Mariama Khai Fornah
Radio Producer, BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone
Mariama training journalists in Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone as part of a project which is rebuilding cocoa farming skills lost during the country's civil war.
I've been working on our cocoa project in the Eastern region of the country. It is especially satisfying for me as I feel like I have travelled a full circle - and a long way - to be here. Eastern radio, where I am training journalists, is where I got my first break as a journalist too. Our project here is also a direct and practical way of helping the country heal and move on from the civil war that ended ten years ago. I wanted to share my story to help explain why my work here inspires me, so here is my story.
When war came, it came close to my street. I heard the screams of women and girls nearby. I said to those in the house I was in, "I need to go as they will be here soon." So I ran out and hid and I heard the rebels enter the house and I heard my neighbours screaming. So I kept running, up into the hills behind Freetown. We walked and ran for a long time until we could find safety. Many years later when I was covering the court trials [after the war], I saw a man from that street that night. His hand was amputated and as he started his testimony I broke down and had to leave the court room. Everything that night came flooding back to me.
For many years after the war I struggled. I sold ice on the streets to try and support myself, and I had dropped out of school. I had been separated from my family, my parents were now poor and ill, and I couldn't afford school fees. But the college were kind to me and let me combine street hawking with my studies. My weight started to build up again – I had starved and survived with one dress as I moved towards the national stadium to find shelter during the war. I'd lost my shoes and the bones showed all over my body. As things started to pick up for me I had a lucky break: I became a volunteer at Eastern radio, a community-based radio station in Kenema. More than anything I wanted to serve my community, tell their stories.
I especially wanted to help represent women: we had endured so much during the war, I wanted to share their voices. One day the BBC came to the station and they trained me and eventually I was offered a job. Bit by bit I built my career as a journalist. When I was offered the role of reporting on the Charles Taylor trial it was a huge moment for me: an opportunity to put things right. I went to The Hague and reported from there. I worked very hard as I wanted Sierra Leone to hear and understand what was happening, to hear justice being done and to report this in our local languages.
Suddenly I was a household name. The Charles Taylor trial programmes were so popular everyone knew me when I came back home. People would stop me on the streets and thank me. My parents are now so proud. Sometimes when they listen to the radio they call me to say they have heard me. My parents are not educated and they hadn't thought I would get education and be successful. They're now so proud that through my struggles and efforts I have done so well. They tell me to respect my bosses as they helped me get where I am today!
I was given an opportunity through training and that's why I now train journalists too. I now work on the cocoa project in the Eastern region of Sierra Leone so I'm back where my career first started in journalism. It feels so right that I too can now help young journalists in building their careers.