How, you might ask, did we cross paths with a motivational speaker and celebrated author who was born and raised through one of West Africa’s most brutal civil wars? To which we would answer: through tennis - the sport which saved Sam Jalloh’s life. So much so, he wrote a book about it.
Our co-founder, Jake who has a decorated history in the British and US tennis circles met our latest guest during the Liverpool International Tournament in 2015. Jake was set to play against the junior world number one at the time, Andrey Rublev and the coach on the other side of the net was Sam Jalloh. Jake might not have reigned victorious in the match but he did leave the tournament much richer than he entered it, finding friendship in Sam and learning more about his incredible story and “amazing outlook on life”. Today, we share Sam’s story with you.
“You can take all your struggles, put them together and build something out of it”
Born in Sierra Leone in 1982, Sam started life in Wilberforce, otherwise known as Freetown (named after William Wilberforce - a British politician and philanthropist who was at the helm of the abolition of slave trade). In cruel irony, however, Sam never found much of a sense of peace or freedom as he grew up through one of Africa’s most bloody civil wars. Despite being an affluent area, the poor management of the nation actually means it has been ravaged with poverty and corruption.
Living with his mother, father and 11 siblings in one of the most affected slums in the city, in an 8ft x 10ft corrugated house, Sam and his family survived on no more than $1 per day. Sam was born into a city with the highest infant mortality rate on the planet - defying the odds as he would continue to do so as the narrative of his youth unfolded.
His parents were never educated and nor were his brothers or sisters but at the age of just six years old, Sam was told by his father that he would be adopted into a new family who could help him become a doctor. Even as an infant, Sam can recall the feelings of anger and betrayal he felt as he was taken from his home - and everything he knew - to join a family who beat him mercilessly multiple times a week.
Sam eventually ran away from the family, heading towards life on the streets at the age of nine, but still celebrates the lessons learned. The beatings he was subject too taught him that “whatever decision I make has a consequence to it” and that it is possible to "take all your struggles, put them together and build something out of it”, no matter what life throws in your path.
“[Love] can make you feel that you can fly, it can make you feel that you want to live, it can make you feel that you’re a human being”
The next thing that life threw in Sam’s path was a decapitated human head. Yes, literally.
Sam’s flee from his abusive adoptive family coincided with the beginning of the civil war in Sierra Leone. Child soldiers, “pure brutality” and the loss of friends and family became the norm but what one can never truly be prepared for is the sight of soldiers playing football with the severed head of a human being. A vision Sam has never quite managed to shake from his subconscious, unsurprisingly.
Over the years this human brutality continued but the sanctuary within it all was tennis.
Through the game, Sam found a sense of escapism and a network of friends, one of which would later save his life. He played on a tennis court built by British settlers in 1904, which was located along the five mile walk from his mother’s home and the jungle where he regularly went to work with her. Having made contact with his parents again, Sam’s mother accepted his affinity with the sport but his father’s opinion can be summarised in this one quote: “Sam, if I ever see you playing that rich white man sport, I’m going to amputate all your fingers”.
In spite of this, Sam continued to play hand tennis (eventually becoming a national champion) until he could afford a racquet and some shark fishing wire for strings. Fortunately, Sam did indeed manage to keep all of his fingers and eventually ended up representing his country in international tournaments and taking the honour of flag bearer for Sierra Leone in front of 60,000 people at the African Games.
During one military capture, with his hands tied behind his back, Sam was recognised by a solider who was somebody he had played tennis with in the past. The solider cut him loose, whispering “Sam, run” into his ear and as Sam fled to freedom once more, it became clear that tennis had saved his life in more ways than one. Despite the adversity Sierra Leone had caused him, Sam still only feels pride for the country he flew the flag for and at the heart of that outlook is the power of forgiveness, and the balance of love and hate.
“We should forgive each other and learn to make this world a better place”
As is customary of all ONEOFTHE8 guests, we wanted to get to the root of Sam’s inspiration. How does a human being who has encountered such inconceivable hardship manage to maintain such an uplifting outlook on life? Well, as we’re finding with many of our guests, it all boils down to the institution of family and the foundations this lays down for your life.
Sam cite’s his parents as his main driving force. The unfaltering grit of a poverty-stricken mother who not only nurtured her own brood of offspring but also took numerous orphans and homeless children under her wing - without single complaint. The staunch dedication of a father who worked three jobs across 365 days of the year, teaching young Sam the kind of discipline that could move mountains.
Of course, the concept of family doesn’t always come with the prerequisite of shared DNA…
Still on the topic of inspiration, we closed our conversation with Sam with some rather poignant reflection. He tells us about how, on February 14th 1998, his very best friend - the friend with whom he lived and discovered sport - was shot with an AK47 outside the tennis court, killed right in front of Sam’s eyes.
The type of trauma most of us will fortunately only ever have to witness on movie screens but still, Sam finds the silver lining - the heartbreak of losing his “hero” in cold blood now inspires him to become the best human being he can possibly be, every single day. From where we’re standing, he’s doing a pretty remarkable job of it too.
To find out more about Sam’s foundation, purchase a copy of his books or to stay up to date with his speaking, head to www.spjalloh.com. To hear more about his fascinating and unbelievable backstory - for this article is but a scratch on the surface - make sure to catch up with Sam’s episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.