How do you accept something you cannot change? Well, if you’re the force of nature that is Aminata Conteh-Biger, you don’t. You change the unchangeable. This year, the International Women’s Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge and Aminata is the perfect embodiment of that. ‘From challenge comes change’, the IWD committee explains. And in Aminata’s story, you’ll see that change is not just as good as a holiday. It’s a lifeline, and a life calling...
Let’s get to know this champion of change…
Aminata is one of the most joyful people you’ll ever come across, which is all the more incredible when you hear her story. If you’ve ever wondered how practising gratitude can change your life, she’s case in point that it’s truly transformative. Yet, behind the warm smile, there’s a history full of heartbreak, but also inspiration, courage and love which she has documented in a memoir entitled Rising Heart. Her book – which you must all read – buy it here! – tells her life story.
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 and children were the everyday weapons of bloody conflict. It was also where rebel soldiers snatched 18-year-old 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, still in her teens, she was put on a plane and flown to Australia to start afresh as a refugee in a land she knew nothing about.
In Australia, 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, and returned to the land of her birth to help. Aminata is now an author, inspirational speaker, performer, mother and wife, and former refugee turned founder and CEO of the Aminata Maternal Foundation.
Here, in partnership with Wittner, the iconic Australian footwear brand which is spotlighting incredible women such as Aminata over the month of March, she gives us a glimpse into her life story (and Wittner’s new winter collection) and why she doesn’t take a minute of her life in Australia for granted. Prepare to be inspired, grateful, and above all, to #choosetochallenge…
“ International Women’s Day is a day of celebrating womanhood and sisterhood ”
It’s International Women’s Day – what does today mean to you?
Women should be celebrating every day, every minute, every second. We are phenomenal human beings. For me, it’s a day of celebrating womanhood and sisterhood but it’s also a day where we should celebrate every woman around the world because a lot of the world doesn’t even know it exists. It’s also a day where we should think about others – not just people speaking or having their voices amplified – we should think beyond where we are. There’s a lot happening around the world, and each and every one of us should read a story about a woman in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Chad in a refugee camp because 80% of people in refugee camps are women and children. We should go beyond what the hashtag is and the beautiful speakers we are listening to and think of the women who are not standing where we are standing.
You have walked tall your entire life and you're such an inspiration. What does walking tall and standing up for what you believe in mean to you?
First of all, if you don’t walk tall, nobody will do it for you. This is something that I recognised for myself very early on – I have to do the walking. My father used to say, “When you walk into a room, you are the most important person in the room, but you’re not more important than anybody else.” I always remember these words.
“ We should go beyond what the hashtag is and the beautiful speakers we are listening to and think of the women who are not standing where we are standing ”
“ I wrote in my book Rising Heart that I always thought my job as going to be a ‘giver’ because my dad gave to people relentlessly ”
In 2012, the year that your daughter was born, you had a near-death experience that inspired you to embark on a new mission to help provide support for maternal health in Sierra Leone, where mothers are 200 times more likely to die having a baby than in Australia…
I truly believe that we are all on this planet to contribute to this world. I saw first-hand how my father cared for people in general, and contributed to humanity. I wrote in my book Rising Heart that I always thought my job as going to be a ‘giver’ because my dad gave to people relentlessly.
When I gave birth to Serafina, I had seven doctors in the room. Now you have to imagine in Sierra Leone, it’s a country of seven million people, and there are only six obstetricians in Sierra Leone. I had seven doctors to save my life and to save my baby’s life. The doctors knew that I was going to die if nothing happened. If I was in Sierra Leone, she would have died, but because I’m in Australia, that didn’t happen. I had people that fought for me to survive. I came home and I start researching about maternal health. I started seeing the horror my country where one in eight women dies through childbirth. For me, I’ve experienced something that is preventable. They can prevent it. I just had this light in me that I needed to do something and be part of something. For me, it was a ‘why’?. Why should a mother and a child die in Sierra Leone just by coming into this world?
How have your experiences when you were 18 change your perspective on life and how you live each day?
I live each day. I know each day is a blessing. It’s a miracle. Every day for me, I practise forgiveness. I choose to forgive because I wanted to be free from the people who kidnapped me. I choose to forgive because I want to dance with life. I love life. I know how much I fought to survive every single minute when I was kidnapped. I do not want to waste my life. I also know that there are tough times and I’m not in denial of that. When they come, I embrace it. I practice gratitude every single day.
You have an incredible collection of shoes and I know this because I’ve been to your home!
I have always loved shoes and I like to wear heels. There’s just something about heels – even if you put the smallest heel on, they just lift you up and help to lift your spirits. I look for comfortable shoes, which are classic. When I look at photos of myself when I was a little girl, it reminds me of how my Dad would buy shoes for us from London or Europe and they were all very classic. When I buy things, I also look for classic pieces – many of my shoes I’ve had for 15 years. I’m not a trend person.
How would you describe your personal style?
First of all, comfortable. Like my Dad, I love elegance. I love wearing blazers with jeans and a pair of heels. My outfits really depend on how I feel, and I always dress for myself. Of course, you want people to admire you, but you should dress for yourself. I never wear anything that makes me feel uncomfortable and always dress to feel confident.