Family History: I was born in a polygamous family with my father having four wives with eighteen children plus several children of my father’s brothers and sisters, including other children of his extended family. I grew up sharing with over 25 other children; my home was like a community with some children speaking different languages. My father was initially thought to be rich in the Sierra Leonean standard, he was a local diamond miner and dealer until the inception of the war when he lost all his properties including houses, fleet of cars, money and precious diamond when the war broke out in the area where he was doing business at Zimmy, a town bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia. While he was trying to brace up the loss in another area close to his home village, another attack from the marauding rebels of the United Revolutionary Front (RUF) blew another devastating loss in his business again. His only place of safety for his life and children was to come to the city, Freetown where he had earlier secured properties. The safety of Freetown was soon undermined by another attack from the rebels again, we sought refuge at the National Stadium where the whole family was protected by the West African Economic Monitoring Group known as ECOMOG. One day my father went to find food for the family to our already burnt home and did not return to us, we stranded in the stadium with my mother trying to keep the family together but the news of our father’s death in the hands of the rebels broke my mom’s zeal and panic encompassed the family. One of my cousins, Abubakarr who was raised up by my dad involved in a coup that chased the former president from the country for almost two years in 1997 though executed by the reinstated government, my dad’s name never blotted out from the government bad book especially from the ruling government militia group, the Kamajors. Our family name became target for complete annihilation.
My Earliest Memories: I was born in Bo, the second capital city of Sierra Leone in 1984, and I started school at a very early age but because of the war my family was always on the run so my earlier memories are full of many uncompleted memories. I lived in fear of been killed or conscripted into the child soldiers fighting group. My education was always interrupted b y this helter-skelter syndrome and my high school classes were always cut short so I did not have the chance to complete my high school education as a normal high school child. In January1999, the RUF rebel attacked the city and with all the confusion that ensured thereafter, we escaped with my sisters and brothers to the Gambia.
Refugee Memories: We arrived in the Gambia with nowhere to go, not even relatives to stay with, a kind passerby saw our predicament and told us about our embassy in the city. We were led to the embassy with disguised identities because we feared people will discover us and send us back to Sierra Leone. However, the embassy official connected us with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and we had help. We were sent to the refugee camp which was situated about 480km from the capital city of Banjul near a town called Basse, the second city of the country. We were further taken to the refugee camp itself which was actually in a place I called “no-where” because it was located to a place 12km from any other town with no electricity and no cooling system with a constant temperature about 101degrees hot. Everything about Kundam Camp was a natural nothingness, water was short in supply, food, medication and schools where situated 12km away from the camp, we traveled about the same distance on foot to buy basic amenities like sugar, salt and even bread, life was a menace. UNHCR supplies come once every three to six months if any, and were very irregular, they are expected every two months but they actually come every six months and sometimes even longer. To make ends meet, we resorted to wood cutting and demanded for manual axes from the UNHCR which were made available and the forest became our mining fields but unscrupulous police officers and natives will come to the camp with trucks and seized all our wood until one day we revolted an had a big showdown with the authorities to let us be. Transportation to the town was very difficulty especially carrying a bunch of wood so we requested a donkey and a cart which is the most popular form of transportation in modern-day Gambia.
There were about 11houses hosting over 300 refugees, there was an average of 4-5 persons in a 14x15 sq.ft room, boys and girls were sometimes hosted in the same room. On arrival at the camp on the first day, you are given a brief verbal summary of regulations to adhere or you will face a fine or forfeit a portion of future supplies. The camp committee was very autocratic and dictative, one of their weapons of discipline was not only limited to forfeiting a portion of your supplies but some crimes are punishable by public thrashing. Thieving and abusive language can result to public flogging or even expulsion from the camp. Memories of the camp are not pleasant, the camp meant deprivation, hunger, humiliation, degradation, misplacement and displacement. Thinking of insect bites, reptile sting like scorpions and sharing a patio with wild bush animals is no joy to remember. Counting how many days you sleep without food which was the normalcy in the camp is not pleasant. I still have bleeding marks of the war and the camp deep in my heart, the younger brother I lost in the camp, the quality of life at home, the education deprived, and the childhood I did not have, make my effort to succeed a continuous desire.
Life in the U.S: In 2001 I arrived in the United States under the hospices of the United Nation Refugee resettlement Program in collaboration with United States Refugee Program. Our family, I and my siblings were resettled in Utica, New York where I was enrolled in school again but I have to work full time in order to my mother and brother I left behind in the camp. News of my father came that he was not actually killed but was captured and taken to the forest with the rebels where he escaped and went hiding till the end of the war in 2000 when he came out. Although the news of my father’s discovery made me happy, news about his situation and the family saddened my heart tremendously, he had lost everything to either the war or to his relatives, and he is struggling to survive with us being his only source of hope which means we have to work harder to keep him and the family in Africa. I left school when heard the news of younger brother’s sickness and took a second job in order to raise money to meet the medical bills of my brother’s treatment but unfortunately we lost him. We moved to Orland Florida when our mother arrived in search of better life and later moved to Philadelphia where my mother had earlier discovered his elder brother. I started exercising while in Florida but the job I had was very challenging and could not invest enough time to my dream till when I arrived in Philadelphia and I am still struggling to make my membership payment and meeting my school needs and family demands in Africa. My only strength is my desire and determination to change the history of my story.
John it was nice working with you. I really feel comfortable and relax and you are a great photography and thank you so much for helping me learn the poses. To all the guys that came out and worked with us you guys are fun to be around with and I enjoy working with you guys! Hopefully we can all work together again!