The 17-year-old might have died with them, but he was working a night shift. When he tried to return home the next morning, his path was blocked. After several hours, he was told that no one in the house had survived.
Bah, now 20, was born in a remote village 160 miles from Freetown. His father died when he was 12 and the youngster traveled by bus to the nation’s capital. “I lived on the street for four years,” he told CNN. “I used to do so many odd jobs just to get food to eat … I used to fetch water, wash clothes.
‘The next Oprah Winfrey’
The mudslide precipitated an environmental awakening for the teenager. He learned from the television that the catastrophe was worsened by deforestation and poor waste management around the rapidly expanding capital city.
A lack of waste collection services in Freetown means garbage is often dumped in streets, gutters and river courses. This blocks drains and can leads to flooding, soil erosion and the spread of disease.
“I realized I needed to step up and do something,” says Bah. “I would be the next Oprah Winfrey.”
The teenager decided to invest his last $20 into tackling the plastic waste problem. He started working 16-hour days making recyclable bags from 70 percent banana leaves and selling them to local businesses, with their logos laboriously screen-printed onto them.
“We need to start recycling everything that we use,” he added.
Bah’s company has produced roughly 250,000 bags, and he has branched out to producing an eco-friendly alternative to charcoal.
Bah learned from YouTube how to produce smoke-free briquettes, which he says burn for four hours longer than coal or wood. He collects coconut shells, sugar cane, rice husk, and palm kernel waste from farmers and households, grinds the raw material and binds it with starch before it is extruded through a machine.
He now employs 38 workers and has made more than 120 tons of briquettes — which he says has saved more than 15,000 trees.
A country starting afresh
“My childhood was so hard for me,” says Bah. “I don’t want another person to go through the same thing, so this is one of reasons I’m doing this.”
He says some of the children he has employed to collect coconut shells have been able to go back to school with the money they earned. “We are about the families we employ, about the environment, about the people around us,” he says.
“All the young people I’ve met want to go into entrepreneurship, they want to start their own companies, so I think the picture’s bright,” he says. “You’re never too young to be a dream-maker, you’re never too young to achieve what you want to achieve.”
“Nothing is impossible,” he says. “If others can do it with $20, $10, $5, then others can do it with zero dollars. Do what you can — and do more.”