Moimusa Amadu wants to compete in the next Olympiad for his native Sierra Leone. He’d like fellow expatriates in the D.C. area to help make that happen, but he knows they’ve got more important things on their minds. Things like the slaughter of innocent relatives, unthinkable ruthlessness, and the disintegration of the country they left behind.
Amadu, 31, is a triathlete. He took up the sport shortly after getting his diploma from the Washington International School, and he dropped out of George Washington University after two years to take it up seriously. The triathlon will make its first appearance as a medal event in the 2000 Olympics. Amadu would like to be among those who jump into Sydney Harbor to begin what may well be the most physically demanding contest of the fortnight, consisting of a 1500-meter swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride, and a 10-kilometer run. No breaks allowed.
He now trains mainly in Northern California, where he lives and works full time as a physical therapist. Because he isn’t yet a recognized force in the triathlon, he’ll have to be granted what is called a “wild-card” entry to the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. He can get such a designation by placing highly in any of the three World Cup qualifying meets held next spring (one in Japan and two in Australia) or by winning a less prestigious event in Cape Town, South Africa, on March 28. He figures he’ll make the cut if he can take 2 minutes off his current career best time of 1 hour, 57 minutes. He’ll need to give up the day job to get fit enough to do so.
Amadu came to D.C. as a small child. He clearly loves America, and he counts himself a blessed man for the opportunities this nation has afforded him and his family. But, should he qualify for the Olympics, he’ll have no qualms wearing the green, white, and blue of Sierra Leone.
“My country needs heroes now,” Amadu says.
To attain hero status back home, Amadu won’t need to win a medal. Qualifying will be enough. Amadu knows this, because he remembers how he felt when he watched a light heavyweight boxer named David Kowah fight for Sierra Leone in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Kowah got knocked out in the first round of his first fight by an American. But seeing a Sierra Leonean on what Amadu calls “the world stage” made him feel hopeful about his homeland.
Most of the news coming out of Sierra Leone at that time, and since, hasn’t been the kind that inspires nationalistic pride.
The West African nation, blessed with a beautiful coastline and rich in mineral resources, was founded in the late 18th century by the British as a haven for freed slaves. In the last decade, it’s been one of the most violent spots on the planet.
The worst of the violence has occurred since 1997, when a group of military leaders calling themselves the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council forced democratically elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah out of office. He survived only by fleeing to neighboring Guinea. Under an alleged cease-fire agreement, Kabbah was allowed to return to the presidency a year later, but rebels retained control of the country’s diamond mines and have used the profits to buy guns and machetes for their mass killing and terrorism campaigns.
Gangs named according to their duties—the Burn House Units, Cut Hands Commandos, and Blood Shed Squads, to mention a few—pillaged the capital, Freetown, and surrounding suburbs. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans have been murdered in the civil strife since the military coup. It’s one of the few places on the planet where hacking the limbs off the opposition is seen as a form of political expression. The number of refugees who fled to Liberia or Guinea or whatever country would take them is put at 2 million, well over one-third of the entire country’s population. Many of those who have stayed behind are simply too crippled to flee. Last month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Freetown to mark the signing of the latest of many peace accords and learned the hard way that the handshake is no longer an appropriate greeting there. Many folks no longer have hands.
Amadu’s immediate family—his parents and four siblings—is safe and sound here in D.C., but the war has hit his kin in Sierra Leone quite hard.
“We now have 50 of our relatives living together in one house my family owns in Freetown, because they were all burned out of their own homes,” he says. “That’s still a situation that depresses all of us in the U.S., because we know what a beautiful, wonderful place Sierra Leone is—minus the war.”
The fighting has left the economy essentially stagnant, save foreign aid and the rebels’ arms purchases. Family members in D.C. send “whatever money we can” to the displaced relatives, says Amadu. One of his sisters started a nonprofit relief fund to raise money for all Sierra Leonean refugees. Most other expatriates he knows also are somehow involved in the relief effort, he says.
Amadu expects to meet personally with many local expats next week, when he’ll be in town for a less depressing sort of fundraising. A traditional Sierra Leonean dinner in his honor, arranged by his family and friends here, will be held the evening of Dec. 4. A party will follow. The proceeds will go to another of Amadu’s causes: himself.
Amadu went back to Sierra Leone in 1997, and in the midst of the discord, convinced the governing body of athletics, the National Sports Council, to officially recognize a group he established, the Sierra Leone Triathlon Association. At the time, he was the only Sierra Leonean on the planet participating in the event. The government’s sanction made him eligible to qualify for the Olympics. It did not, however, provide any federal monies for athletes. Hence the dinner.
Amadu says Sierra Leoneans around town have followed his athletic exploits ever since he was a soccer star at the Washington International School, and despite the tragic situation in their homeland, he believes they’ll support his current crusade. He feels a bit guilty asking for help, though.
“Everybody in the community has been touched in some way by what’s happened in Sierra Leone,” he says. “Everybody has a story about a relative or a loved one that was killed or is a refugee. What I’m doing now, yes, I’m mostly doing for me. But through sports, that is a way to remind people that through the quagmire of war, other things have to go on.”—Dave McKenna
For information about the dinner for Moimusa Amadu, call (202) 332-7316.