Canterbury's People: Tigidankey Daramy and her children fled Sierra Leone to escape torture and death at the hands of rebels who had already killed her husband. She now lives in Sydney with her children where she is attempting to put the horrors of war behind them.
Pre-War Years in Sierra Leone
The twenty-third child of 27 children, Tigidankey was born in 1957 at Makeni Town, one of Sierra Leone's provinces. She belongs to the Mandingo ethnic group. Her father was the head of this group and he had four wives, which was not unusual in Sierra Leone.
"All the wives and children lived happily together. The custom is that all the children eat together in groups, meaning that if you all eat together you will always be in unity and it will always remind you to have love for each other. All the mothers have a very big bowl and all the women eat from the same bowl and the men have another big bowl and they all eat together."
Tigidankey was one of the few girls in her village to attend school. It was not unusual in the 1960s for girls in the provinces to have no schooling at all. Tigidankey remembers her childhood in the large extended family as happy, in stark contrast to the lives of her own children.
She spent seven happy carefree years at school before her marriage was arranged. Although the man she married was her cousin, Tigidankey said, "I wasn't very happy, I didn't know the man and I would have to move far away. I didn't want to leave school or my friends or my mother, but I had to accept it as it was our custom."
Tigidankey's memories of her wedding day are hazy. She only remembers that both she and her mother were crying through the ceremony.
"When a girl is married she must join her new husband's family. He gives a dowry to the girl's family, usually a Calabash, used to wash rice. When the woman accepts the Calabash she must then collect the dowry from the man's family."
Tigidankey moved to a large mining town to live with her husband. Her husband worked as a supervisor in the gold and diamond mine and they were relatively well off.
Like many other people in their town, Tigidankey and her husband fled town with their children when the rebels attacked.
"The rebels came to our town because it was a mining area. They wanted to control the diamonds so they could buy arms. My children and I were held up by six of them for a whole day until we escaped … they were killing so many people. The rebels were moving from town to town and eventually many people escaped to move to Makeni Town. When we heard the rebels were moving towards Makeni Town everyone then moved to the city of Free Town … they thought they would be safe in the city … it was so full of people."
The rebels entered Free Town on 25 May 1997 and many soldiers and civilians were killed. Many of the soldiers betrayed the Government and joined the rebels.
"The rebels raped girls and women and even tortured babies … even worse things, this was a common thing, they set people alight … we lived in fear."
Tragically, Tigidankey's husband lost his life at the hands of the rebels.
Escape to Guinea
Tigidankey sought refuge in Guinea with her children. She and her children lived in a camp with many other refugees from Sierra Leone. The Government thought they were rebels and so were viewed with suspicion and regularly interrogated. Tigidankey spent three years in that camp during which her children had no schooling and they spent their days waiting to hear that they could leave for another country such as the USA, Canada or Sweden.
"In 1999, a program started in Australia where they were accepting refugees, so we were told that we would be going to Australia … we only knew about Australia because of the Olympics … there was no choice where we would be sent, all I wanted was to save my life and my children's life … Guinea was not safe, it was like hell with so many thieves and bandits."
Arriving in Australia
The Daramy family finally arrived in Australia in 2001:
"It felt so good and I felt happy because we were now safe and we could rest. It seemed so strange to me, all the buildings made us feel like we were in heaven."
A charity offered them accommodation in Liverpool, Sydney for six weeks and then they moved to a house in nearby Punchbowl that was spacious enough for Tigidankey's five children who were all teenagers. However, she felt disappointment at the lack of support given to her and other newly arrived refugees as the only settlement assistance received was the initial four weeks of accommodation.
"It is very difficult and I am very worried about it. I want my children to be able to go to school, but my son had to stop going to TAFE so he could work and help pay the rent."
Settling in the Canterbury Area
There are quite a number of people from Sierra Leone living in the Canterbury-Bankstown area. Their shared experience of war and tragedy as well as culture creates a bond between them. Tigidankey has found solace in spending time with her community. She joined the 'Friends of Sierra Leone', an association that meets regularly at a member's home. By going to the mosque in Lakemba on Fridays and one Sunday per month she is also able to practice her religion.
She finds pleasure in shopping for African condiments and foods from many stockists in Flemington and Lakemba to cook traditional dishes with African delicacies such as hot chillies and smoked dried fish.
Tigidankey and her children have found hope for a new life in Australia and when the time comes, they want to apply for citizenship to make Australia their permanent home. Meanwhile, Tigidankey takes English classes at Bankstown TAFE and is looking forward to working in aged care as she now holds a TAFE certificate in this field.
She believes feeling at home in Australia is a matter of finding a balance between new ways of doing things and traditional cultural practices:
"Of course when you are in another country you do what the country wants you to do. If we are allowed to carry on our cultural traditions then of course we would want to do it … when we have our culture we will feel at home."