Every evening at the National stadium compound in Freetown, Michael Kargbo leads acting workshops for a group of about 30 young people. All agree that this evening activity is the highlight of their day.
Outside the gates the whiff of smoking marijuana joints beckon, but these aspiring actors have bigger things to worry about, such as their lines, costumes and sets.
Kargbo’s group Jamcast was founded in 2001 and he’s been using performing arts as a medium to keep young people in Freetown out of trouble ever since.
In Sierra Leone, 60 per cent of the youth are unemployed. Rampant unemployment was one of the main reasons for the rebel-led civil war between 1992 and 2002, so obviously there’s cause for concern as dissatisfaction grows over the lack of jobs.
In December last year, the eastern and central streets of Freetown saw violence erupt between two rival music gangs; this was not a unique incident. Cases of youth violence are disturbingly common and there is a desperate need to get young people involved in nonviolent pursuits.
When I visited them on a Sunday evening, Jamcast were gathered in a large circle behind the bleachers, doing warm-up exercises, stretching their legs and throwing their voices. They’ve been receiving training in basic acting, body language and voice modulation, all of which instill discipline.
Next door is an Olympic-sized swimming pool, which was transformed from a sporting venue to a makeshift nightclub. Apart from the beaches, there is a lack of open spaces such as the stadium for recreational activities. About 97 per cent of these students are unemployed.
‘I use them in the films and plays I make, and they get a huge sense of achievement from this,’ Kargbo says. It’s not like he’s exploiting them: the films are made on incredibly small budgets, usually between $700 and $1000, and rarely break even. If a film does make a profit, then Kargbo pays his actors and crew.
Most of the participants were drawn here because of their obsession with Indian and Hollywood films. ‘I love Halle Berry,’ says 26-year-old Kadijah Koroma. She finds acting fulfilling, even though she makes little money. ‘I’m following my passion. I’m hopeful that one day it’ll pay off.’ She hopes to make it big, like her Hollywood role model.
Kargbo says that young people often use his group as a way to mend their ways. He points out a young porn star who recently made headlines over a sex scandal. ‘She’s trying to find something more meaningful to do,’ says Kargbo. It wouldn’t be wrong to call his sessions almost therapeutic.
Of course, Jamcast is not the only theatre group in town. But groups such as this one are few in number. Kargbo keeps his group away from drugs and violence, and the parents of his students are incredibly grateful. Many of those present have never been to school or university. ‘This is their only avenue to interact with people their age in a positive environment,’ he says.