to be controlled, she said.
Ms Kamara said her story is not just hers. “It is a story of many silent and forgotten victims . . . it is the story of war, suffering, tears, blood, death, victims and survivors . . . it is a story of endurance, hope and forgiveness.” She delivered a stirring call for peace and challenged those in positions of power, including the Church, to create opportunities for helping the lives of victims of war and violence, and to speak out to prevent war.
But what victims need most is “an assurance that the world understands and promises to never accept policies and practices that make us enemies of each other. We are one big family and we must treat each other as brothers and sisters and seek to bring out the better angels in all of us. We must never, ever answer the call to pick up weapons and go to war”.
Finally, Ms Kamara spoke directly to those “who believe they are too young to make a difference or too insignificant to have their voices heard”.
Her life was turned around because a primary school child called Richie in Canada found out about her story from a newspaper, and appealed to his parents to do something.
“Because of the goodness of his heart and his parents’ hearts, this life has been altered and now it is my turn to carry on that example that that primary school kid did for me, for the rest of us.”
Ms Kamara visits Sierra Leone once a year and uses money she has raised to take clothes, shoes and school supplies to the camps and hospitals, where life is still very hard.
Sierra Leone, despite being rich in natural resources, is one of the poorest countries in the world. More about Ms Kamara can be read in her book The Bite of the Mango, published in 2008.