American expat finds Sierra Leone heritage

Francesca Conate now envoy in Japan for project aiding father's native nation

by Barbara Bayer

To some in Japan, the word “expat” is often associated with negative images — isolation, language and culture barriers, and a general lack of interaction, connection, acceptance and/or understanding. For California native Francesca Conate, however, the life of the expatriate means opportunity — the opportunity to open one’s arms wide to whatever experiences one chooses to embrace.

In Japan about seven years now, she finds her life here filled with “serendipity, coincidences and amazing opportunities.” Japan, specifically Tokyo, is a place where she is “exposed to things I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise, the opportunity to meet people and to do things I wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Energy embodied, the 38-year-old Conate takes on life with a passion: things Japanese, things not, things African — and above all, things of Sierra Leone.

If you haven’t heard of Sierra Leone, you will “within 10 minutes” of meeting Conate. If you aren’t familiar with the country, you soon will be after listening to Conate speak about the small West African nation. Her passion is infectious.

Conate is the current project ambassador for Project Sierra, a four-year project begun in 2007 by Soroptimist International, an American-based worldwide organization working to advance human rights and the status of women.

The picture is a grim one in Sierra Leone. Ravaged by over a decade of civil war, the country, which celebrates 49 years of independence Tuesday, is only beginning its road to recovery. Statistics show the country to be one of the poorest in the world, with over 70 percent of the population surviving on less than ¥180 a day. Life expectancy for women stands at just over 40 years. One in four children die before their fifth birthday and the maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world.

Project Sierra aims to raise $2 million and is already working with a local nongovernmental organization on the ground to empower young estranged mothers to integrate with society or return to their families, help street children return home and help support families at risk of breakdown.

Conate became involved with Soroptimist International and Project Sierra, which was begun by the U.K. chapter of Soroptimist International through a chance conversation with an English student in Tokyo. Her ties to Sierra Leone, however, are highly personal ones going back to her roots.

Her father was born and raised in Sierra Leone and later emigrated to the United States. His daughter had little connection to her father’s homeland and, with his death in 1984, that connection was lost. Her interest remained, however, though she “had no idea where her relatives were or how to get in touch with them.”

She and her mother moved from San Mateo, Calif., to the East Coast. Conate lived and studied in Washington, D.C., for eight years, and later lived with her mother in Atlanta. After earning her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Mercer University in Atlanta, she decided to act upon her desire to travel and came to Tochigi Prefecture on a teacher’s contract for the first time in 2002.

Like many young foreigners, Conate felt disillusioned after a year. “I had a vision of how I wanted my life to be but didn’t know how to make that happen,” she remembers. She found herself “surrounded by a lot of other unhappy people,” with “no one really knowing how to break out of that. . . . Whatever it was just wasn’t moving.” Conate left and returned to the U.S. “I figured since I wasn’t happy here, at least it would be better to be unhappy with my family, in my country, with my language.”

The Japan experience, however, had left its mark and drew her back. She had grown used to the simple everyday challenges encountered in a foreign country, the challenges “of not knowing the language, trying to catch the train, trying to make myself happy.”

Back in the U.S., “all that dropped, which I thought would be a relief, but there was nothing filling that void,” she remembers. “It’s like when you build up muscle and then you stop training. You have the muscle but you’re not lifting anything. It felt anticlimactic.”

She was also having an extremely difficult time finding work and decided to try Japan again. She laughs and says, “I felt if I was going to have to struggle so hard even to get an insignificant job, I may as well do it in a foreign country.”

The second time around, in 2005, Conate had a game plan: “work less, enjoy life more.” To that end, she began and continues to teach business English and is able to free up time for her interests while working part time.

An experience gourmand, Conate throws herself into the life around her, reveling in whirlwind itineraries of cultural and culinary experiences with friends, at museums, embassies — wherever she finds a chance to meet new people, learn about new things. “You go to Japan, you think you’re going to learn about Japanese culture. What I didn’t expect and what has been really amazing is to learn about the cultures of other countries as well.”

Conate feels it is the very “outsider” aspect of being an expat that allows her the freedom to do things she would never dream of in her own country. “Once you’re part of a society and a culture, you know what your limits are and you automatically operate within them. You can’t just roll up and do things. Well, you can, but you’re going to be taken a different way. . . . Of course, being a foreigner in any country is a double-edged sword, but the times where you can use it and capitalize on it, get to see something closer and get deeper into it, are worth taking advantage of.”

The year after returning to Japan for the second time, the seemingly unrelated pieces of Conate’s life started to come together to form a new and exciting picture.

Her mother, traveling to San Francisco for a birthday reunion, happened to be overheard in a supermarket by a woman she had not spoken to in over 20 years. The woman was a close friend of Conate’s father, who had been the best man at her wedding. In the catchup conversation that followed, Conate’s mother mentioned that her daughter was in Japan and had always wanted to see Sierra Leone. The woman, who had been born and raised in Sierra Leone and traveled there every year, said she would take her there.

Within four months, Conate found herself in Freetown and, later, the village of Mattru Jong, her father’s birthplace, where she was welcomed warmly by relatives she had never met before, people with whom the likeness was obvious and striking. “I knew we were related before they told me. We looked the same!” The experience was “one of the most blissful times in my life.”

Though connected by blood, Conate was a stranger to Sierra Leone. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I was bracing myself for the worst.” Though she naturally found poverty, she also found beauty. “The country itself is gorgeous . . . one of the jewels of Africa.” She also was struck not by “drama and devastation” but by people simply getting on with life, “a lot of people doing their best with what they have.”

Her three-week stay in Sierra Leone led to a series of serendipitous events upon her return to Japan, including her highly unusual appointment as Japan ambassador for Project Sierra. She was a shoo-in for the position. The personal ties to the country fuel her passion for the project, her passion sparks the interest of other people and ensuing invitations take her around Japan spreading the word and raising money for Sierra Leone.

On a more personal level, Conate is now starting work with a Sierra Leone cousin who is a professional batik artist. She hopes to sell his works in Japan and help him establish a collective of other artists in Africa. “If it were something to create a sustainable cottage industry where they were able to make this work and actually have an outlet to get paid for it, it would be ideal,” she says.

Conate hopes to return to Sierra Leone someday to stay for a longer period of time. Where it will lead her is hard to say. “It’s been such an organic exponential process that I’ve never thought about what my end game was or what I want it to be.” She finds the process to be reward enough.

“I don’t want it to sound like a cliche, but the satisfaction and reward I get for what I’m doing I always feel comes back to me ten-fold. . . . I know people look at me and my schedule and say, ‘Right, so what kind of drugs are you on?’ ” Conate says with a characteristic guffaw. “I really do get a high from the satisfaction of what I’m doing, even when it’s not related to Sierra Leone. It just gives me energy and feeds into the next thing, and somehow everything is interrelated.

“We think if we want to be happy, we have to do something for ourselves, but to actually do something outside of yourself and have it energize you even more and then to realize it is reciprocal and there is no limit, that is constantly inspiring.”

Conate is moved by the fact that she is doing something directly for the benefit of her father’s country. “I can live my life, have fun, do the things that are important to me, still pursue this and still make such a difference. What I get back is exponentially bigger than what I’m putting into it, and to always get a return on that level is very gratifying.

“I feel so blessed that my father came to America and that I was born in a country that allowed me to be free and express myself. To know how different my life is because of that and how much I can have an impact on somebody else’s life makes me feel humble.

“It also makes me feel a responsibility to do more.”

Francesca Conate can be contacted at