Singer moves out of Africa, into spotlight
Mariatu Kargbo takes part in the popular TV talent show Xingguang Dadao or Star Way, on China Central Television in Beijing in 2007. PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY
Sierra Leone performer wins over fans with her declaration of love for China and her philanthropic work
Mariatu Kargbo, 34, a singer and philanthropist from Sierra Leone, has been a bridge between China and Africa over the past 16 years when it comes to culture, art and friendship.
In 2004, Kargbo came to China for the first time as a high school student to compete in an international beauty contest, which was part of a kite festival in Weifang, Shandong province.
"I was so grateful for that invitation because it turned my life toward a better and luckier direction," Kargbo said. "I've always said that it was fate that brought China and me together."
After Kargbo finished participating in the Weifang pageant, she took a train to Shenzhen, Guangdong province, to meet friends from Sierra Leone. However, she fell seriously ill on the journey. A middle-aged woman, Zhang Yanling, from Xi'an, Shaanxi province, persuaded Kargbo, who couldn't speak Mandarin, to get off the train.
Zhang took her to the hospital and paid for the treatment.
"She took all the responsibility for me without knowing who I was and whether I could pay her back. I was so touched," said Kargbo who refers to Zhang as her "Xi'an mother".
Kargbo, who has since cemented her fame as a performer and is known as "The Black Pearl of China" and "Maria", has not forgotten Zhang over the past 16 years.
They maintain a close relationship and Kargbo visits her whenever she has time.
Kargbo returned to Sierra Leone after she recovered and finished high school in the country's capital, Freetown.
Growing up in Sierra Leone had been difficult. Her father died when she was young, and her biological mother suffered from psychological problems.
Kargbo was raised by a stepmother who died when the girl was 11.
She lived with friends and relatives and paid her school fees by selling water and babysitting.
All the while she harbored a dream of becoming a performer as she knew she was a good singer and dancer.
In 2004, she got her lucky break when officials from Weifang who were visiting Sierra Leone selected her to take part in the beauty contest in Shandong.
After saving enough money, she returned to China in 2006, where the people were "warm and nice", and found a job as a fashion designer with a company in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
Her big break in the entertainment industry came in 2007 when she appeared on the popular TV talent show Xingguang Dadao or Star Way.
People recognized her on the street and vendors gave her clothes. She realized that she was becoming famous, even though it was not the way she had expected, and began giving performances.
However, along with fame came criticism from some people who doubted her sincerity about her affection for China.
"Half of the people in China believed I really loved this country, but half of them thought I had just come here for money," she said. "I decided to spend my life in China because it has given me many opportunities to make a living through hard work. I love this country with all my heart."
On May 12, 2008, Kargbo was performing in Sichuan province when the Wenchuan earthquake hit. She immediately went to Wenchuan and volunteered to deliver medical supplies, becoming the first foreigner at the scene of the disaster.
"The second day, May 13, was my birthday," Kargbo said. "It was meaningful spending it helping the needy."
Since then, she has continued to support orphans who lost parents during the earthquake, providing funds for daily necessities and their education, and regularly returning to visit them.
She also supports hundreds of children in her homeland through her philanthropic work.
Kargbo signed with a cultural company in 2010.
Cheng Zhonghe, president of Smile Culture & Art (Beijing), a cultural and entertainment company based in Beijing, said Kargbo was fluent in Chinese and of good character. "I decided to sign her after she performed several times after our first meeting," he said.
"The best thing about her is her kind heart and she knows Chinese culture deeply, which has made her the only foreign artist we have signed."
Kargbo grasps every opportunity to promote China and its culture, Cheng said. She is often invited to perform at China-Africa cultural events. "She has given a lot to China," Cheng said. "I hope she has a bright future in her singing career and can do more for cultural exchanges between China and African countries."
Kargbo has also made a series of short videos called "Small, Small Chinese" to teach foreigners Mandarin.
"I hope people will learn that China is a peaceful place where people can realize their dreams no matter what color they are," she said.
"You need to know Chinese culture, which is important to understand society and people here. Then, you will get the chance to establish yourself like me; from nothing to something, from a girl selling water on the street to an artist who can make a contribution to the world."
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