Africa

Zainab Bangura: Sierra Leone's unlikely minister

Zainab Bangura with some children
Image caption Zainab Bangura gave up a career in insurance to turn her life to politics

The grave rests in the dappled shade of papaya and mango trees. As Zainab Bangura reaches out and touches the cream ceramic tiles that mark the plot she is visibly moved.

"I have never got over her death and I don't think I ever will. I owe her so much."

Zainab's mother died nearly 20 years ago.

Her tomb is in Yonibana, a village in Sierra Leone's lush, rural heartland in the north of the country. It was where Zainab Bangura was raised and it is the place that inspired and shaped her.

"My mother came from a traditional system where women couldn't be educated. She couldn't read or write... but she took the decision that if she had a child they would go to school. It turned out she only had one child. And that child was me."

Zainab's father was a Muslim cleric who didn't believe in education for girls beyond the age of 12.

"He said: 'She has to get married'. And my mother said: 'No'. She sacrificed everything thing for me to go to school including the breakdown of her marriage."

Her parents separated and Zainab attended the prestigious Mathora Girls School before going to university and forging a career in insurance. But in the early 1990s Yonibana would touch her life once more.

"I had moved to the city and kind of lost contact. But my mother got sick and died very suddenly and I got called back. The war had just started and I was shocked by how much the village had deteriorated, the poverty."

Trapped by gunfire

Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, which began in 1991, was devastating the countryside as rebel groups looted villages, raping and maiming.

Zainab abandoned her career in insurance to set up the Campaign for Good Governance, which called for peace and democracy in Sierra Leone.

She was targeted by the rebel groups after confronting them head on.

"They were telling everyone: 'We are going for her, we will rape and kill her'."

At one point Zainab was trapped by gunfire in her house in Freetown.

Image caption Zainab attempted to run for president in 2002

"That was the closest I came to death.

"I called my son Ibrahim to me and I said: 'I don't think I'm going to survive this'. I gave him the telephone numbers of my best friends around the world and all the money I had. I told him: 'When they hit the door I will distract them. You jump over the wall at the back of the house. I don't think I'm going to make it'.

"We were both crying."

They survived and peace was finally declared in 2002.

Zainab then set her sights on a campaign to become the first female president of Sierra Leone. Although her standing garnered a lot of publicity, she only achieved less than 1% of the vote - while her party, Movement for Progress, failed to win a single seat.

Zainab left Sierra Leone in 2006 to become a senior member of the United Nations team charged with rebuilding Liberia in the wake of that country's civil war.

When Ernest Bai Koroma was elected President of Sierra Leone in 2007, he asked Zainab to return. He was a man she had known since her teens when they attended neighbouring schools.

"I felt it was time to give something back," she says, and so for the last three years she has been minister of foreign affairs for one of the poorest countries in the world. A job, some of her staff joke, that should be renamed Minister of Begging.

Airfare arguments

She now spends many months of the year abroad, seeking new sources of support for Sierra Leone. She has been criticised for spending precious state funds on airfares, money that might be spent at home.

"We do a cost analysis. If I pay $5,000 for a ticket, how many millions can I bring back?

There is no doubt what drives Zainab Bangura: The example of a woman who could not read but made possible the opportunity for her only child to contribute to Sierra Leone's future.

"My mother, where she lies there, will be proud of me. This is the woman who not only gave me life, she gave me an education. And now I am minister of foreign affairs.

"Here in this village we might have engineers, we might have astronauts. But only if they are given an opportunity."

More on this story

Around the BBC