Smiling Through Light founder Mariama Kamara on how there is more to Sierra Leone than ‘civil war, Ebola and mudslides’

Mariama Kamara

Mariama Kamara - Credit: Mariama Kamara

Mariama Kamara wants people to know there’s more to Sierra Leone than “the civil war, Ebola and mudslides”.

Mariama Kamara

Mariama Kamara - Credit: Mariama Kamara

“The narrative around the country is really negative,” said the 35-year-old who moved from there to Dalston aged nine to attend Morningside Primary School when troubled erupted in 1991.

She remembers an idyllic childhood in her birth country, attending an “excellent” private school, and spending Sundays on the beach after going to church.

“I never grew up thinking, “I’m going to leave here”. It was just so amazing,” she said.

But 50,000 people lost their lives in the 11-year civil war, which devastated the country.

Mariama Kamara with some of the women her company Smiling Through Light is helping

Mariama Kamara with some of the women her company Smiling Through Light is helping - Credit: Mariama Kamara

“There are some towns I visit now, which feel like you are still in a war,” said Mariama.

“They haven’t built any infrastructure. I’ll never forget about what happened, and the work I am now doing is about how we move on from that, and how we learn and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

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In 2011 with a Master’s degree in development studies under her belt, Mariama spent three months travelling around Sierra Leone working for the African HIV policy Network and Unicef.

“Everywhere I was going I saw people using kerosene lamps and candles. I was thinking: ‘This is crazy – it’s the 21st century’. There is a slum in Freetown, and I was curious and I spent some time with a family there. I was so sick and groggy and I thought: ‘Everyone here has to go through this every day’.

“Once you have inhaled kerosene so long, if you blow your nose it’s thick with black snot. People inhale the toxins, and it’s a fire risk. When I got back I sat down and I thought: ‘I need to do something about this’.”

Her company Smiling through Light, now helps Sierra Leonean women get a foot up in business by supplying them with solar lights which they get a commission selling.

“For communities to grow and survive people need to be working,” said Mariama. “The situation there is really bad, so most of the time it’s upsets me, but you find now that loads of people from the diaspora are taking big steps because the government isn’t.”

She also organises Beam Talks hosted by the likes of PWC, Lloyds and Reuters, to highlight the achievements and challenges of Sierra Leonean women living in the UK. “It’s about changing narratives,” she said.