Thespians battle prejudice and poverty in wartime Mali

BAMAKO (AFP) – Once the play is over and theatre-goers have gone home, Awa Bagayogo, an actor in Mali’s capital Bamako, breaks into a smile at another completed performance.

One of a small and often maligned number of actors in the conservative West African country, she and her friends stage plays about topics like migration while outside the capital, an extremist conflict rages.

Staging plays in Bamako, though, means coping not only with Mali’s daily struggles, but also with family resistance, social prejudice about acting and a lack of funding.

For most, only the love of their art keeps actors motivated.

“We want to tell the stories of our lives, the lives of young people,” said Bagayogo. “We have to be able to stage what we think.”

ABOVE & BELOW: A scene from the play Je venais de defier le ciel by Jean Marie Ambroise Traore, during the theatre festival Les Praticables in Bamako; and a Malian comedian performs in the play during the festival. PHOTOS: AFP

Malian men on horseback take part in the opening parade of the theatre festival Les Praticables through the streets of Bamako
Malian artist Gadiaba Kodio poses for a portrait in front of a car covered in ties during the opening parade of the theatre festival Les Praticables

Mali is struggling to put down an extremist revolt which first broke out when rebels captured the north of the country in 2012 – just when Bagayogo began dreaming of becoming an actor.

The conflict has since killed thousands of people, and spread to the centre of the country as well as to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Bagayogo, 23, a Dramatic Arts graduate, said that she is motivated by “passion” which was first kindled by watching her favourite film actors.

Mali has a strong tradition of indigenous theatre known as koteba but poverty and war mean few students now opt for theatre.

Bamako has two drama schools which produce about 10 graduates every year. They are often viewed with suspicion.

“There are a lot of problems, but we stick together, like a family,” said Bagayogo, sitting with the nine other actors in her performance.

The main barrier, according to the actors, is how Malians perceive their profession.

“Families are against it,” said student at the National Arts Academy of Bamako Aly Badra Dembele, 20, adding that the older generation thinks theatre is a waste of time.

“A lot of people think actors are thugs,” he said.

One of Dembele’s friends, who declined to be named, pays a high price for his passion.

His parents forbade him from appearing on stage for years, dismissing plays as “degrading”. And he and his uncle, with whom he lives in Bamako, no longer speak.

“We’re there for him,” said another one of his friends, who declined to be named, adding that actors need to stick together.

Dembele, the more optimistic of the troupe, said there’s no point to being an actor in Mali unless “you give it everything”.

But others were more dispassionate, pointing out getting a theatre company job in Mali, as in other sectors, often depends on family contacts.

The profession is poorly paid, too. All have other jobs on the side. Some work as masons, for example, and others have internships with the customs agency.

“We’ve got to eat,” said Dembele.

Theatre has always been prolific in Mali because of its important place in the culture of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Bambara.

But traditional performances are giving way to plays with contemporary social themes, often financed by the government, international organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Although it received no funding, Bagayogo’s troupe recently staged a play about migrating to Europe – a perilous journey across desert and sea which they simply call “the adventure”.

Many Malians dream of migrating because of poor job prospects and war at home.

Performed in an open-air night club, the play was also featured in one of Mali’s few theatre festivals in December 2019, called Les Practicables after the French term for modular stage.

Lack of funds means actors often put on plays where they can, such as outdoors, or in courtyards, said, Festival Director Lamine Diarra.

Traditional theatre, and stage classics such as Shakespeare, are still the model for most young actors. However, the new funded social theatre is opening doors.

“(It) allows us to perform and travel a bit, I was able to go to Sikasso,” said Dembele, referring to a city in southern Mali.

Such an event is rare in a country where war has dramatically curtailed freedom of movement. Northern Mali, where the army is battling extremists, is out of bounds.

Even so, Bagayogo said in 10 years she sees herself far from where she is today thanks to her life in theatre.

“Not necessarily far geographically, but in mentality,” she said.