Miles away, close to home
Graduate Kabbie Konteh's foundation keeps him connected to his roots
It was an experience that would frighten even the most hardened adult, let alone a 9-year-old boy: plucked from your bed in the middle of the night, put on an airplane with a destination unknown, waking up in a foreign environment unsure of your surroundings.
This was one of the most salient and, understandably, unforgettable childhood memories of Kabbie Konteh, who, along with his sister, left what they knew in their small village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, to be reunited with parents they didn't initially recognize in an American city that was now their home.
The family's separation began when Konteh's father first came to the United States on a soccer scholarship. When his mother was granted a visa to join his father in Raleigh, North Carolina, Konteh and his sister were left in the care of their grandmother in Gbendembu, Sierra Leone, before coming to live in the U.S.
Acclimating to his new life proved challenging to Konteh, who didn't speak English and had no formalized education. "I thought everything on TV was representative of American culture," says Konteh.
"I want to have this constant feeling where I can actually contribute to the world. When you touch someone's life you bring meaning to your life."
In time he became more confident and comfortable with this new life. His next period of adjustment came when the family left North Carolina and headed west, landing in Renton, Wash. A sixth-grader at the time, Konteh made a much smoother transition into a new school and social circle. But influences outside of the classroom nearly derailed all he had worked for. By eighth grade his desire to fit in had caused him to fall in with the wrong crowd.
In his freshman year of high school, he decided a lifestyle makeover was in order. No longer hanging with the same group of friends, Konteh focused on his education. He was admitted into the Early Scholars Outreach program at the University of Washington, which encourages underrepresented minority students to pursue post-secondary education. The program was a boon for Konteh and his higher-ed aspirations-he was accepted into the UW, determined to make the most of the college experience.
"I told myself if I ever had this opportunity I was never going to waste it," says Konteh, who earned degrees in computer information systems and business.
When considering his next move, Konteh's thoughts turned to his grandmother. "When I was younger I made a promise to her that I would come back and help our tribe," says Konteh, who is paramount chief of the Loko tribe in Sierra Leone.
With a law degree, Konteh reasoned he could make improvements in the way disputes are handled. An MBA would be valuable in drafting business models with the tribe to gain economic self-sufficiency.
When deciding on business and law schools, Konteh found himself drawn to Seattle University and its social justice and service-oriented mission.
In 2008, he earned his law degree and MBA, and now works as a legal advocate in Seattle. At SU Konteh found fertile ground for support when he was considering more lasting ways to give back and stay connected to Sierra Leone. While at SU he created the Restoration of Cultural Sierra Leone (ROCS) foundation, which aims to provide accessibility to education for students in Sierra Leone, and to meet their needs as outlined by the tribe.
"The mission is to empower the tribal leaders so they can empower themselves," he says. "I want to have this constant feeling where I can actually contribute to the world. When you touch someone's life you bring meaning to your life."
The seeds of ROCS were sown in an SU economic development class, in which students had to devise a business model for a developing country.
The first major initiative of ROCS is the construction of a school in Gbendembu. The school is being built by the people of the community there, based on plans they drafted and materials purchased in the capital of Freetown. Funding for the school has been generated through donations from events organized by Konteh and ROCS. About $9,000-toward a $20,000 goal-has been raised for the school, enough to construct the infrastructure. Konteh is optimistic the school will be built and be operational by later this year.
There's also a local angle to his work. Through ROCS, Konteh is reaching out to Seattle-area youth and extending an opportunity for them to learn firsthand about the education disparities in Sierra Leone and how they can make a difference. This year, for the first time, ROCS will provide scholarships for up to 10 area high school students to spend two weeks in Sierra Leone, working on the school's construction and learning about the language and culture.
"Sometimes it can be hard to see past what's in front of you. I want the Seattle students to see that there is a big world in front of them," Konteh says. "For the kids in Sierra Leone, I want them to see there's also a bigger world out there for them."
Learn more about Konteh's work at www.educatesalone.org.
By Tina Potterf. This article first appeared in the Seattle University Magazine.