Performing Arts: Multi-talented Sierra Leonean Artiste Wins Chinese Hearts
Mariatu Kargbo’s music depicts the cultural affinity between Africa and China.
Mariatu Kargbo or Maria, as she is fondly called in China where she lives, is a familiar face in the country’s entertainment industry. Her performing arts talents have in the past 13 years raised her to international fame. A Sierra Leonean artiste in her last twenties, Maria is a fashion model and judge, Miss Sierra Leone 2009, Miss World 2009 pageant participant, coming amongst the top 10. She won two awards at the beauty competition – Best Talent and Best Fashion. Maria is also a film actress and Chinese opera performer.
The first of her three musical albums, “Mama Africa,” was released in Sierra Leone in 2004. She used the 2,000 US dollars (1.1 million FCFA) proceeds to assist war victims back home. The album sold about 5,000 copies. Before then, she won a musical competition in Sierra Leone and used the prize money to record “Mama Africa.” The second album, “Marry Chinese,” which was released in 2010, talks of falling in love with Chinese culture. It sold at least 10,000 copies. “I love China, the people’s hard work and the assistance the country offers to Africa,” explains Maria.
Her most recent album, “Thank you China,” which was released two years ago, celebrates China-Africa cooperation and the many inter-marriages resulting from it. “China has invested more in Africa than the nations that colonized the continent. We now have new roads and rail lines that facilitate movements both for the rich and poor,” the former fashion model underscores. Mariatu Kargbo’s multi-faceted career also includes acting in more than 10 movies in China, all directed by renowned professionals.
Maria became the first foreigner and woman to study and perform “bianlian” - a Chinese Sichuan Opera skill that involves changing facemasks at lightning speed - at the 2009 Miss World pageant. She was also the first foreigner to join the first Red Cross team that began rescuing victims of the May 12, 2008 earthquake that killed 80,000 people in China’s Sichuan Province. She served for more than three weeks before falling sick. During which she visited hospitals, encouraged and sang for earthquake survivors. Maria continues to support five children from Sichuan, and takes care of 680 Sierra Leonean children.
In April 2012, she led 1,002 dancers in performing her traditional song, “Pinam,” in the National Stadium in Freetown, setting Sierra Leone’s first Guinness World Record for the largest “Sampa” dance performance. In May 2012, President Ernest Bai Koroma appointed Maria Kargbo Sierra Leone’s Cultural Ambassador-at-large.
Maria is a lady of many other firsts. She was the first artiste to perform at the grande finale of the 2009 Miss World Beauty Pageant in China where she did “bianlian” or the “face-changing” ancient Chinese opera art. During the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea Conakry and Liberia, Kargbo, in partnership with the World Food Programme, mobilized people to donate to assist victims. The result was a whooping 400,000 emails received within 24 hours, thereby entering the Guinness Book of Records.
Meanwhile, Maria has worked her way to success in spite of a difficult childhood. Her father died one month after her birth, causing her mother to develop psychological problems. She was eventually hospitalized for mental illness. Maria’s stepmother who brought her up died when she was only 8 years. With no one else to raise her, Maria hawked iced water and worked as housemaid to take care of herself and pay school expenses. She was finally reunited with her mother at the age of 11. Maria’s mother visited her in China in 2011 and died not long after returning home.