By Phill Prendeville of The Umu Foundation

Twenty-seven years ago, I met up with 30 Kiwi mates on a deserted island off the coast of Kenya for a new year's party. It was the beginning of a love affair with a continent too diverse to ever really know and far too raw and inspiring to ever walk away from.

Obviously, Africa is not all beer and skittles and for the past 20 years, as a cameraman and director I have travelled back numerous times documenting war zones, poverty and famine for both current affairs programmes and aid organisations.

It was my job to find and focus on the negative, the terrible, the disastrous, and the worst of humanity. I succeeded, every time bringing back images of suffering and need.

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I loved the work, the people and the country but as I spent more time there I became increasingly aware that the images I was supplying the world were negative, one-sided and not truly representative of the incredible beauty of Africa and its wonderful peoples.

So, when I received a phone call from Simon Coley of Karma Cola asking me to tell the story of their fair-trade collaboration in Sierra Leone, I jumped at the opportunity.

Before I knew it, I was being tossed around in the back of a Land Rover, heading through the Gola Rainforest on the Liberian border, camera on my lap and a boot full of gear.

It had been eight years since I was last in Sierra Leone. In 2008, I had been commissioned by international children's charity ChildFund to document the stories of young girls that had been taken captive by the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF was a rebel group that evolved at the beginning of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war spanning from 1991 to 2002. The war killed over 50,000 people, displacing more than half the 5 million-odd population at that time.

Many of the kidnapped girls whose stories I was documenting had been taken as slave labour, forced to become child soldiers and used as sex slaves. They had seen their villages being attacked and destroyed and had witnessed the murder of their parents and families.

In documenting their stories, the charity planned to raise money to enable the girls to acquire basic skills that would help them gain future employment.

Umu was one of the young women I interviewed. She became the face of the ChildFund campaign and was a key character in a 60 Minutes story I produced. Umu left a lasting impression on me that would change the course of my life. My family and I have assisted her financially ever since. My return to Sierra Leone with Karma Cola meant I could meet with Umu face to face again.

Umu Marah is preparing for university entrance exams so she can attend law school. Photo / Supplied
Umu Marah is preparing for university entrance exams so she can attend law school. Photo / Supplied

First stop was Boma village, 10km from the Liberian border, where Karma Cola sources the nut that creates the cola flavour in their drink.

The company came about out of the observation that more than 1 billion Coca-Cola drinks are sold around the world every day. The thinking was there must be a market for a new cola drink that gave something back to the people who grew the cola nut.

Karma Cola began as Phoenix drinks and then Good Bananas in New Zealand. Its ethos was fair-trade, giving back to the producer and honouring everyone in the food chain. Obviously on the right track, the company received the world's Fairest Fair Trade Company award in 2015.

The greeting Simon Coley received as we arrived in Boma village made it obvious that the people there were extremely happy with the relationship. Hundreds of villagers had come to greet him.

"You look around, these people don't want much. They just don't want to ask for charity and that's what we're here for, to make sure that they don't need to."

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Karma Cola has been sending a percentage of each drink sold back to Boma for the past five years, and it was easy to see where that money had been spent. A bridge had been built over a flood-prone fjord, ensuring year-round road access to and from the village. A guest house had been erected, and 65 girls from the village were being educated at the local school.

"You look around, these people don't want much," Coley says. "They just don't want to ask for charity and that's what we're here for, to make sure that they don't need to."

All eight local chiefs were there, including the region's paramount chief. The chiefs, like their people, are a mixture of Muslims, Christians and animists. Despite their differences, they live harmoniously side by side. Religion has never been the cause of conflict here but mineral wealth - most notably diamonds - has. Valuable minerals have proved both a blessing and a curse for Sierra Leone - blessed in the revenue they create but cursed in the extremes that people will go to acquire them.

Greed and political instability has been fostered in order for foreign companies to extract minerals at well below world market rates. As history has shown, when wealth fails to trickle down, anger and resentment rises prising the door open to revolt and eventually, as is the case here, implosion in the most brutal ways. Civil war drove the country to its knees.

Chief Hindawa is a small man with a big heart and an even bigger smile. Over the following week, he became a constant companion and a good friend. In one of our many discussions I asked him how his village had fared when the rebels attacked during the civil war. His smile disappeared as he recalled that time.

"They started to kill our people. They started to grab our wives, our children, and took them away. They rape our wives in front of us, they kill our brothers and sisters in front of us, they terrorise us, so with that attitude we started to be intimidated, we started to run away from them, it was so horrible that we can't help that situation, so we had to flee into the forest."

The villagers spent many years in the jungle, on the run. I asked Chief Hindawa how it is that despite everything they have been through, including a recent Ebola epidemic, that everyone now seems so happy? He tells me that although they will never forget, they can forgive. In forgiving, they've been able to move on.

Umu Marah's parents were killed when rebels raided her village. Photo / Supplied
Umu Marah's parents were killed when rebels raided her village. Photo / Supplied

The next few days in the village were not as hectic as the first and I could observe life better and get on with filming. This is how it used to be everywhere: life was communal, with no electricity, no communications, no social welfare, but everyone contributing.

It's busy. Cocks are crowing, a domestic argument spills out, women are pounding rice, children are playing everywhere. But our time in Boma village is nearly over. I have everything I need to make the Karma Cola documentary. So we bid farewell to these wonderful people and head off.

As we approach Freetown, the capital, my phone starts to wake up; Umu has been texting me. Her story reads like a Hollywood movie, except for the fact that it's true and that it all happened to her.

Umu was taken by the RUF rebels when she was 5 years old. Her home was torched and her father was murdered in front of her. She would not discover what happened to her mother for many years.

For over six years Umu was kept captive, living rough on the run in the bush where she was used by the rebels for forced labour and as a sex slave. At the age of 10, she was trained to shoot, forced to fight and made to kill.

Prior to one battle, knowing that once again she would be forced to take up arms, she tried to escape. The rebels caught her, cut her, tied her to a tree and left her to die. As she sat, bound and bleeding, a snake appeared from the jungle and as it was arching back in preparation to strike, a dog burst out of nowhere, took the snake in its mouth and killed it. Then, In Umu's own words, "God gave me the strength and I was able to free myself."

"I was raped three times then one of them said you are going to be my wife. I told them, 'You have done this to me but I am not the age to become a housewife, my intention is to go to school'."

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The dog did not leave her side. With a rope for a leash, it led Umu out of the jungle to a nearby village. A woman took her in, fed and bathed her. Later that same night, gun fire erupted as they slept. The rebels who had left Umu to die were attacking the village. Fleeing villagers were shot and their homes were burnt to the ground. Amid the massacre and chaos that ensued, Umu heard a child's terrified screams coming from a hut nearby that was fully engulfed in flames. Umu ran in, rescued a little girl, then ran out of the burning hut straight into the rebels, where she was again taken captive.

The rebels were not happy. They told her: "Since you have taken that child from that fire, if you are going to die, you will die with that child, no one will help you." She responded: "If God says that this child is going to live and I am going to live, I will go with this child, I am not going to leave her."

Umu continues her story: "So we were going to another place and a helicopter gun ship came. All the RUF ran away. They left all their belongings. I was there, I did not run away ... I took another route, I did not follow the RUF. I walked for a long time, all this time the small dog that saved me was with me. When I reached my hometown, I became afraid. When I arrived at my home with the baby on my back and the small dog with me, there were children on the veranda.

"The people were afraid of me and said to each other, 'Maybe she will kill us because she has stayed so long in the bush with the rebels.' When I said hello to them, they all ran away. I left and hid in the bush. When I came back after two days in the bush I came back to the house and asked some people, 'Where is my mother?'. They told me my mother was dead too. I started crying." Umu was 12 years old.

Umu Marah, left, wants to fight for women's rights in Sierra Leone. Photo / Supplied
Umu Marah, left, wants to fight for women's rights in Sierra Leone. Photo / Supplied

Arriving in Freetown, I'm looking forward to seeing Umu again, but am a little unsure what to expect.

I have seen photos of her over the years and we communicate online and by text but a lot can change in eight years.

I recognise her instantly and I'm overwhelmed again by her smiling, gentle personality and quiet determination.

My family have supported her and her family through good times and bad. We have paid for her schooling and the upkeep of her family but it is Umu who has made it all happen.

Rocky, the dog who saved her from the snake and led her from the jungle has since died of old age. The baby she rescued from the burning hut - 'Little Umu' as she is known - is nearly 17, they guess, and has a baby of her own 4-month-old Paulina.

Umu takes us to meet them. She is living in a slum on one of Freetown's hilly areas. Her aunt who adopted and cared for her is also there. She has travelled down from the village to meet me and as the sun sets I get to see the single room where Umu, little Umu and baby Paulina live. No electricity, no water, washing or toilet facilities, it is a hovel. I quietly undertake to get her out of here.

Little Umu's boyfriend is also there. I find myself having a quiet man-to-man chat with him as I would with one of my own daughter's suitors. It is strange to think how protective I am of this family that I am inextricably connected to but barely know.

Umu spends the next few days with us in Freetown, carrying my tripod, and helping us navigate the traffic-jammed streets. The inner strength and steely determination that I first witnessed eight years ago are still alive and well in her.

Umu has always wanted to be educated. In the 2008 interview, she told me, "I was 6 years old when they raped me and took my virginity. I was raped three times then one of them said you are going to be my wife. I told them, 'You have done this to me but I am not the age to become a housewife, my intention is to go to school'." She then told me that she wanted to become a lawyer.

Umu has never given up on her dream and today she is preparing for university entrance exams so she can attend law school. She wants to fight for women's rights in Sierra Leone, rights she never had. It is a long, hard, financially prohibitive road she walks. I promise her that I will find the funds to make it possible.

A dog saved Umu Marah from being bitten by a snake and she later named him Rocky. Photo / Supplied
A dog saved Umu Marah from being bitten by a snake and she later named him Rocky. Photo / Supplied

This is how the Umu Foundation was born, on the one hand, from necessity as my family could no longer afford to pay for all her education alone, and on the other hand from a sense of responsibility and a desire to give something back. Umu's increased needs have created and driven the whole thing and have made me open myself and her story to the public.

This is the start, I hope, of much more to come. If we can help Umu, we can help other girls like her, girls with incredible stories and potential but without the financial ability to fulfil them.

Charities can get girls through the younger years, but for tertiary and higher education for older girls there is a void and a huge amount of amazing potential lost. It is these young women who are most likely to effect positive change in their villages, their communities, their countries and ultimately the world.

From years of documenting charities and their work, I have taken what I believe are the best aspects and created a fresh, direct approach to giving, one which empowers and enables the recipient but at the same time gives something back to the giver.

As well as private donations, The Umu Foundation is inviting companies to exercise their corporate responsibility by providing full tertiary scholarships for girls. The company will get naming rights and ongoing content as they share in the girl's story and progress. Where these relationships will lead remains to be seen but the potential for multi-purpose positive positioning is enormous.

On our last day in Freetown, I buy Umu a Dell computer. She can now tap into the world of information and knowledge that she will need to succeed in her chosen profession of law. In combination with her smartphone, Umu is now more present than ever in my everyday life.

As we bid farewell and I leave her standing on the side of the road, a single tear rolls down the side of her face. I do not steal that image, but take it with me nonetheless.