Once an orphan in Sierra Leon, Mariatu Kargo has overcome all odds to establish herself as a successful artist in China

By Koceila Bouhanik
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail ChinAfrica, December 14, 2020
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Mariatu Kargbo with students of Maria Primary School, Freetown, Sierra Leone [Courtesy Photo]

Between TV shows, studio appearances, interviews, ceremonies and charitable work, Mariatu Kargbo, popularly known as "a Black Pearl of China," has a never-ending agenda. But for the Sierra Leonean artist, the road to success in China was a long and arduous one.

After living in China for more than 15 years, Mariatu has built a new life in the country. Her life story is closer to a TV drama than a fairy tale, and does have a happy ending. To begin with, her childhood was far from perfect. After losing her father when she was barely 3 months old, Mariatu was raised by her stepmother until tragedy struck again. At 11 years of age, she was left to fend for herself after her stepmother passed away. On her deathbed, she revealed that Mariatu's birth mother was still alive. Left alone, the young girl embarked on her life quest: finding her biological mother at all costs. But this quest took many years to realize.

Mariatu spent most of her time with her friends during her childhood. To survive, she sold water on the street and did housework, struggling daily to earn a living and pay for her school fees. "But I had a dream: to become someone," she said.

Chinese destiny

In 2004, Mariatu, then a high school student, had the opportunity to travel to China to participate in a beauty contest. The young girl grabbed it with both hands, with the incredible energy of youth. Competing against 100 contestants from all over the world, the Black Pearl ended up on the podium.

After her unexpected win, a second life-changing event happened to her when she was traveling around China. While she was on the train to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province in south China, Mariatu suddenly felt a very sharp pain in her abdomen. Her appendix was about to burst. Zhang Yanling, a passenger on the same train, immediately came to her rescue. She then sent Mariatu to the hospital and covered all her medical expenses. Like a guardian angel, Zhang appeared in Mariatu's life and saved her.

The meeting between the young girl with the woman she now calls her "ganma" (adoptive mother) changed her destiny and united the two souls in an unbreakable bond.

Although Mariatu returned to Sierra Leone soon after her meeting with Zhang, the teenager left China with certitude that she had found her "second home," a place where she would be able to "give back to the world" everything she had received.

This is a goal that, once again, took her many years to achieve. Three years after her first visit to China, in early 2007, Mariatu obtained a position in an Italian design company in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province. This job marked her first step toward fulfilling her dream. "I wanted to say thank you to China and the Chinese," she recalled. "I wanted them to know that I consider myself an African-Chinese woman, as one of them."

Zhang Yanling, her surrogate mother in China, did the utmost to support her. When an opportunity finally presented itself, Mariatu jumped at it without hesitation. The young woman made a very noticeable appearance in the hugely popular television show Xingguang Dadao, a program that showcases musical talents and other artistic prodigies. Her participation proved to be a success and paved the way for her to become a well-known artist.

Wearing her heart on her sleeve

"Giving back." The Black Pearl uses these words all the time. And she walks the talk, too. “I try to be humble because I think I have to give back to others, and that's my mission. Concretely, Mariatu has always been involved in humanitarian activities in Africa, particularly in her native Sierra Leone, where she has supported the opening of a school for underprivileged children.

Nevertheless, to fully grasp the magnitude of her devotion to good causes, it is necessary to look back at the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in 2008. Following the disaster, Mariatu volunteered for relief work and was even involved in complex, dangerous operations in mountainous areas that had become impossible to access.

"That day, I was willing to die," she said with a fire in her eyes. "When my life was in danger, a Chinese woman didn't hesitate to step up to save my life. So, I was determined to give my life in return for China.

Since she came to China, Mariatu has been breaking boundaries. Whatever project she undertakes, she is usually the first woman, the first African, or the first black person to do it.

This year, the pandemic offered her another opportunity to prove her love for the country. She volunteered once again to be on the front line, at the entrance of her residence, to monitor other residents' temperature. Despite being outside all day in the middle of winter, fighting the biting cold, she did not give up. She even volunteered to extend her assignment until June, when the other volunteers had already left.

“I think of myself as a bridge between communities, between Africa and China, and I will continue to work toward that goal, no matter what happens," she explained. “I will never forget what China has done for me, and I want to leave a legacy. I want people to remember the story of an orphan girl who grew up on the streets, who had nothing, but who believed in herself and in the change she could bring to this world. This is the image of Africa that I want to leave to China and the message that I want to convey.

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