Aminata Conteh-Biger happily agrees with me that she is a person who contains multitudes. Kidnap victim. Survivor. Refugee. Wife. Mother. Advocate. And some far less serious labels that help to show the kind of rounded, utterly delightful woman she is: fashion lover. Story teller. Warm, kind, gracious, and incredibly quick to laugh. Aminata was raised in Sierra Leone by a deeply loving father who was foundational in making her who she is and how she sees the world, and then as a teenager during the Civil War was kidnapped by armed rebels and held under brutal conditions. Eventually released, she made her way to Australia as a refugee, where she built an incredible life for herself, putting her father’s emphasis on the importance of dressing well (and her own innate sense of aesthetics) to use in a career in fashion.

By pure chance, she met her delightful French husband, Antoine, on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. Years later, when it came to giving birth to their first child, a near-disaster averted by Australian medical staff ignited a passion within her to advocate for improving maternal health in Sierra Leone. Having spent twenty years in silence, she chose to share her story while working with the UNHCR and has recently published a memoir, Rising Heart. You could say that in recent times the now-founder and CEO of The Aminata Maternal Foundation has become adept at sharing. In our interview, she explained why she ultimately chooses to do so, despite the pain inherent in continually bringing the past into the present, and the many ways she finds joy in her everyday life, gently encouraging us all to do the same.

“I believe we are all born with something good within us, and then taking that further is the work we have to do with our lives. 

I had this realisation after I had fought hard to survive during my kidnapping. What was the point of me fighting so hard? To enjoy life! We as humans can make the choices every day to shine our lights – it isn’t about something we might do in one year or ten years. When things aren’t going well, and, let’s be honest, it can often feel like that, we have to know we don’t have any real control. All we can do is move forward with our days, and look for that glimpse of sky even on the cloudiest ones.

People say ‘I don’t have your strength’, but that’s not right. Challenges will come to test and build our resilience, and we work out how to deal with what is in front of us. It’s not necessarily about how you might cope with something extreme, but how we approach the everyday, the little things. It’s important to have a positive attitude, and, if we want or need change, to focus on the things we can change.

My father, Pa Conteh, raised me, and he taught me that beauty was inside a person, and was about what you do with your heart. Then my kidnappers chose me because they thought I was physically attractive, and that overtook the way I thought about someone being considered beautiful.

When I moved to Australia and worked in fashion, I started to understand the appeal of aesthetics, but never forgot that the concept of beauty was what had gotten me into trouble in Africa. An Australian couple, Michael and Janelle, who have since become my spiritual parents, helped me to learn a different perspective on how I felt about my own looks. They told me at our church one day how beautiful their whole family thought I was, and hearing that from people my dad’s age (as opposed to young men, like my kidnappers) I think really opened up how I was able to feel about myself. We are all drawn to beautiful people, and now I can appreciate that. It’s not a bad thing. I had hidden away from being considered attractive, and didn’t like to be looked at, but I knew when Michael and Janelle spoke to me that they were also seeing me from the inside, seeing my attitude, as well as how I looked. When I see someone’s beauty inside and on the outside, it’s very striking. One of my favourite singers, Jill Scott, is a great example of this. She’s so powerful, she’s big and gorgeous, but best of all, when she sings, she’s always smiling.

I think we all inherently want to know what we have in common with each other.

Once people hear me tell my story, they are not afraid of discussing any of it, because they sense I am not afraid of it. Most of all, they are curious about how to move forward, about perseverance and rising above. Even people who’ve known me forever and are just now finding out my history for the first time, who know me as this joyful person, say ‘how did you do it? How did you become like this?’ I am always keen to make clear that my story is not more valid than anyone else’s – our pain is all the same. I never want people to measure my story against theirs. We all want joy; the possibility of it is so important. I want everyone to know that we have the ability to make that for ourselves. Just look at my journey: I practise every day to be who I am.

I own my story, it doesn’t own me, so because of that I am able not to dwell in it. I don’t just switch it on and off, though.

After I have told my story publicly, I will go somewhere and sit on my own and just be. I get into a place of gratitude, and then when I go back home, I am fine. I allow myself to be inside my story as I tell it, then I spend time reflecting, and then I can come back to my life where it is not a part of my day-to-day experience. When I was writing the book, I always told my husband that after a writing session I didn’t want to talk about it, but just wanted some quiet and alone time. I am someone who feels very good being on my own and with my own thoughts.

I knew that when I decided to write a book, everything in it goes out into the universe. I have made what happened in my past public, but I haven’t really had to deal yet too much with people bringing up difficult aspects with me when I am unprepared. At the moment my book has only been published in Australia and New Zealand, but I think when it is published in the US and UK I will need to be ready for my past to come up more often and maybe more unexpectedly.

I’ve used L’Occitane’s Immortelle range for a number of years now.

My daily routine also includes Seaweed Pore-Cleaning Exfoliator from The Body Shop and a $7 jojoba cream from Aldi! A new addition to my routine is Chanel’s Rouge Allure Laque lipstick. I’ve never worn much makeup but this has become a must-have. On special nights out, my favourite perfume is Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle.

I have short afro curls and I tend to wash my hair once a week.

I love the products from Embrace for Every Curl, an Australian-owned company tailored to African hair. I get it cut by a barber named Trey in Sydney, who also specialises in African hair.

My father instilled a number of basic grooming rules in me, which I have shared with my own children.

He taught me a morning routine that included brushing your teeth before breakfast and always making your bed, as doing these few things will set you up for a good day. When I was off at boarding school I learned an “African beauty tip”: that, in a pinch, we could use fresh limes in lieu of deodorant… apparently the power of citrus knows no bounds!

I usually wake up at about 5.30am, and I’ll apply the L’Occitane Immortelle Precious Cleansing Foam before I go for a run or walk (or usually a ‘run/walk’!).

I’m not a big breakfast person, so I tend to just have hot water in the mornings, like my dad always used to, while I get the kids ready for school and prep for my day of meetings and work.

I aim to drink three litres of water a day and because my days are usually so busy, I focus my attention on one main meal. This main meal is a big one, and it’s usually prepared by my husband, Antoine!

I tend to go for jeans, a blazer and comfortable heels for day-to-day. This is casual enough for running around, but also suitable for meetings.

If I’m not in work meetings, I like to dress based on my mood for the day: this could mean I’m super feminine and girly in a beautiful floral dress or jumpsuit, or a bit more “gangster”!

How we dress is downplayed a lot, and having an interest in fashion is often seen as meaning you’re not that smart, or that you really just want to show off your body, especially for women. It’s about so much more than that. It’s about how you feel inside.

I read an article once on French women prioritising a high percentage of their income on lingerie, and I have held that in my heart ever since. Your underpinnings are just for you, and they matter! Calvin Klein has changed my life. I love a soft-cup, lace bra – I’m not a fan of restricting and contorting bras.

Your expression of style is important, as you’re showing others you have respect for who you are and what you do. And no one can respect you before you respect yourself.

My dad taught us to make an effort when you meet other people. We were always immaculately clean, presentably dressed, and told never to be late. It was all about respect. You don’t need to have a lot; you see people living in slums who still take the care to dress well. Think of how you want people to see you, and take joy in it. The reality is that people judge you for the way you look. If I am in a big room with lots of important people, I know we are all there to see each other and be seen ourselves, and I feel proud when I get attention for dressing well. Also, when you’re dressed up, people never assume you don’t know what you’re talking about!

Women have so much power within them, and we can achieve so much when we work together.

A lot of women here in Australia don’t know much about maternal health in other countries. When I gave birth to my daughter in Sydney and we almost lost her, I had seven doctors in the room and she survived. In Sierra Leone, we both would have died. One in eight women there die in childbirth, and that number can so easily be fixed. My mission in life is for every Australian to know that. After all, if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that whatever is happening elsewhere in the world ends up affecting us all.

We should not allow women anywhere in the world to die giving birth to our children, especially when it is easily and cheaply preventable. How can we think, “well, those children happened to be born there, so that’s ok?

This work lets me feel hopefulness and a sense of belonging in my community, and to give that to others. It’s my life’s work now, and I want it to be all of our lives’ work. Two thousand dollars a year is enough to train a doctor or a midwife. Ninety-six percent of doctors are Sierra Leonean, and we train them, and then they go back to the community and train others. I know we can make this change happen, and we must. It’s fundamental. Women and children are dying.

Kindness helps to liberate people to be the truest expression of themselves. It’s not as though we need permission from others to be that way, but showing each other kindness helps gently nudge us along in that direction, like a mama chicken nudges along its baby chicks!

My father taught me to value someone else the way you want to be valued. It’s not a big, grand idea, but very simple: if you want to be treated kindly and with manners, you need to show that to the people around you, and then it will flow back to you. It’s a recipe for disaster going through life always wanting to be liked, but we all want to feel like ‘yes, this person gets me’ and we cannot have that connection without empathy. It makes your heart open and your mind free. When we really listen to another person, then they feel free, too. I’m not naturally a very judgmental person, but I become less judgmental every day, by listening. Joy comes through empathy, not through trying to control or change people, and kindness lets it flourish. It doesn’t matter what your religion is – if you see someone else smiling, you smile too.”

Interview and story by Zoe Briggs. Photography by Camilla Quiddington

To find out more about Aminata’s story you can purchase her memoir, Rising Heart, here. You can find out more about The Aminata Maternal Foundation, including how to donate to it, here.

Comment (2)

  1. January 6, 2021
    Angelica

    Stunning woman. Inside and out. My favorite feature.