If you had scoured the planet in 1998, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone more “entitled” to feel hopeless than 3 year-old Mabinty Bangura. Shortly after her father had been killed by rebel soldiers in the midst of an 11 year long civil war that ripped apart her homeland, a small West African nation (i.e., Sierra Leone) rich in natural minerals (e.g., diamonds, titanium, bauxite and gold), where 70% of the population lives in abject poverty, Mabinty’s mother contracted and died from Lassa fever (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lassa_fever). As if that weren’t enough for one lifetime, a relative responded to these tragedies by taking Mabinty to a local orphanage where she reportedly was beaten and scorned by staff members for her “rebellious” behavior and ostracized by many of her fellow orphans due to an inherited skin condition known as vitiligo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitiligo) that resulted in prominent unpigmented spots all over the otherwise beautifully dark skin on her chest and neck. Her caretakers believed her illness to be a “curse” – a belief that led them to label this beautiful and obviously gifted young girl (at 3, Mabinty already could read and write Arabic!) “the devil’s child.”
And then one day, in the midst of what likely was unimaginable suffering and persecution, Mabinty found a magazine lying on the ground outside the gate of the orphanage with a picture of a beautiful ballerina dancing on point on the cover. It’s best to just let Mabinty pick up the story from here: “I’d never seen anything like that before, so I took the cover off and put [the picture] in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it. I brought the rest of the magazine in to share with everybody else, but I kept the picture with me every day until I got adopted. It kept me going and believing and looking forward to something, because I was going through so much at the time. [Before I found the picture], I thought I was just worth nothing and [that] nothing [good was] going to happen [to me]. The person in the photograph symbolized hope for me. It was something I hadn’t felt for such a long time.” And adopted Mabinty and her best friend were in 1999, by Elaine DePrince and her husband, Charles. The rest, as they say, is history or, perhaps more accurately, the still unfolding story of Mabinty Bangura, now known as Michaela DePrince, at 18 years old currently the youngest member of the highly acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem (http://www.dancetheatreofharlem.org).
It would be impossible, within the confines of this post, to catalog Michaela’s many remarkable accomplishments in the world of dance, but I commend them to your reading: http://www.dancetheatreofharlem.org/company/dancers. It also would take too long to delve into the commitment and hard work that has gone into achieving those goals or the many other adversities that she has had to fight through to get there, though you can find out more about those on the Web as well – and watch her dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoALBdkPdMI. For me (and for Mabinty/Michaela), what’s important is that photograph: “I’ve had bad patches,” Michaela concedes, “[times] when I wanted to quit ballet.” [But, each time,] I would say to myself this is what I’ve been dreaming of for so long, and this picture has kept me going for so long, I really need to keep trying. Nothing else has ever made me feel like that.” It would be a considerable understatement to say that Michaela’s story is inspirational. But what warms my heart most about it is the possibility that somewhere in the world (e.g., an orphanage in West Africa, a tenement in the slums of Los Angeles, an addiction or eating disorder treatment facility in Philadelphia, etc.) a young girl will go to bed tonite with a slightly crumpled picture of Michaela tucked safely under her pillow.