Bamako (AFP)

Awa Bagayogo does not hide her joy at being able to play in front of an audience: this does not happen so often in Bamako. In the capital of Mali at war, doing theater is still a priesthood for young people with easy speech.

Everything is a story of "passion", repeats the 23-year-old actress, with a dramatic art diploma in her pocket and ambition in her head. "I started after watching movies on television. It was the film actors, those who play a role, that I liked," she explains to AFP with a broad smile, once spectators gone.

She was 15 years old, it was in the 2010s, when she caught the comedy virus. During these same years, the war took over Mali, under fire from independence groups in the north of the country, then from jihadists. And violence has spread to central Mali and neighboring countries, Niger and Burkina Faso in the lead.

But in Bamako, the capital little affected by the violence, a dozen students continue to receive their drama diploma each year. Two schools exist: the National Institute of Arts in Bamako (INA, a cultural learning center at the undergraduate level), and the Conservatory of Arts, at the master's level.

They are a must for contenders for the performing arts. "There are a lot of problems, but we are together, like a family," said Awa, seated in the middle of the nine other actors who played with her that evening. She has four years of theater on the clock, and does not intend to stop despite the thousand difficulties.

- Overcome prejudice -

The first of these is the gaze of others. "Families oppose it. The theater has always been bullshit for our parents, the actors are not respected, many think they are thugs", summarizes Aly Badra Dembélé, 20 years old. In a society with many standards, the actor is little recognized.

One of Aly's comrades at the INA pays a high price: his parents refused several years for him to take the stage, deeming the outlets "degrading". And his uncle, who shelters him in Bamako, no longer speaks to him. "So we stick together, we help each other, we're there for him," said one of his friends.

"When you opt for a profession like that here, you have to give your all, otherwise it is useless", assures Aly, a red cap screwed on the head.

Other actors temper: "Motivation is good, but if you don't have the network to join a company, if you don't have the right parents or good cousins, it's complicated". In the theater as in many sectors in Mali, clientelism is king.

All do odd jobs nearby to live: masonry, an internship at customs ... "We must eat. If you want to do theater, you need power," says Aly.

- In a nightclub -

Students - except one, self-taught -, the ten young actors wrote and played a play on "the adventure", the perilous migration towards Europe which makes dream of thousands of young Africans, for lack of opportunities or to flee violence .

This play, performed in an old open-air nightclub, was programmed in December as part of the "Les Praticables" festival, one of the only theater events in Mali.

"We imagined (the festival) taking into account the context of Mali: we have no room, no help with creation, we lack training, and therefore events often take place outside, in class "homes," says Lamine Diarra, director of the Passenger cars.

If the scene has always been prolific in Mali - the theater is one of the pillars of the Bambara culture -, it has gradually changed its face. From a recreational and ritual theater, the performances have become "useful": funded by international organizations, NGOs or the State, they aim to raise awareness on social issues.

This theater "allows us to play and tour a bit, I was able to go to Sikasso (south)", says Aly, even if the models of these young actors remain Shakespeare and the kotèba, the traditional theater.

Since the start of the war, mobility has been reduced like a grain of sorrow: northern Mali, like a large part of Burkina Faso, where jihadists and armed groups fight, are areas which escape the authority of the State.

"But we want to tell our lives, our lives as young people. We have to manage to stage what we think," said Awa Bagayogo, who sees himself "very far in 10 years". "Not necessarily far geographically, but in the mentality, in the way we see the theater in Mali".

© 2020 AFP