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Artists Fight Violence with Music in Sierra Leone


In a crowded street in downtown Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, artists staged a concert calling for political tolerance and non-violence during next weekend's presidential and legislative elections. The concert was one of many that the group of musicians and actors has organized in the past two weeks, in a bid to encourage Sierra Leone's grassroots to respond peacefully to the upcoming election. Selah Hennessy reports from Freetown.

Over a dozen artists gathered on a makeshift stage in the heart of Freetown on Tuesday, rallying a crowd of several hundred with songs of peace and unity.

The artists, wearing t-shirts that read "shed no blood for power", shouted patriotic messages to the audience, who sat and stood in circles around them and on rooftops across the street.

This is one of many concerts that have been organized by the "Artists for Peace", as they are called, since the initiative, sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, was begun three weeks ago.

Wahid, one of Sierra Leone's most popular musicians, is the group's spokesman. He says the initiative came about after the artist's heard reports of violence in the country as the election was drawing near.

"Following the news, we have been hearing a lot of violent reports and so we think as musicians we have a civic roles and responsibilities," he said. "As members of society, we fill concerned, that we should come together and try and see if we can influence violent-free elections."

He says the artists felt they could use their roles as musicians and actors to influence the grassroots of Sierra Leone.

"We think if we come out and tell them, do not engage in any violent activities this time around, in these elections, we just think that they will listen to us," he said.

He says it is important that the artists use their influence to emphasize the message of peace, because politicians have not pushed the issue enough.

"If you leave it up to the politicians, the majority, or 90 percent of what they will be telling their supporters is the vote for me, vote for me thing, and then 10 percent will be do not get involved in violence," Wahid said. "So we are making this a 100 percent priority thing - to tell them that this is a very sensitive issue."

Ernest Brewah is a famous Sierra Leonean comedian.

Making jokes with the audience, he is dressed in a multi-colored suit, which he says represents the colors of each political party, and a hat printed with the colors of Sierra Leone's national flag.

He says Sierra Leone's security remains fragile after civil war ravaged the country for over a decade, and that the country must be careful not to regress back to violence.

"If we decide to fight, we are only killing development and that is why we are out here today, talking to the people, using musical instruments, drama, comedy - you name it," he said.

He says music and comedy can help divert violence because they dilute the stress of daily life, and politics.

"In a conflict situation, in a war situation, you can get a comedian to go and ease the minds of the fighters, so that is what we did during the war," he said. "You know, we performed comedy and people were laughing and they forget about the pressure."

Many young people in the audience say they agree with the no-violence message of the concerts, and themselves plan to behave well on election day.

"It is important for us to let us stop violence and some of the things that bring trouble and catastrophe in this country," said Sorie Kargbo, who is 20 years old.

Despite the work of the "Artists for Peace" security in Sierra Leone still seems fragile.

Some Sierra Leoneans have been leaving the country ahead of the elections, fearful that violence will break out as voting begins.