Tag: Sierra Leone

Sierra Leonean-American Dancer Michaela DePrince: ‘I Went From Being a War Orphan to a Ballerina’

Michaela DePrince photographed for “The Female Lead” by Brigitte Lacombe

by Michaela DePrince via positive.news

Sierra Leonean-American ballet dancer Michaela DePrince was orphaned at the age of three. Born Mabinty Bangura to a Muslim family, she was sent to an orphanage where the ‘aunties’ who cared for the children believed that her skin condition, vitiligo, was a curse and called her the ‘devil’s child’. In 1999, DePrince was adopted by a US couple. Inspired by a picture of a ballerina she saw on a magazine in Sierra Leone, DePrince trained as a ballet dancer, winning a scholarship for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre. In 2013, she joined the Dutch National Ballet. Her story features in a book called The Female Lead.

My uncle took me to the orphanage after my father was shot and my mother starved to death. He knew he’d never be able to get a bride price for me, because of my vitiligo. There were 27 children in the orphanage and we were numbered. Number 1 got the biggest portion of food and the best choice of clothes. Number 27 got the smallest portion of food and the leftover clothes. The aunties thought I was unlucky and evil because of my vitiligo. I was number 27. I was always dirty. They used to braid my hair too tightly because they wanted me to be in pain and they told me I’d never be adopted.

The only moments I was happy were because of my friend, who was also called Mabinty. We slept on the same mat and she used to sing to me and tell me stories when I couldn’t sleep. She was number 26. I thought nothing good would ever happen to me and then, one day, I found a magazine outside the gate of the orphanage. On the cover was a picture of a ballerina in a tutu. I thought she was a fairy on her tippy toes in her beautiful pink costume. But what struck me most was that she looked so happy. I hadn’t been happy in a long time. I ripped off the picture and hid it in my underwear.

We had a teacher who came to give us English lessons and I showed it to her. She explained to me that the girl was a dancer. I was walking with this teacher one day when some rebels came towards us. A boy was following them and another truck full of them around the corner. They had been drinking, I think. They saw Teacher Sarah was pregnant and started betting whether she was having a girl or a boy. So then they thought they’d find out and they got their machetes and cut her open. Her baby was a girl. They killed her and my teacher in front of me. The small boy thought he should imitate the older ones and he cut my stomach.

Later, the rebels occupied the orphanage and threw us out. We walked across the border to Guinea. There were plans for most of us to be adopted, but not me. Finally, there was a plane to Ghana. I was miserable because I thought I would never see my best friend, number 26, again. Then a lady with blonde hair, which seemed amazing to me, and wearing bright red shoes grabbed my hand and my friend’s hand too, and said: ‘I’m your new momma.’ Number 26 became my sister Mia.

My parents made me see that it is OK to be different and to stand out. When we got to the hotel, I started looking through my momma’s luggage for my tutu and pointe shoes. I thought all Americans were doctors, models or ballerinas and she would have brought my clothes with her. I didn’t speak English so the only way I could explain was to take the picture out of my underwear and show her. She understood straight away. She said I could dance if I wanted to.

When we got to America, I started going to ballet class once a week, then twice a week. I found a video of The Nutcracker and I must have watched it 150 times. I begged my mother to take me to a performance and I knew it so well that I could tell when they went wrong. By the time I was ten I was going to ballet classes five times a week.

I worried that my vitiligo would be a problem but my skin turned out to be an issue in a different way. A lot of people are still very traditional in their views and they want to see the same thing in the corps de ballet – white skinny dancers. Early on, my mother was told by one of my ballet teachers, ‘We don’t put a lot of effort into the black girls. They all end up getting fat, with big boobs.’ I have strengths as a dancer. I am muscular and I have strong legs. More importantly, I work very hard.

To read full article, go to: ‘I went from being a war orphan to a ballerina’

FEATURE: African Ancestry Co-Founder and University of Arizona Professor Rick Kittles Breaks New Ground in Genetics

Rick Kittles
UA researcher Rick Kittles is a national leader on health disparities and the role of genes and environment in disease. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

article by Nick Prevenas via uanews.arizona.edu

Ever since he can remember, Rick Kittles always wanted to know where he came from.

Born in Sylvania, Georgia, and raised near Long Island, New York, a great deal of his academic interest was sparked by the desire to trace his ancestral lineage as far back as it could go. This proved to be exceedingly difficult, for a number of reasons.

“There simply wasn’t a strong database in place or any kind of access to information on African genetics,” Kittles said. “Records were either inaccurate or nonexistent, so there were a number of hurdles in place for African-Americans to try to figure out their ancestry.”

An aptitude for biology, coupled with a deep exploration of Alex Haley’s novel, “Roots,” led Kittles on a path that eventually would help thousands of people like him clear these hurdles. He is the director of the Division of Population Genetics at the University of Arizona, which he joined in July 2014.

Developing and implementing a comprehensive African genealogy database seemed daunting at first, but during his graduate studies at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and, later, though his work at Howard University’s College of Medicine in the late 1990s, Kittles met the historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and fellow geneticists who could help turn this dream into a reality.

“I was looking at my own DNA profile, analyzing my Y-chromosome lineage, and I noticed my Nigerian lineage didn’t track with the other Y-chromosome samples from West Africa,” Kittles said.

Continue reading “FEATURE: African Ancestry Co-Founder and University of Arizona Professor Rick Kittles Breaks New Ground in Genetics”

World Health Organization Declares the End of Ebola in Guinea

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A health worker wearing protective equipment assists an Ebola patient at the Kenema, Sierra Leone, treatment center run by the Red Cross Society Nov. 15, 2014.  (FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The World Health Organization recently declared Guinea free of Ebola transmission, and Guineans plan to celebrate.

The West African country was the site where the original Ebola chain of transmission began two years ago. A menacing disease, it spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone and seven additional countries. According to the New York Times, the December 2013 Ebola outbreak led to its largest epidemic in history—taking more than 11,300 lives worldwide.

WHO notes that over 40 days have passed since the last person confirmed to have Ebola tested negative for a second time (which was after an incubation period). Further, Guinea is under a 90-day surveillance period to identify and treat new cases of the virus.

Still, WHO doctors remain hopeful.

“This is the first time that all three countries—Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—have stopped the original chains of transmission that were responsible for starting this devastating outbreak two years ago,” says Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

Read more at the New York Times and BBC News.

article by Felice León via theroot.com

President Meets With African Leaders, Praises Continent’s Democratic Progress

Obama and African Leaders

On Thursday (March 27), President Barack Obama met with the leaders of four sub-Saharan African countries in a bid to highlight the shared democratic sentiment shared between America and the nations. Present at the meeting were President Macky Sall of Senegal, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, President Joyce Banda of Malawi, and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves of Cape Verde.

Read more via Obama African Leaders: President Meets With African Leaders, Praises Continent’s Democratic Progress | Breaking News for Black America.

Self-Taught 15-Year-Old Sierra Leone Engineer Invited to MIT (Video)

There are some pretty amazing kids out there doing the best they can with whatever circumstances were given to them.  In areas of the world where little to no technological advancement has occurred, ideas are being born without any mentors, tools, and/or resources.

PRODIGIES is a bi-weekly series on YouTube that showcases the youngest and brightest as they challenge themselves to reach new heights and the stories behind them.  Kelvin Doe is a 15-year-old Sierra Leone native who admittedly loves inventing.  He’s taught himself how to make things like batteries, FM radio transmitter, and a generator out of need for these things in his community.

He said that his community doesn’t have much electricity.  The lights come on at night in his area once per week and then they don’t have any lights for the rest of the month.  That led to his battery invention, so that his neighbors and family could use the battery to light their homes.

He’s known as DJ Focus because of a valuable radio program that he broadcasts on FM radio.  He was able to create his generator for his station by using scraps.  He chose that name because he said:

“If you can focus you can do invention perfectly.”

He started the station to give “voice to the youth.”

Kelvin was discovered by fellow Sierra Leone native, David Sengeh, who is a Ph.D. student at MIT.  Sengeh directs Summer Innovation Camp in Sierra Leone and that is where he discovered Kelvin and his talents.  When he saw what Kelvin was able to create simply using spare parts from trash in his community, he knew he was someone special.

Continue reading “Self-Taught 15-Year-Old Sierra Leone Engineer Invited to MIT (Video)”

Michaela DePrince: Ballerina Dances Out of War-Torn Childhood

As a toddler, Michaela DePrince, was ranked “number 27” — the lowest, the worst of the children in her orphanage in Sierra Leone. “So, I got the least amount of food, the least amount of clothes and what not,” she explained to the Associated Press. DePrince lost both of her parents in the West African nation’s decades-long civil war which claimed the lives of an estimated 60,000 people. She was born with vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes uneven pigmentation, and was taunted by the other kids as “the devil’s child.” Fourteen years later, she is considered one of the most promising teenage ballet dancers in the United States. Recently graduated from the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the 17-year-old debuts professionally on July 20, as a guest artist of the South African Ballet Theater and the South Africa Msanzi Ballet performing in ‘Le Corsaire.’

DePrince recalls her early childhood as a time of “terrible” hardship. The one thing that gave her hope was a picture of a ballerina from a magazine that blew over the orphanage walls, which she hid under her clothing. Though she had no context for the image, she says, “I remember she looked really, really happy,” and DePrince longed “to become this exact person.” She also imagined that all Americans walked on tip toes.

Watch: Ballet Theater of Harlem

After a year in the orphanage, DePrince had to flee barefoot when it was threatened with bomb attacks. She was only four-years-old. She ended up in a Ghanaian refugee camp, where she met an American volunteer, Elaine DePrince, who would become her adopted mother. “Michaela arrived with the worst case of tonsillitis, fever, mononucleosis, and joints that were swollen,” remembers Elaine. She was also suffering from trauma. “I have a lot of bad memories,” the young dancer told theGuardian UK in a recent interview. “I remember losing my family, I remember seeing a lot of rebels killing people that I knew. It was disgusting and just revolting.”

Although it took her years to fully recover, Michaela says, “Dance helped me a lot. I had a lot of nightmares.” However, DePrince had to overcome even more than physical and psychological damage to become a professional ballet dancer in the United States. Rehearsing for ‘The Nutcracker‘ when she was eight-years-old, a teacher told her “I’m sorry, you can’t do it. America’s not ready for a black girl as Marie.” She refused to let it hold her back. “If you enjoy my dancing, why should my skin color or body type bother you?” she told the NY Post. Dirk Badenhorst, CEO South Africa Mzansi Ballet, concurs: “Brilliance is colorblind and it really is proved by Michaela.”

DePrince hopes her story will inspire other young people to follow their dreams no matter how distant they seem. “I would like to change the way people see black dancers,” she says. “I just want to be a great role model for kids.”

article by Sarah B. Weir, Yahoo! blogger | Work + Money

Chocolate Gives Sierra Leone’s Villages New Hope

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Wata Nabieu takes the chocolate bar and carefully unwraps the top. She giggles at us watching her and breaks off a piece, giving it a nervous nibble. Then she passes it to her three-year-old daughter, Yema. Wata pulls the gold wrapper back more and bites. She closes her eyes. “Milk… sugar… cocoa?” she murmurs. Her smile widens. She takes a bigger bite.  It’s a privilege to watch someone eat chocolate for the first time: a Willy Wonka moment. All the more special because 40-year-old Wata Nabieu has laboured for most of her life in the cocoa plantations of Sierra Leoneso that other people can eat chocolate. What if she didn’t like it?

We are sitting under one of the cocoa trees planted 30 years ago by Wata’s father. Now she works the farm alone, except at harvest time when the neighbours help. Most days she’s out here, chasing monkeys and birds away from the ripening fruit, clearing undergrowth – “In it there can be hidden snakes. Or men”. On the back of Wata’s ragged T-shirt, inherited from an NGO, are the words “Love and development”.  Wata finishes off the finger bar of milk chocolate. The gold foil falls to the ground, where it settles beside a many-horned orange-pink orchid, a flower straight from the rainforest in Avatar. The chocolate is made by the Divine Chocolate company which has, since last year, been using Fairtrade Sierra Leonean cocoa – including the beans from Wata’s trees.

What’s the verdict? We ask. “Deya,” says Wata. “It’s fine.” She grins. Yema, meanwhile, is busy licking her fingers having painted her bare tummy with melted chocolate.  Not many people in Wata’s village of cocoa and coffee farmers have ever tasted the product of their work – but then there are very few luxuries here in the remote east of a country that consistently comes at the bottom of the United Nations lists of wealth and development. One in six women in Sierra Leone will die in childbirth, and one in four children will not reach the age of five. Wata, like more than half the women her age, cannot read and has never been to school.

Wata and her family have known a lot of death: she has lost her father, her brother and her first husband. They all died during Sierra Leone’s vicious 11-year civil war, which finally came to an end in 2002. All of the country suffered, as rebel militias twice seized control, with a cruel policy of savage retribution against civilians who did not support them. Rape and murder were common, children forced to become soldiers and turned against their own families, and a usual punishment for opposition the amputation of your hands or arms. “Short sleeve, or long sleeve?” asked the militia men as they raised their machetes. When I went to Sierra Leone as a reporter in 2000, the streets of the capital were full of children and adults with missing limbs.

Kenema, the district where Wata and her family live, was particularly dangerous then: it’s here that diamonds, Sierra Leone’s only major source of wealth, are found. Lust for the minerals fuelled the civil war, and the resulting turmoil made Wata and the rest of the village part-time refugees for nearly a decade. “When we ran away from the rebel soldiers, that’s when my husband was killed. Then we all lived by finding wood in the forest and selling it. Sometimes we would sneak back home to harvest the cocoa from our trees. But it was very dangerous.”  One of the cocoa farmers, Ibrahim Moseray, told me he had cherished a dream during that terrible time. Before the war, in the early 1990s, Ibrahim worked sometimes for a Scots cocoa buyer who would visit Kenema regularly to negotiate for cocoa beans from the Lebanese traders who bought from the villages. Ibrahim had learnt a lot about the trade, about the profits and the tricks – how the buyers would visit the villages during the dry months, “the hunger season”, and lend the families rice.

When the cocoa crop was ready in January the buyers would reclaim the debt, asking payment of one sack of cocoa beans for one of rice: grotesquely unfair. But the villagers, without communications or education, unaware of the real price of cocoa, were in no position to argue. “And they had to feed their children,” says Ibrahim.  Ibrahim’s dream, as the families lived on the run during the war, was simple: “Things were at their worst in 1998. We were all displaced because of the war, the cocoa price had collapsed and the buyers were giving farmers promissory notes, not even money. So we started thinking: after the war we’re going to have to export the cocoa ourselves.  “We formed a cocoa group to go to the village with the government soldiers to harvest our trees, and so we started to work together. We called ourselves “Kpeya” which means “Give way” in Mende – we were calling on the world to give way and let us sell our cocoa for ourselves.”

When the war ended, Kpeya made a useful alliance with Africa’s most successful cocoa cooperative, Kuapa Kokoo (Good Cocoa Farmers’ Company) in Ghana. Set up in 1993 and now with 47,000 farmer members, Kuapa is the main source of Fairtrade chocolate, now supplying Cadbury (for Dairy Milk) and Mars (for KitKat). It owns nearly half of Britain’s Divine chocolate company, which had a £12.5m turnover last year – a share of which goes straight back to the farmers. The advice from Kuapa and the NGOs to the Sierra Leonean farmers was plain – they needed to produce better cocoa to attract higher prices. So training was set up for the cocoa farmers of Kpeya by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. They re-learned their trade in everything from pruning trees and pest control to better fermenting and drying of the cocoa beans. And they were also taught to farm without recourse to any chemicals. Fertilisers and pesticides are not easy to get hold of in rural Sierra Leone, but it means the Kpeya chocolate can be called organic, too.

By last year, Kpeya was ready to achieve the old dream of selling its cocoa direct for export. Its first container – some 12.5 tonnes – of high quality, Fairtrade-certified cocoa went to Europe, to become Divine Chocolate. The 300 farmers received an above the market price for their beans, and put some of the premium into building storage sheds and an office from which to run the cooperative. Divine bought them a pick-up truck. And the effects in villages such as Batiama were immediate: everyone, I was told with pride, now owns a pair of shoes.  On the road into Kenema – newly rebuilt with Chinese aid money – there are neat piles of rocks: one source of income for landless rural people is to gather them by hand in the hope someone laying concrete or building a house may need the rubble. Many of the bigger buildings we pass, like the schools or Kenema’s college, are still roofless and derelict eight years after the war.

Kenema is a frontier town. In its shabby, busy streets there are diamond dealers’ shops, casinos and banks with armed guards outside them; in the one hotel large Lebanese men smoke hookahs as they do business with unfriendly white men with leathery skin. Ibrahim Moseray, Kpeya’s elected manager, looks out of place here in his tribal clothes – he is wearing the uniform of hereditary speaker for the chief. But he is full of confidence as we go to see his bank manager.  This official, Mr Turay, is friendly and impressed when presented with some Divine chocolate, but firm: he’s not going to offer credit to a bunch of cocoa farmers from the sticks. He needs better assurances of Kpeya’s financial solidity. Ibrahim looks disappointed. He needs cash to complete the cocoa purchases as the harvest time comes to an end. It is hard trying to persuade the 300 farmer-members of Kpeya to resist the Lebanese dealers’ offers (and the hunger pangs) and hold out for the better prices he knows he can offer them, when the advance payment for this year’s harvest turns up.

Building the farmers’ faith in the new organisation is not easy: the old-time traders have every reason to hope Kpeya will fail. One Dutch cocoa-buyer told a meeting he didn’t want high quality cocoa from Sierra Leone – he could make more money out of the poor quality stuff. And it seems that sometimes everything from officialdom to the local thieves who stole the sink from the new office the other day are lining up against Kpeya.  “Everyone’s trying to squeeze us, put us out of business,” says Ibrahim, grinning. “The buyers are against us because they know we’re pushing prices up, and educating the farmers. But our farmers our saying no to them: ‘We’re with Kpeya till we die’. We bought them all mobile phones, so they could tell us what was going on, and if they were being misinformed about the prices, we could tell them the truth.”  Ibrahim delights in the battle – he says that Kpeya’s next move this harvest season will be to put up the price of a pound of dried beans by 50 leones (about 1p). This will force all the traders to pay more to all the farmers in the region. Already the price of cocoa to the farmers is, at 55p a pound, a third higher than it was last season.

Back in the village Momoh Sellu, the chairman of Kpeya Agricultural Enterprise, tells me about a man who came to the village when he was a child. “I think he was the district officer, one of the Englishmen. They were good men, they built schools and they built roads. He came here in 1933, to the village, and told my father that he ought to plant cocoa. He taught him how to do it and how to look after the plants. He said that we could eat the fruit now, but one day it would make us money. And it was good advice.”  Since the Kpeya cooperative was formed the village has been working together much more, Sellu says. The 455 people of Batiama now help each other harvest and dry the beans. The Kpeya committee decided to pay for Wata Nabieu to take her blind son to Freetown, the capital, so he could have an operation that restored his sight. There was a village raffle: the winners getting cash to put shiny zinc sheets on their houses in place of the palm thatch roofs. And with some of the extra cash from the Fairtrade price they have hired a primary teacher. Before the children had to walk three miles to school.  “It’s good to be a cocoa farmer – you are respected,” says Sellu happily. “Cocoa farmers usually are very notable in society – they have two or three wives.” Mrs Sellu, Mamie, who is listening, tells me he is useless and too old: but she agrees that the cooperative has been a good thing. “Before when the buyer came he would deduct money as interest on our loans. I’m not educated, and I could not even understand. Now the co-op gives us free loans, if we need them.”

Mamie Sellu is 80, she thinks. She has seen terrible times – two of her children were killed in the war, and she has seen many “hungry seasons” in the annual dry months. She says she isn’t worried now for herself, but for her eight surviving children and 15 grandchildren. Their food and their education depend on an assured price for cocoa. “I don’t want to die and leave my children poor – I’m sending them to school so they can take care of themselves. If they have no way of getting money, my soul will not rest in peace.”  Before we leave we watch the effects of a lot of chocolate on children not used to it: the biggest mass sugar high I’ve ever been a party to. The games get wilder, and we end with a huge tournament of grandmother’s footsteps. The giggling, squealing children tumble over each other while the adults smile and gossip. War and famine seem far away. Could those times come again? I ask Ibrahim Moseray. “Everybody smelled the war, everyone felt it,” he says. “They know now what war means. They know we can’t go back.”

article via guardian.co.uk/