Gaza gang leader leaves streets for life of poetry

Yousef Kamara [Photo: Courtesy]

In his poem "Rough Path", Yousef Kamara reflects on his years of 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, Mr Kamara now hopes his journey to acclaim as a poet can offer an example to other wayward youths in Freetown, where increasing numbers are joining gangs modelled on the Bloods and Crips of Los Angeles, US.

Kamara has been published in several international poetry magazines and was invited last year 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.

Beat somebody up

"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," said Kamara, who stands about six-feet tall with short dreadlocks and large biceps covered in tattoos.

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Yousef Kamara holds his daughter Stylvia in front of their house in Freetown, Sierra Leone [Photo: REUTERS/Cooper Inveen]

Tired of life on the streets, however, he began looking for an exit and found one through Way Out, a media studio founded by an English filmmaker in 2008, which encourages underprivileged young people to enter the arts.

Kamara decided to try his handwriting poems after seeing some of his friends enrol in a poetry course. He quickly took to it, tapping out verses on his beat-up cell phone.

"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 Gibrilla Kamara (no relation to Yousef) who is Way Out's office manager and a former member who spent much of his life homeless.

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Kamara said he would like to establish his own organisation 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 devastating 1991-2002 civil war to join gangs, researchers say.