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A Tribute from Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella, Director General United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Vienna, Austria, To Mrs. Serah Yillah, wife of the later Dr. Drissa M. Yillah of Bo
Jan 22, 2009, 17:16
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Some people are born lucky for various reasons. For me, my luck was having three mothers. My Dear Aunty Serah was one of them. She assumed full responsibility for me when I moved to Bo in the Southern Province, at age eleven, to attend the Christ the King College in 1971. But Aunty Serah was mother to many others; I had to share her with not only her own children (Drissa Junior, Sadia, Mamadi and Kushi), but also with the many children she gave life to in her capacity as one of the few indigenous British-trained nurses/midwives in Bo. More than the warm cookies kneaded and baked with her tender hands and delivered by her personally to my boarding school on weekends, it was the times I spent at her home that have greatly shaped my professional behavior today. In those days, as she knitted the sweaters she gave as gifts to the many children she delivered as a midwife, she would teach me true English manners and etiquette, proper language and grammar construction, and more importantly honor and dignity.


For example, if I lost focus while reading something to her or did not answer a question correctly, she would simply say "KK stop being scatter-brained, just concentrate". Dinner with my Aunty Serah was with a fork and a knife and it was never later than 6 pm for us kids followed by bedtime reading (in my fathers house dinner was traditional with our five fingers, in one bowl and seated in a circle on a mat with other children). Aunty Serah went to bed late especially if there was a late night maternity call, but she had to wake up very early to ensure that the thousands of chickens we had in the poultry (the first private commercial poultry in Bo town) were fed on-time and the eggs were collected, the medical center and pharmacy were cleaned and opened, and the kids were ready for school. So we grew up knowing about multi-tasking, hard work, service and organization at an early age thanks to her.

It was no coincidence, that in 1983, when I received the news that I had won a scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the USA, I was actually spending a weekend with Aunty Serah and Uncle DM, but this time in the remote Village of Tawuya in Kambia in the Northern Province. On that day, Aunty Serah decided to drive me to Kambia Town ostensibly to ensure that I catch a commercial van to Freetown so that I do not miss the deadline for accepting the offer; however, I knew that she did it to give me her final admonition (during the 40 minute dusty drive) about values, public service and morality before my overseas sojourn away from her omnipresent eyes. What was most interesting is that within one year of relocating to Tawuya, she had organized an informal training programme for the local midwives to reduce infant mortality and the risks women faced during child-brith. And of course she never failed to send me by post one of those well-written airmail letters with the latest news from Salone. It is no surprise that it was during one of my many holidays in her home in Bo, that I first saw the lady who over a decade later became my wife, and when we had our first child, Aunty Serah came over to Lansing Michigan in the USA and knitted a pretty sweater for our baby too.

When I was appointed a minister in the 1990s, she accompanied my biological mother, my dad and me to my swearing-in ceremony at the State House; and for the next year-and-half, whenever I needed moral direction, I went to her house at Wilkinson Road uninvited. She would patiently listen to my ramblings about the challenges of my ministerial responsibilities; but her value to me was my personal battles with morality and the struggles to keep my integrity intact. In very simple ways she strengthened my resolve to remain focused and honest by helping me remember the values she and Uncle DM taught me in Bo about public service and integrity.

Aunty Serah was always ready to be my mother when I needed maternal coaching. In the late 1990s when I met her in Manhattan during one of my many stays at Sadias apartment, Aunty Serah volunteered to go out with me to China Town because, in her opinion, I did not know how to use the New York City mass transit system which she had partially memorized, but I also knew she could not resist the temptation to help me look for bargains to take back to Vienna to my daughter. When I informed her in Atlanta in 2003 in Mamadis home, that I was thinking of contesting the post of Director General in the United Nations and the seeming impossibility of me winning, she simply said "I have no doubt that you can do it if you put your mind to it". What a lucky man I have been, because my inspiration and guide was always on-call.

I will truly miss our mother and our moral compass. But she needs her rest, and I know my Uncle DM misses her company. Fair-the-well Aunty Serah, please pop up once in a while in my dreams as I navigate the global challenges of our times.

Yours ever, KK.

© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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