In his poem Rough Path, Yousef Kamara reflects on his years selling drugs and stealing as the leader of a street gang in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
“Like a traveller in a rough jungle/Self propelling all alone/Edging through danger sharper than blades/My rough path is a cracked zone,” he writes.
After quitting the gang three years ago, Kamara now hopes his journey to acclaim as a poet can offer an example to other young people in Freetown, where increasing numbers are joining gangs.
Kamara has been published in several international poetry magazines and was invited in 2019 to attend the African Writers Conference in Kenya.
It is a dramatic turnaround for someone who spent the majority of his life leading Giverdam Gaza, a gang of several dozen members he founded as a teenager on Freetown’s Exodus Lane.
“If you were looking for some thugs … to beat somebody up, you’d just rush down Exodus Lane and get the Giverdam boys to do the job,” Kamara said.
As he grew tired of life on the streets, he found an exit through Way Out, a media studio founded by an English filmmaker in 2008 that encourages underprivileged young people to enter the arts. Kamara decided to try his hand writing poems after seeing some of his friends enroll in a poetry course. He quickly took to it, tapping out verses on his beat-up cellphone.
“You need to give people … something they can take back to their communities and say, ‘I’m not the bad guy you used to know,’” said Way Out’s office manager Gibrilla Kamara, who is not related to Yousef.
Kamara said he would like to establish his own organization to help vulnerable young people build self-esteem and shift “from crime to career.”
The challenge is pressing. Across Sierra Leone, dire economic conditions, including runaway unemployment, have led many born after the country’s 1991-2002 civil war to join gangs, researchers say.
Kamara thinks poetry can be a powerful tool in combating that trend by forcing young people to be honest with themselves.
“When writing a poem, if you can be sincere with what you’ve seen, what you feel, what you’ve heard, you’ll never need to fabricate any story,” he said.