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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, ter­ror­ism 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," says Awa. "We have to be able to stage what we think."

Mali is strug­gling to put down ter­ror­ism which first broke out when they cap­tured the north of the coun­try in 2012 - just when Awa 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.

Awa, 23, a dra­matic arts grad­u­ate, says 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 ten grad­u­ates ev­ery year. They are of­ten viewed with sus­pi­cion.

"There are a lot of prob­lems, but we stick to­gether, like a fam­ily," says Awa, sit­ting with the nine other ac­tors in her per­for­mance.

Bat­tling prej­u­dice

The main bar­rier, ac­cord­ing to the ac­tors, is how Malians per­ceive their pro­fes­sion. "Fam­i­lies are against it," says Aly Badra Dem­bele, 20, a stu­dent at the Na­tional Arts Academy of Ba­mako, adding that the older gen­er­a­tion thinks theatre is a waste of time.

"A lot of peo­ple think ac­tors are thugs," he says.

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," says an­other of his friends, who de­clined to be named, adding that ac­tors need to stick to­gether.

Dem­bele, the more op­ti­mistic of the troupe, says 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," Dem­bele says.

‘The ad­ven­ture’

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 NGOs.

Al­though it re­ceived no fund­ing, Awa'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 night­club, the play also fea­tured in one of Mali's

(AFP photos)

A scene from the play ‘Je ve­nais de de­fier le ciel’ by Jean Marie Am­broise Traore dur­ing the Les Prat­i­ca­bles theatre fes­ti­val in Ba­mako on De­cem­ber 16, 2019

Malian co­me­di­ans re-en­act the play ‘La tra­versee de la mort’ at Les Prat­i­ca­bles A Malian co­me­dian per­forms the play ‘Je ve­nais de de­fier le ciel’ at Les Prat­i­ca­bles

Pho­to­graph of a scene from the play ‘La tra­versee de la mort’ per­formed dur­ing the Les Prat­i­ca­bles theatre fes­ti­val in Ba­mako on De­cem­ber 14, 2019

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