17 Years After Losing Her Arm, Memuna McShane Is Finding Her Place

Photo: Carol Guzy/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
A four-year-old Memuna meets then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton in 2000.
In our series A Class Of Their Own, Refinery29 is following five college freshwomen from across the country as they define their identities and relationships.

Memuna Mansaray McShane is getting a little tired of talking about her missing right arm. "It's all there online," she says. "I'm not gonna say anything new or anything." And it's true: The story of how militia bullets shattered two-year-old Memuna's arm and killed her grandmother as she cradled Memuna during a 1998 attack in the Sierra Leone Civil War is well-documented.

The toddler captured international attention a year later, in 1999, when she was selected from a refugee camp at the request of Sierra Leone's then-president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to become a global symbol of the country's devastating conflict. Dubbed "Peace Girl," Memuna went on to testify before Congress and meet such leaders as then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton — not that she remembers these experiences. Now, 19-year-old Memuna's not reluctant to share what she knows of her past, but she's more interested in her present as a freshman majoring in film and television at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
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Dubbed "Peace Girl," Memuna testified before Congress and met such leaders as Madeleine Albright and Bill and Hillary Clinton

Her path to this present looks more like a "typical" American teen's than Memuna's early life would suggest. When Memuna was four years old, the Rotary Foundation brought her to the U.S. for medical treatment. At age six, she was adopted by American couple Kelly and Kevin McShane and moved from foster care in New York to their home in Washington, D.C., gaining a two-months-older brother, Michael, and a two-years-older sister, Molly. "They're like my best friends," Memuna says of her family. "We always text each other on [our group chat], like every day — we always tell each other about big news or whatever is happening in our lives." In the McShane household, Memuna grew up playing soccer and basketball, drawing and painting with enthusiasm, and hanging out with her friends and tight-knit family.
Photo: Courtesy Of Memuna McShane.
Memuna with her mother Kelly, father Kevin, sister Molly, and brother Michael.
She's appreciated her family's support even more since her September move to Savannah, Georgia to begin her first year at SCAD, a school she chose because she felt it would teach her to harness her artistic talent to create a financially secure future. Memuna likes her classes: English, design, and drawing, which are "foundation studies" required as part of the SCAD Core program.

Socially, though, the adjustment hasn't been easy. "It feels like everybody here is all chummy, best friends, and I feel like I'm not," she sighs. And she's mystified by how fast her fellow students are moving romantically. "It seems like everybody here is in a relationship," she observes. "I don’t get how they have boyfriends or whatever so quickly!"

Memuna hasn't been enticed by the party scene at college. During her downtime, she's more likely to be watching Netflix (she loves Once Upon a Time and Charmed) or grabbing Mexican food off campus than drinking. "I've been kind of a lame college student," she reflects, only half-joking. "I was also a lame high school student; parties are never really that fun for me." She enjoyed close friendships in high school — she and her friends would "go to movies and then dinner; that was always really fun," she says — and she's looking for the same in Savannah.
"In this painting, she is a queen of her species — a tiger/human hybrid. I wanted to make her look relaxed and a down-to-earth kind of queen, one where you know she's queen without her wearing her crown." —Memuna
She thinks she might have a solution: student groups. While Memuna's given up sports for now due to a nasty case of tendonitis in her knees, she isn't short on other interests. "I joined the cosplay club," she reports. "I love anime and manga... And then I'm doing an African Studies Group. I'm putting all my money on clubs. Hopefully I find my people there."
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She has made one reliable friend, her roommate Charity, who accompanied Memuna recently when she went to get her first tattoo: the quote "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" inscribed in a circle around the remainder of Memuna's right arm, which she calls her "little arm." She'd heard a student in her English class recite the saying recently and though she'd heard it before, this time it resonated, made her feel a little stronger. Memuna shares that this year she's felt her childhood trauma begin to resurface for the first time. "All these feelings I've been suppressing through the years, it's all coming back now," she says. "It's like, I don’t know, it's like my brain feels like I'm ready to feel things again little by little."
Image: Courtesy Of Memuna McShane.
Memuna's circular tattoo reads "When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going."
Memuna's parents have always been frank with her about her history; it was from them that she first learned about it. "I'd say I didn’t know what happened to me until I got adopted," she states. "I didn’t even know I had a family until I was six." Kevin and Kelly struck up close relationships with Memuna's three biological brothers, whom the McShanes have visited in Sierra Leone.

They also established that Memuna could call them by their first names, rather than "Mom" and "Dad." Her siblings don't have the same privilege: "They get in trouble if they do that," she explains, because Kevin and Kelly are the only parents that Michael and Molly have — "but also I have [other] parents, a mom and dad, [and] they're dead, [so] I just can't call [Kelly and Kevin] 'Mom' and 'Dad.'"

While Memuna's now-tattooed "little arm" is far from her only defining feature, to her frustration, it's still the most immediately noticeable. Other students haven't asked her about it, but college staff do, often. "I just want to go outside wearing a tank top or whatever without people looking at me, asking all these questions," Memuna says. "That’s why I keep wearing sweaters to dinner and stuff like that. I was gonna try to break that habit in college, but seems like it might take longer."

I keep wearing sweaters to dinner and stuff like that. I was gonna try to break that habit in college, but seems like it might take longer.

For now, Memuna is focusing on her classes and keeping in touch with her family, with an eye to the film and TV major she'll be able to pursue once her foundation studies are out of the way. Moviemaking is a new passion of hers, one in line with her skill set. "I've always been visually creative," she explains, adding that at a SCAD orientation in June, "TV and movie producing kind of just spoke to me."
Memuna says that while she's been told that she should make a documentary about her life, she prefers action movies and rom-coms. Still, the expectations of others weigh on her. "A lot of my family and people I meet, they are always like, 'When are you gonna make it big? You're gonna be someone one day.' And it's just a lot of pressure," she admits. "What if I don’t even want to make it big? I don’t want to be famous — that would be so annoying."
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