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War-ravaged Liberia reclaiming its culture

MONROVIA, Liberia -- For 35 weeks, Kekura Kamara was a star.

It happened in the waning days of a brutal dictatorship, as Liberia was slipping into an even more brutal civil war, but for 35 episodes Kamara's TV sitcom let Liberians forget.On Wednesday nights at 8:30, bars emptied, university students cut class, and anyone well off enough to own a television became a 30-minute celebrity.

The "Malawala Balawala" show, with its sprawling cast and wandering plots, ranged over sitcom cliches and social satire -- from lovers hidden in bags of cassava to gentle warnings about lost traditions. Kamara, who still has trouble explaining exactly what the show was about, became famous playing Balawala, a young villager who came to Monrovia and lurched through life in the late 1980s.

But when the war came, Kamara lost it all. The scripts and videotapes of his 35 shows became nothing more than post-looting debris, garbage on the floor of Monrovia's television station.

Now, three years after the war ended, Kamara is joining a slowly resurgent cultural tide. Filmmakers, comedians, novelists, poets, actors and dancers are returning to the wreckage of Liberia -- and to their crafts.

"I had to survive," said Kamara, 46, who has just finished work on the latest chapter in the life of Balawala. "I had to come back and tell the stories."

Liberia's 1989-96 civil war ravaged the West African nation. It killed 200,000 people, forced 1.3 million from their homes and turned Monrovia into a city divided by warlords and reduced to rubble by looters and fighters.

The war also cut deeply into Liberia's cultural heart, annihilating its artistic life, and leaving its heritage to molder in trash heaps. Libraries were burned, movie theaters looted, museum collections decimated.

The things that helped define Liberia as a nation -- everything from hundred-year-old Mandingo drums to movie scripts -- disappeared into the maw of combat. Terrified artists and writers fled to sprawling refugee camps or the relative safety of the forests.

"We lost ourselves," Kamara said.

Liberia's national museum lost more than 95 percent of its collection. What remains -- a handful of old musical instruments, a 30-year-old presidential portrait crudely sutured back together and a couple hundred photographs of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia -- is scattered across battered tables in a leaky building.

The museum cannot offer even a blurry vision of Liberia's past, a rich melange of African and American cultures.

The director, Robert Cassell, dreams of rebuilding the collection but knows nearly everything valuable was destroyed or sold abroad.

"People need to see the foundation of their country" he said, fingering a grenade casing he found in the museum's backyard.

Although the fighting has ended, Liberia remains a shattered country.

There is no city-supplied electricity, no clean water and few jobs. The illiteracy rate, fed by nearly a decade of closed schools, is more than 70 percent. Monrovia, the seaside capital, is slowly rebuilding, but much of the city is still a bullet-riddled disaster.

"The war destroyed a lot," said Quincy T, a hulking radio disc jockey and gospel singer who recently returned to Monrovia after three years in Sweden. "You go to the archive center, the museum, it's all gone,"

But like Kamara and dozens of others, he has been drawn back, pulled in by homesickness, the lure of hometown audiences and a chance to help rebuild his country's cultural life.

He insists that chalking Liberia up as just another war-wracked nation is unfair.

"We have a great country," he said. "You think it's just a 'war-torn country,' but it's more than that. We enjoy life here."

So they do.

Like their American cousins, Liberians are in love with television, with movies and with celebrities.

And Kamara, a smooth-talking, round-faced man given to camouflage ties and cheerful hyperbole, was one of the biggest.

"We were very, very, very famous," he said, smiling broadly.

Today, 10 years after "Malawala Balawala" entranced Liberia, everyone from market women to high-powered lawyers remembers Kamara's moment in the Liberian limelight.

"Everybody would go running home at night to watch it," said Benedict Sannoh, an attorney.

Like Jerry Seinfeld, Kamara created not just a phenomenally popular television show but also a cultural touchstone. Where "Seinfeld" parodied the self-obsessions of spoiled urbanites, "Malawala Balawala" teased Liberians about the army of country boys who had moved to the steamy capital, searching for easy money and loose women.

He was arrested early in the war, escaped with the help of a fan and eventually fled to neighboring Ivory Coast. He keeps his home in Ivory Coast for now.

Earlier this year, Kamara returned to Liberia to film the latest chapter in Balawala's life, a straight-to-video comedy called "The Forbidden Island."

The movie, a fable about a kidnapped baby, village taboos and monsters, is hardly Hollywood fare. Kamara shot it with a cheap video camera and all-but-unpaid actors.

That wasn't the point.

To a recent audience of refugees living in Ivory Coast, the movie was a reflection of home, a memory of pre-war Liberia, and they laughed like children at the slapstick humor.