Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bite of the Mango - Mariatu Kamara

A month or so ago I finished reading Bite of the Mango. This is the memoir of a young girl from Sierra Leone, Mariatu Kamara, co-written with Susan McClelland, an award winning Canadian journalist. The writing is stylistically simple with a matter-of-factness about it that immediately lends unquestionable honesty to this young woman's heart rending story of surviving the civil war in Sierra Leone. Mariatu was 12 years old when her family and the rest of her village fled their homes for the jungle after rumours of approaching armed rebels with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). One day, having been sent to a nearby village on an errand she found herself face to face with the brutality of the rebels in an attack during which friends and family were tortured and killed right in front of her in what can only be described as a orgy of violence. The descriptions are graphic. A pregnant woman is shot in the stomach. A man is beaten until his brains ooze out. A woman carrying a baby on her back is decapitated and her head rolls along the ground... Mariatu describes begging a boy roughly her age, high on palm wine and who knows what else, not to cut off her hands. The machete didn't make a clean cut through the bone the first time and he had to hack at her arm twice. Two attempts for her right hand and three for her left hand. She describes how her hand flailed about on the ground for a few seconds before the nerves stopped working. No pain. Lots of blood. Her brothers' hands were cut off; her best friend's hands were cut off.. Why were the rebels amputating people's hands? So that they would not be able to vote for the president. Never mind that at age 12 she was too young to vote anyway; never mind that she had no understanding of the concept of elections, and never mind that as blood gushed out of the crude remains of her limbs, just before she lost consciousness, Mariatu recalls feebly wondering to herself, "what is a president?"

"The man bent down and picked up a mango... and when I didn't raise my arms to receive the fruit he looked down and saw the bloodied fabric. 'They cut off your hands!', he burst out angrily. 'Those bastard rebels!' ... I raised my arms and managed to take a few bites of the juicy fruit."

Because life so often deals us not one but many hard knocks, the loss of her limbs was but one of many traumas this child would experience including life in a squalid refugee camp, begging in the sprawling streets of Freetown and dealing with the tragic consequences of some violations hidden in her past that would take a long time to fully come to light.

But this is not a book about suffering and victim-hood only. The story of Mariatu Kamara is essentially about the resilience and strength of the human spirit, our ability to overcome indescribable and unspeakable pain and our instinct to fall and rise and rise again. It is about the power of the love of family, community and even complete strangers. Bite of the Mango is a story about the human trait I admire the most of all: courage.
Mariatu Kamara. Photo source: http://thestar.blogs.com/.a/6a00d8341bf8f353ef013484cb8067970c-900wi

The media often focus on the trauma people suffer, forgetting to tell us about their ability to recover and the humanity that remains intact. - Ishamel Beah, former child soldier, in the foreword to Bite of the Mango

So where is she now? Mariatu lives in Toronto, Canada where she is studying at George Brown College and is a UNICEF representative for Children in Armed Conflicts. She speaks across North America about her experiences and has hopes of returning to Sierra Leone where she still has family.

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