Aminata Conteh-Biger is an author, inspirational speaker, performer, mother, wife, and former refugee turned Founder and CEO of the Aminata Maternal Foundation.
In 1999, Sierra Leone was in the midst of a brutal civil war where mindless violence, vicious amputation and the rape of young enslaved women were the everyday weapons of bloody conflict.
It was also where rebel soldiers snatched the young Aminata Conteh-Biger from her father’s arms, then held her captive for months.
After she was released, the UNHCR recognised that her captors still posed a serious threat to her safety. So, at just nineteen years of age, she was put on a plane and flown to Australia to start afresh as a refugee in a land she knew nothing about.
It is here that she has proudly built a life, while never allowing her trauma to define her. Yet it was a near-death experience she suffered during the birth of her child that turned her attention to the women of Sierra Leone – where they are 200 times more likely to die while having a baby than in Australia.
So she set up the Aminata Maternal Foundation, then returned to the land of her birth to help. This is her story.
Growing up in Freetown in civil war-ravaged Sierra Leone, Aminata enjoyed a relatively charmed childhood. She and her siblings were raised in the ‘big yellow house on the hill’ by their beloved father, Pa Conteh.
Family, faith and education were the focus of the Contehs’ way of life until 1999 when a devastating consequence of the civil war changed things forever. Rebel forces from the Revolutionary United Front stormed Freetown and the Contehs’ home, kidnapping the teenager Aminata from her father’s hand. Held captive for months and subjected to horrors, Aminata was finally freed as part of a negotiated prisoner exchange, and released in return for food and medicine. However, not long after her release, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognised that one of Aminata’s captors posed a continued and serious threat to her safety.
Sarafina’s birth was difficult, with up to seven doctors in the delivery suite to ensure the safety of mother and daughter. Aminata was keenly aware that had she still been in Sierra Leone it was unlikely that she and Sarafina would have survived, and decided that she had to help her former countrywomen.
In 2016, Aminata travelled to Sierra Leone and documented the country’s maternal healthcare crisis with SBS Television’s Dateline in ‘Daughter of Sierra Leone’. The documentary showed viewers the day-to-day life of pregnant women and girls, and highlighted startling facts, such as the Sierra Leone woman’s average life expectancy of just 52 years old, and how 20% of children won’t see their 5th birthday. Although the Sierra Leone government has made significant improvements in the healthcare system as a whole, challenges continue in maternal, reproductive and child health.
Today, Aminata continues the work of the AMF. Her goal is to increase the Australian public’s awareness of Sierra Leone, its challenges and its extraordinary beauty, and boost fundraising in order to expand a maternity hospital in Sierra Leone in 2021.
Aminata’s memoir, Rising Heart, with Juliet Rieden, is published by Pan Macmillan Australia in May 2020. Sarafina’s birth was difficult, with up to seven doctors in the delivery suite to ensure the safety of mother and daughter. Aminata was keenly aware that had she still been in Sierra Leone it was unlikely that she and Sarafina would have survived, and decided that she had to help her former countrywomen.
The Aminata Maternal Foundation
With the support of the UNHCR, Aminata became one of the very first Sierra Leonean refugee women to be settled in Australia. Her initial experience in Australia was similar to so many before her and since; at times confusing, overwhelming and lonely.
Twenty years on, Aminata has gone on to build an amazing life in Australia. The first friends she made in Australia, the Dwyer family, are now considered her spiritual family. She has held a career in fashion as a model, a retail associate, and on the board of philanthropic clothing label The Social Outfit.
In 2015, Aminata performed as part of the renowned The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe theatre production, telling her story on stage at Sydney’s Opera House. July 2018 saw Aminata appear on revered ABC Radio show Conversations with Richard Fidler.
Aminata married a French-Australian man, Antoine, in 2011 with whom she has two beautiful children, Sarafina and Matisse. It was the birth of Sarafina that led Aminata to her life’s true calling — the Aminata Maternal Foundation (AMF).