Mariatu Kamara was a young girl living in one of the poorest countries of the world when war broke out. Although she lost her hands to the violence in Sierra Leone, the cultural lessons she learned early in life helped give her the resilience to carry on with life when many people would have given-up.
Unlike many Western countries who have an unhealthy obsession with self reliance, the people Mariatu grew up among valued inter-connectivity. Multiple families lived in each household, sharing all responsibilities equally. Family members often raised each other’s children, and not out of a sense of obligation that resulted from observing neglect or abuse. The communities collectively owned the land they farmed, and worked the farms as a group. During the evening the village would come together around fires. They would sing, dance and tell stories to entertain each other. Everything about Mariatu Kamara’s early childhood experiences taught her that there was nothing wrong with people relying on each other to get through life.
Many aspects of Matiatu’s culture helped her survive her attack during the war in Sierra Leone. Her grandmother’s story about blood spilling by the end of the day if she dreamed of palm oil put her survival instincts in over-drive when she had the worst dream of her life about palm oil the night before the attack. It probably gave her an edge in making choices that helped her survive. Another cultural lesson Mariatu learned early in life was to stay quiet and pay attention to the lessons adults taught. With people dying all around her during the attack, Mariatu kept quiet and watched for opportunities to improve her chances of survival. She remembered hearing her auntie say the rebels would ask if she liked what she was seeing when they committed atrocious acts of violence. The moment Mariatu heard one of the rebels ask that question, she remembered how her auntie had told her to tell them that she liked it. Paying attention to adults in her life, as her culture taught, probably saved her life.
When the rebels cut Mariatu’s hands off, it might have been easy for her to lay on the ground and wait to die. That’s not what happened. She told herself that she wasn’t going to die, and forced herself to get up and start doing the work to make sure she’d live. That night she saw two black cobras. One sighting forced her to start moving again, and the other changed her direction. Her culture taught her that animals could be deceased family members watching over her, which helped her to see the cobras as a possible sign rather than a threat. When she finally came across another person, she had to rely upon the man to feed her a mango since she had no hands to hold it for herself. It was the first instance of many where Mariatu had to rely on the kindness of strangers. Later, she had to beg for food in the streets. Strangers kept her from starving to death. A stranger took her out of the war refugee camp where she was living and brought her to England to be fitted for prosthetic hands. Another man brought her to Canada, where she was given her first opportunity to get an education. Her family had never been able to pay for school in Sierra Leone, which made her appreciate the chance to go to school.
In Western cultures it’s common to treat the loss of independence as the most humiliating thing that could happen to a person. Disabled people have to read and hear people saying things like, “If I became disabled I would just kill myself.” Even in Sierra Leone, where people were taught they were allowed to rely on each other, she had young boys ask her how if felt to know she’d be a burden for the rest of her life. Rather than letting this negativity get the best of her, she leaned on the cultural lessons she was taught early in life to give her the resilience to build a better life for herself.