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Changing Narratives: Stories and Mentorship Giving Hope to Women in Sierra Leone

Angel Eduardo

Elizabeth Brewah and fellow women of Sierra Leone - Idealist Days Blog

On May 4th, 2019, in a conference hall in Freetown, Sierra Leone, women gathered to tell their stories. The meeting was meant to foster mentorship and encourage entrepreneurship for young Sierra Leonian women, led by older mentors who had come to share their experiences. These mentors were Sierra Leonian women as well, professionals who had moved to different parts of the world to pursue their careers. They had returned home on vacation but took time for the conference at the request of Elizabeth Brewah, an idealist and humanitarian in Freetown. “I had told them, ‘Yes, you’re coming for holidays, but I need a little bit of your time,’” she says. “Just a day, for us to bring women together and change their mindsets.” For Elizabeth, the conference was a critical step towards inspiring hope and change for the young women of Freetown. The plan was that, through these mentors, young women could be inspired and helped to succeed, so that they can go on to mentor and inspire others in kind. “One of the problems that we have in Sierra Leone,” Elizabeth notes, “is that a lot of women are going to schools, they have their master’s degree, they have their first degree, they have diplomas, but they all want to work in a confined office with air conditioning and things like that, when they have skills inside of them that they can use to impact not only their lives but their communities as well.”

It was this desire to help women change their narratives that drew Elizabeth to asking her friends to tell their stories at the conference. “I told them that we should come together. I will do the organizing, get people together, allow people to come for themselves willingly, and we can teach them. You can tell them your stories—because I believe for every successful life there is a story behind it.” One woman who spoke at the conference was a fashion designer living in the United Kingdom. She told the story of her husband leaving her because of her weight, and the difficulties she faced trying to start a fashion brand by herself from the ground up. It took seven years, but in 2018 she launched it to great success. “Everybody was inspired,” Elizabeth remembers. “So we used that moment, that day, to transform the minds of women and young girls and tell them, ‘You don’t have to be a doctor; you don’t have to be a lawyer. Yes, it’s good to be one, but with the skills that God has given you, you will be able to impact your life and also impact your community and transform the lives of other people.’”

"When I see somebody that is poor, it brings me back to my story and it makes me want the person to be just like me now. I am not wealthy, but I have food on my table. I have a place to sleep. So this is the burden I have inside of me, to give to the poor, to transform their lives, no matter how little. Even if it’s five minutes I have, I make time."

Elizabeth is no stranger to changing narratives. In fact, her own story is a testament to perseverance. She was born the youngest of three sisters into severe poverty, where food was scarce and survival was a daily struggle. In 1991, conditions worsened for her family as Sierra Leone became embroiled in a civil war that would last eleven years. In the midst of the conflict, when Elizabeth was 8 years old, she was captured and raped at gunpoint by Sierra Leonian rebels. Despite her trauma, Elizabeth remained steadfast and hopeful, going to school with dreams of becoming a lawyer. However, in 2004, when Elizabeth was 17, her father passed away, pulling her already-struggling family into even direr straits. “Because of the kind of life that I grew up in, in poverty, where even to get food was very difficult,” Elizabeth says, “I went to school when my father passed away with the help of an organization that gave me a scholarship.” Unfortunately, that money could only go so far. “When I finished school, I wanted to be a lawyer. I had my results complete, but there was no money [to pay for law school], so I decided to go do a diploma in peace and conflict studies.”

It was during her time in school that Elizabeth discovered another option for herself. “The lecturers we had,” she remembers, “most of them were Sierra Leonians that have studied in the U.S. and other places but came to give back to their country. I learned from them that I should not only have an education, but I should give back to my community and my country as a whole. Since then I decided to start developing myself as a humanitarian.”

Elizabeth Brewah, an idealist and humanitarian in Sierra Leone - Idealist Days Blog

In 2018, Elizabeth discovered the Idealists of the World. “I saw Idealist on Facebook, and I did research on the meaning of ‘idealist,’ and I was so interested to be part of the community.” Elizabeth quickly began making connections with fellow idealists in the group, some of which mirrored the mentorships she would eventually encourage in her own community in Freetown. “There is this lady in Greece, Lela,” she remembers. “She is a lecturer in a university, a professor, actually, and we started talking and I told her my story. She said, ‘Elizabeth, I don’t have money to give to you, but I’m going to mentor you to my last day,’ and she has been incredibly great.” Beyond all the people and connections she has made through the group, Elizabeth also feels strongly about the Idealist message itself. “An idealist is a person that believes in his or herself and believes that other people should have a dignified life. I believe that, with the little I have, with the talking I’m doing to people, I can impact their lives.”

Today, Elizabeth participates in every effort she can to do good in her community and mentor those around her. In May 2019 she began working with Home Leone, a charity organization focusing on sustainable upward mobility for the poor in Sierra Leone. She has also taken part in a fundraising marathon for sick infants, bead jewelry workshops for women in local villages, and cleanup activities in Freetown with other volunteers for Good Deeds Day. Elizabeth even filled in for her mother, a schoolteacher, when her arthritis made her unable to teach her class. “During my time there as a volunteer,” she remembers, “I found that a lot of the girls come to school without lunch, without shoes and bags. I did a campaign on Facebook and people donated, and that’s how I was able to help them.” Inspired by these girls and their potential, Elizabeth made a promise to herself and to the girls to mentor them as they grow and move forward in life. “It’s going to continue to university,” she says, “with the help of friends out here, because of the promise I made to the girls.” This is one among many long-term projects for Elizabeth, and she has no reservations about giving her energy to those who can use her help. “I have seen poverty, lived in poverty,” she says. “I know what it means for us in Africa to be poor. So when I see somebody that is poor, it brings me back to my story and it makes me want the person to be just like me now. I am not wealthy, but I have food on my table. I have a place to sleep. So this is the burden I have inside of me, to give to the poor, to transform their lives, no matter how little. Even if it’s five minutes I have, I make time.”

Elizabeth Brewah holding a bead crafts workshop for women in Sierra Leone - Idealist Days Blog

Through her journey, Elizabeth began to recognize that her talent lies in mentorship—her ability to help people help themselves. “I have a gift inside of me that I always try to utilize everywhere I go. If you have a vision and you need somebody to make your vision practicalized for people to see, I am able to do that. So I’ve been using that gift everywhere I go, trying to impact young people.” That’s when Elizabeth began thinking of ways to organize gatherings for young women in Freetown, and how she arrived at the idea of having successful women get together to tell their stories, provide mentorship, and encourage entrepreneurship. 

While organizing the conference, Elizabeth realized she would also need to tell her own story. Despite having overcome so many life struggles, the mere act of sharing it all was daunting for her. “At first, when I came up with the idea, I was nervous,” she remembers. That’s when a fellow idealist once again offered Elizabeth some encouragement and mentorship. “As I was getting along, this lady, Lela, in Greece, she was like, ‘It’s better for you to tell your story. That can change a life. So don’t keep it [to yourself].’ It changed my perception.” With that in mind, Elizabeth joined the other professional women at the conference and told her story. Not only was it cathartic for Elizabeth, but the effect of her story—as well as those of the other mentors—on the young women at the conference is something Elizabeth is very proud of. “Everyone is calling for another one,” she says. “So we are going to host one in a second city in Sierra Leone, and we are hoping to get a lot of women. I am looking forward to that. It was positive, and it has lifted up my spirits so much.”

Elizabeth is both hopeful and ambitious, with her mind set on spreading the Idealist message across Sierra Leone. “I have been looking at Idealist as a forum,” she says. “I was thinking of organizing a conference for idealists in Sierra Leone, for maybe 50 or 100 people, and we can use Idealist in line with our sustainable development goals.” This begins, she says, by simply spreading the word. “I am using my time to tell people about the Idealist group, and if they are willing to come, it’s fine. If they are not willing, I know when I start they will come and join me.” For Elizabeth, being an idealist is all about changing narratives, taking action, and making efforts—big and small—to make the world a better place, all of which falls perfectly in line with her guiding principles of mentorship, hope, and change. “It’s really important,” she says. “I think it’s not only about us posting on Facebook—it’s about us telling people that you have to be an idealist, no matter how small [your actions], no matter where you are in the world. You can be in the U.S., I can be here, but I can inspire you. That’s what I believe in as an idealist.”

Angel Eduardo

Angel Eduardo has been published in Newsweek, Areo Magazine, The Ocean State Review, The Caribbean Writer, and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. More of his work can be found at angeleduardo.com.