Dakar — Janet Badjan-Young saw how performing arts could provide unemployed young Gambians with an alternative to illegally migrating to Europe when one of her students was offered a job immediately after his first show.
One of Gambia's most prolific award-winning playwrights and the founder in 2011 of its first performing arts venue, Ebunjan Theatre, 81-year-old Badjan-Young has since used theatre to teach youth job skills and about the dangers of migration.
"(Drama) provides them the skills you need - discipline, creativity, communication skills," said Badjan-Young, who was celebrated as a "TAF icon" on Friday by the TAF Africa Foundation, a charity focused on youth empowerment in Gambia.
"I didn't realise it would have such an impact," she said, adding that all of the dozens of young people she has worked with in the poor West African country are now employed in jobs ranging from communications to management consulting.
Thousands of young men leave the tiny country each year to take the "back way" - the dangerous, illegal route to Europe through the Sahara and across the treacherous Mediterranean Sea - out of frustration with a lack of opportunities at home.
Gambia has the world's highest rate of migration to Europe per capita, with about 4,500 Gambians out of a population of 2 million making the journey in 2018.
Badjan-Young wrote a play in 2017 about migration called "Backway: The Desperate Route to Babylon" - which was performed in more than a dozen schools last year. Afterwards she led discussions about why young people were leaving.
"You can see that at least it set the ball rolling. They were thinking about other options," she said.
The European Union (EU) has also invested in the arts in Gambia in an effort to prevent young peoplerisking their lives in the desert and sea.
The EU-backed Gambia Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) funded a dance competition at Ebunjan Theatre and revived an annual masquerade festival as part of its efforts to help potential migrants pursue their interests and find work at home.
"The idea is to preserve culture but also do it in a way that it provides support to the community and income streams for young Gambians," said Raimund Moser, YEP's project manager.
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- Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Katy Migiro