by Hickmatu Leigh
It all began on an ordinary day in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I was with friends at a fast food restaurant, going about my usual business. Little did I know, a single link shared with me would set the wheels of change in motion. Later that day I opened the link and saw it was an application for the Arts and Film Festival at the Women Deliver Conference 2023 — one of the largest multi-sectoral convenings globally to advance gender equality.
Courage Beyond Doubt: Stepping into the Spotlight
At first, I hesitated applying, overwhelmed by the thought of competing against countless talented artists from around the world. But something stirred within me, a desire to step beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone. I had recently completed a series of photographs, a project close to my heart, and I longed for these images to reach beyond the confines of social media.
Despite my reservations, I summoned the courage to submit my application on the very last day, narrowly avoiding missing the deadline. To my surprise, I received a confirmation email not long after that my work had been accepted. For me, that confirmation was a victory in itself.
Life moved forward and months later, on a quiet Sunday, an email notification caught my eye. It was a message from Women Deliver, announcing that I was a finalist. Being who I am; shy, introverted, reserved, my initial reaction wasn’t one of elation. Instead, I was overwhelmed by a wave of anxiety. The thought of being in the spotlight, of exposing myself to the world, filled me with apprehension.
Navigating Challenges and Seeking Opportunities
At the time, my camera and main source of income and happiness, had quit on me. I was going through a challenging phase in my life; out of a job, and battling depression while confined to my home. I found myself sinking into a dark place, grappling with uncertainty and self-doubt. ‘Without a camera and a stable source of income how could I possibly raise funds to attend the conference in Kigali?’ ‘Is it even worth going all that way for something I may not even win?’ These questions weighed heavily on my mind.
Despite my defeatist attitude, I couldn’t ignore the subtle bursts of excitement. My photographs actually made it to the final stage of this competition! Also, seeing the enthusiasm of fellow finalists in the WhatsApp group created by the conference organisers, I realised what a big deal this was and that I would regret missing this opportunity if I did not take it.
I mustered the courage to reach out to the festival curator, expressing my desire to attend the conference in person. Her advice led me on a path of seeking financial assistance which ultimately led me to Purposeful.
I had already had the joy of working with Purposeful at the 10th Africa Conference for Sexual Health and Rights, and out of sheer luck, it happened to be that Purposeful was looking for a photographer to accompany their team to Kigali to capture their events and participation in the conference. I was hired! This meant that I could be supported in Kigali doing what I loved most and also have the opportunity to participate in activities organised for the festival finalists.
Into the Unknown: Embracing the Journey, Self-Worth & Unexpected Triumph
After weeks of planning with Purposeful, I found myself in Kigali — a breathtakingly beautiful city filled with culture and arts. I explored the festival grounds with a blend of gratitude and awe, thinking that just a few years ago, I was just a curious girl with an iPhone7 capturing moments and people I thought were interesting. Now, here I was, surrounded by 6,000+ people and sharing my work alongside 160 talented artists.
Before this experience, I had never won anything, and struggled for recognition growing up. The thought of winning anything, not to talk of such an award, never ever crossed my mind. So, while I was at the conference I was still trying to get comfortable with the idea that I deserved to be there and that my work was worth the accolade.
And then, the moment arrived. I won the award! Yes, me — the shy, introverted artist from Sierra Leone.
Me! I won Best in Fest!
I have always been passionate about storytelling, primarily focusing on women’s experiences and my journey as a young woman in this field. Winning an award for this work touched me profoundly and gave me a renewed sense of belief in myself and my abilities. This journey, starting from a seemingly mundane day, transformed my entire outlook on life and the belief in myself. It has shown me that even when uncertainty and self-doubt cloud our path, a combination of courage, persistence, and a little help from kind souls can lead to the most extraordinary of destinations.
Coming home after the long journey, I was greeted by congratulatory messages, my face on the front pages of newspapers, and calls for TV and radio interviews. It was one of those moments in life that leave us speechless — moments that make us pinch ourselves to check if they’re real.
Beyond Self: Finding Allies, Changing Perceptions & Challenging Stereotypes
Amidst all the excitement and surrealism, my true source of joy lies in the realisation that my story could inspire countless young hearts and become a beacon of inspiration for young creatives. Standing on that stage in front of thousands of people gave me a sense of awareness that this is not only about my personal success, it’s about the impact this will have on others. It’s about the lives that have been touched by my work, the dreams ignited by my story, and the potential change my story could create.
Growing up as a girl in Sierra Leone I know that in many Sierra Leonean homes just like mine, and perhaps in other African cultures in general, choosing a creative career over something more academic can put a strain on family relationships. There is a perception that the creative industries are insignificant or for dropouts. I am hopeful that my story will change these myths about creative professions or trades and make it easier for creatives to find the support they need to thrive.
I am extremely grateful to every single person who has, in one way or another, given me a pat on the back or motivated me to keep doing what I do. As I write this, basking in the glory of this accomplishment, I am reminded of the invaluable role Purposeful played in shaping my journey. I had the privilege of working with kind and welcoming staff who made me feel like I belonged and that my work had a purpose. Their support and their belief in me has given me wings to soar, and for that, I will be forever grateful — it was a ray of light and I am still overwhelmed with the emotions and in disbelief.
A Vision for the Future: Ripples of Change
My vision remains nothing short of extraordinary — to merge my passion for photography with my expertise in Public Health, weaving narratives around health and the issues that plague young people, women and girls. Through my lens, I intend to shed light on the untold stories, the struggles, and resilience of girls that often go unnoticed. Each photograph will be a silent yet powerful voice, a reminder that there’s more to the surface than meets the eye.
My ambition doesn’t stop there. I am committed to empowering young girls with the art of photography — not just how to wield a camera, but to reveal to them the incredible strength in storytelling and that a photograph can be a vessel of change — a vehicle for raising their voices against injustices and inequalities.
My hope is that this incredible journey — struggles and triumphs all, will continue to resonate with young girls who dare to dream and aspire. It’s in their eyes, messages, and voices that I will find the true essence of my achievement — to know that my story has kindled a fire within them, pushing them to chase their dreams relentlessly, reminding the world that every individual, every girl holds the power to create ripples of transformation in their community and in the world at large.
Hickmatu Leigh is an award winning photographer and artist from Freetown, Sierra Leone. You can find her work on Instagram: @hickmatuleigh
To find out more about Purposeful https://wearepurposeful.org/