At 10, Kimmie Weeks was left for dead in war-torn Liberia. After rebuilding his own life, he is helping change the developing world through education, understanding and the sharing of humanity
When Kimmie Weeks says age is no barrier to achieving your aims, you can be sure he is speaking from experience. His young life was torn apart by the Liberian civil war, which left him minutes from death, yet he used the experience to change his future, and that of his country, forever. He plans to one day return as president.
Forming his first pressure group at the age of 14, Kimmie campaigned for children’s rights and an end to the use of child soldiers, visiting the country’s most notorious rebel groups and generating publicity and awareness for his cause. His efforts saved many fellow children from a terrible fate, but also led to his own life being placed in danger. Forced to flee Liberia as an 18-year-old, he resettled in the USA and eventually received a BA in political science and history. He continues to work on a masters degree in Philadelphia, combining his studies with
his role at Youth Action International (YAI), a charity he founded to raise awareness and funds to empower young people in Africa.
YAI supports microcredit projects, scholarships and training in Liberia, Sierra Leone and beyond, as well as keeping young people in the West informed about Africa’s problems. As Kimmie points out:
“Anything is possible if you find something you’re passionate about.”
IB World When did your everyday life first become affected by war?
Kimmie Weeks I was born and grew up in Liberia. As a child in the 1980s, we still had access to the most basic necessities such as running water, electricity and school. We certainly had no idea that one day we would be faced with a civil war. When the war started in 1989, everything that made life normal was destroyed by [former president] Charles Taylor’s rebels: the national water supply, electricity, hospitals, schools, clinics. Everything went away. Within a matter of months, my mum and I became refugees. We ended up in a centre called Fendell Campus, a former university campus that had become a refuge for almost everyone in the capital [Monrovia].
A campus built for 4,000 people now had hundreds of thousands crammed into classrooms, or living on the sidewalks. When we got there, we had nothing with us – no clothes and no money. We started to experience really extreme suffering. I was 10 at that point and that was the first time in my life I had gone for days at a time without food. It was an intense pain.
IB Did you understand what was happening to you?
KW No. We had been told the war would make things much better. We were left feeling abandoned by the rest of the world, because my mother and the rest of the parents were saying: “Don’t worry, the international community will rescue us. People will come to our aid and there will be food drops.” It never happened. We felt we had been left to die.
When people think about civil wars, they don’t consider the context. I don’t think it clicks, when you see a picture of a starving child or someone killed in a civil war, that these were people who were going to school or providing for their families, trying to live decent lives before the war began.
Every single day at that camp there were children who were dying. Imagine being a parent and spending your time working to feed your family, and then because of a war you have nothing to do with, you are sitting there watching your children die of hunger and disease, and being completely helpless.
IB How close did you come to death?
KW I had cholera and I wasn’t even moving. We had no medical supplies and no doctors. We were in this classroom with 15 other families, crammed together, lying on the floor, and at that point I was very thin and was drifting in and out of consciousness. When I hadn’t got up for a number of days, people became concerned that I had died and was decaying and my mum was hiding it. Someone came in, led my mother away and then took my pulse and said I had died.
They took my body, wrapped it up and took me out to the burial ground. At that point, they weren’t bothering to actually bury people because so many had died, so they just threw me in there. It was only because my mum got away and came looking for me – and went through the piles of bodies – that I was found alive. I remember this violent shaking and waking up to see my mum’s face. It was the first time I had seen her crying throughout the war. That was the point I decided I wanted to spend my life helping people, especially children.
IB How did a child go about campaigning for change?
KW We weren’t thinking about it strategically. We didn’t think, “How can we actively campaign for change?” We just thought, “What can we do to help?” I was 14 years old when I founded my first organization, and it was young people my age just doing simple things. We were writing letters, talking to senators, contacting UNICEF. Every day, something changed, even though we were just a bunch of kids, and that drove us on to think even bigger.
When I was 16, I set up the Liberian Children’s Disarmament Campaign. The idea was that if we couldn’t stop the civil war, we could at least go out and convince the rebel leaders to stop children being armed. At that point, there were approximately 20,000 children fighting in Liberia. The youngest was six years old.
These rebel leaders were not normal people. It wasn’t like going and talking to your congressman. They were responsible for thousands of deaths. One who I met had a necklace made from human tongues and ears. But we had such a strong conviction that peace had to happen, so we did the work despite our own fear.
IB When did you become aware your own life was in danger?
KW When Charles Taylor won the election, he started to train children for the national military. We released a report on it to the national media, and that’s when the government started to look for me. They went to my high school and shut it down. I went into hiding, staying in friends’ houses, and for three weeks there was this intense search going on. They arrested my friends and interrogated them. I left Liberia disguised as a traditional dancer. My mother didn’t know I had left the country. Most people in Liberia thought the government had found me and killed me.
IB How did you adapt to the USA?
KW It was a huge shock. My first job in America was in a McDonald’s restaurant. I had gone from leading a national movement to flipping burgers. What was shocking to me was that when I got to high school people said, “We’ve never heard of the Liberian civil war.” It blew me away that a war that killed 200,000 people wasn’t even mentioned to students.
That’s when we decided to start Youth Action International. The basic idea was to raise awareness about the issues facing people in Africa, and give young people the opportunity to make a positive change. Last year our programmes impacted on 150,000 people. This year, we hope to reach out to two million people in the poorest countries.
IB Do young people in the West understand Africa?
KW The misconceptions are shocking. When I first came to the USA, my friends at high school thought people in Africa lived in trees. They asked me if I ever fought a lion. Schools need to make an effort to develop people’s worldview, by talking about the world and getting speakers in from other countries. A lot of the global problems we are dealing with right now, such as terrorism, can only be weeded out by giving people greater information and breaking down mistrust.
Young people in the West, with access to so much opportunity, so many resources and such knowledge, could do so much more if they put their minds to it. It’s the moral obligation of every single person, of any age, to ask: “How do we save lives, make a better world? How do we stop children dying because they do not have access to clean drinking water?” It is pitiful that those deaths can still be happening today.
IB Can the problems of the developing world be fixed within a reasonable timeframe?
KW I see so much hope. I travel to the poorest war-torn countries and when I’m there I see human potential, people who have been through the most incredible suffering but bounce back. People who want to help Africa shouldn’t just throw food at people: they need to work hand-in-hand to create stronger lives. That means microcredit schemes, getting children to school, working with communities to create co-ops.
IB What message would you give to young people?
KW Simply get out there and do something. People often ask me, “What should I be doing?” Don’t let me tell you what to do, because that’s just my philosophy. Find something you’re passionate about and develop your own philosophy.
I believe in the beauty of life. I’m driven by the fact that my life isn’t mine – it belongs to the people benefiting from our work. The right of children to basic necessities is something everyone understands, even the most ruthless dictator, and I will continue to fight for that.
Find out more
To find out more about Youth Action International’s work, visit www.peaceforkids.org