A Daughter Fights to Save Her Father's Legacy

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Aisha Conteh lives in Central California, but she's on a mission to save the hospital her father built a continent and an ocean away in Sierra Leone 45 years ago. She talks to Farai Chideya about her father and her own efforts to continue his work.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Forty-five years ago, Dr. Hadj Conteh took $200 from his own pocket and started a hospital in his native Sierra Leone. The well-traveled physician hoped to provide his own country with quality medicine. Then a civil war brutalized Sierra Leone through the 1990s, and Dr. Conteh's hospital fell into ruin. The doctor's daughter, Aisha Conteh, recently inherited the rundown building. Now, she is determined to realize her father's dream, but it's going to be an expensive and uphill battle.

For one, Ms. Conteh lives almost 7,000 miles away in Central California. Aisha Conteh joins me now. Aisha, welcome.

Ms. AISHA CONTEH (Daughter of Dr. Hadj Conteh): Thank you. It's good to be here.

CHIDEYA: So tell me a little bit more about your father, and why he was so committed to forming a hospital?

Ms. CONTEH: Well, I have - when I went to Sierra Leone recently, I brought back a booklet that my father had put together. And my father passed away when I was 10 years old in 1987. And when I found this booklet from our home in Sierra Leone, it gave me a lot of information about my dad. And his commitment started one day when he was sitting down with his father who was a chief from one of the towns in Sierra Leone.

And they were talking about a lady that went into labor, and this lady died from having a baby. And so his father turned to him and said, you see, if you go - if I send you abroad and study, you can come back, be a doctor and save lives, and these kind of things wouldn't happen. And that's where he got his passion from. And his dad supported him throughout his life to get his education and he studied in various parts of the world. And I gathered from, just his experience from studying in different modern countries, he developed this passion to help and save his people and saw that his people can actually live a better life.

CHIDEYA: Was the hospital built near where his father is from?

Ms. CONTEH: It's about, I'd say about 40 minutes away from where his father was the chief of that city.

CHIDEYA: And now, you came to the U.S. when you were 12 years old, not so long after your father passed away. He obviously is a huge influence in your life although he is gone. When did you decide that you wanted to pick up this mantel - first of all, to go back to Sierra Leone, and secondly, to really deal with the hospital as it is today?

Ms. CONTEH: Well, as a child, my father never pushed me to become a doctor like he did. He always stressed that I go to school and just learn, get my education. And he said, I'll support you in whatever you study. So when I came to the States, I started - I ventured into different things. First, I wanted to be a businessperson. Then I wanted to be a nurse. And then I went to some classes, where I have to do volunteer and couldn't stand the sight of blood. So I said no, this is not for me.

So I decided to become a teacher. But just throughout my life here in the States, you know, I saw how just living here is better. You know, I came from a country where it's really, really - living situation is really, really bad. So it just developed - the passion in me just developed from just seeing the difference between how we used to live in Sierra Leone and how we live here in the States. And I knew the hospital was always there. I just wanted, you know, to just continue my education, and get to the level where I'll be able to do something, you know, and anything is worth it to me.

CHIDEYA: Aisha, we don't have too much time and I know that when you return to Sierra Leone, it was your first time back there in two decades, that you've lost family in the civil war. What are you really hoping to do now in terms of rebuilding this hospital and providing a place for people to heal?

Ms. CONTEH: Well, I just wanted - again, the place is vacant. There are no equipments, no medicine, no nothing. We just wanted to raise funds so that we could go back and repair and get this hospital going again. It used to be one of the best hospitals in the country, and I wanted to be at that level again. And our - I mean, the most important thing is the people. We want to be able to serve the people. We want them to be able to get fair pricing in the medication and services, and also be able to set up, like, educational programs. They'll be able to teach them how to prevent, you know, simple illnesses that are actually killing people out there.

CHIDEYA: Very briefly, what's your game plan to get the money?

Ms. CONTEH: Well, basically, this is one of the ways, just getting it publicly known, what we're trying to do, and also just raising awareness and have, I mean, I know there are good kind of people out there that want, you know, other people to get better living conditions. So we're hoping that we'll be able to touch people that are interested in this and say, hey, we want to help.

CHIDEYA: All right. Aisha, I should thank you so much.

Ms. CONTEH: Okay.

CHIDEYA: Aisha Conteh founded and heads the Sierra Leone Health Development Organization. She hopes to raise enough funds to revive her father's hospital in Sierra Leone and she lives in Stockton, California.

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