With a youthful energy and stylish flair, 27-year-old Pascal Masuba speaks passionately. His outfit is carefully coordinated: modern circular glasses, flashy pants covered with images of tigers that he designed himself, a matching scarf. He claims that he was a shy child, an absurd idea to anyone who encounters him. He has unique charisma: when he talks, you’re drawn to listen.
I met him at his presentation called “Impact Beyond Measure” — a powerful testament to how his time as one of Sierra Leone’s Golden Kids sculpted the rest of his life.
Pascal was born at the dawn of Sierra Leone’s long and brutal civil war. He grew up in its shadows. The conflict lasted for 11 long years, during which sexual abuse against women was rampant, children were recruited as soldiers, human rights violations were widespread.
He discovered himself at the war’s resolution in 2002. Around this time, his father sent him to live with his aunt, Frances Fortune, who then served as Country Director for Search – Sierra Leone.
It was Frances who introduced Pascal to Golden Kids, our radio show which turned children into reporters producing news programs for their young peers. Early in the peace process, when the trauma of human rights abuses against children was still fresh, this was a radical idea. It reshaped the paradigm that labeled children as helpless victims of the war, giving them power and agency. It elevated their perspectives and voices and raised awareness of the violence they faced. It changed public perceptions of what role they could play in rebuilding Sierra Leone after more than a decade of war.
Thanks to the infrastructure and reach of our acclaimed national radio production house, Talking Drum Studio, the show could enter hundreds of thousands of homes around the country. For Pascal, it was an enticing opportunity to make a difference, and he did not hesitate to take it. Not even a teenager, he was covering stories about rape, domestic violence, child marriages, and post-war stigma.
At first, reporting was hard for him. “Coming out of my shell was difficult,” Pascal explained. “You really need to be bold and I found that very difficult. Going out in the public alone to do interviews was a bold step.”
His first field trip as a Golden Kid took place in the western part of Sierra Leone, far away from his home. It was a long journey on a bad road, he recounted, and the first time he stayed by himself in a hotel. “I realized I was in a strange land. Most of the people I saw there were totally different,” he confessed.
This experience gave Pascal the confidence he needed to engage with the people around him and share their stories. In a sense, it shaped the rest of his life. It taught him how to be comfortable in unfamiliar circumstances, how to be accepting of differences, and, of course, “how to be bold,” as he mentions several times during his presentation.
After he broke the ice with his first interview, he was hooked. He continued as a Golden Kid for several years. On one special occasion, he even interviewed then-President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. When it came to questions, Pascal and his peers did not hold back. “We asked him different things on issues regarding children, why rape cases were not properly handled… really some tough, challenging questions.” He was only 12 at the time.
For him, the fact that he was able to do that at such a young age underscored one of the many victories of Golden Kids: the show allowed children to truly understand the problems affecting them from another child’s perspective. It broke down the barrier of ‘adult problems’ and ‘children’s problems’ and instead tackled all issues as ‘society’s problems.’
Pascal believes that there are no topics that are not child-friendly; it’s the way we talk about them that needs to be sensitized. You can talk about sexual abuse with children, he said, but you must do it in a way that a child can understand. In the end, these issues also affect children, and so they need to be discussed with them. Their voices matter. They need to be heard.
Through Golden Kids, Pascal had another major revelation: the power of one child giving another child a message of hope is unmatched. “Some of the issues that children in conflict zones are going through now are really similar to some of the issues other children have also gone through,” he said, highlighting the importance of sharing experiences among peers in order to overcome trauma. “Stories really have the power to heal.”
“Sometimes saying ‘be strong’ is not enough,” he continued. “Children need an example of a time you were faced with a difficult situation and how you stayed strong, how you overcame it, and how that relates to [their] lives.”
Since his time as a Golden Kid, Pascal has continued his mission to inspire and empower children both in Sierra Leone and around the world.
In 2009, he noticed that many kids in his community, particularly girls, were dropping out of school because they struggled to pass their exams. In response, he founded the Zenith Academy, an afterschool program that provided a safe place for girls to study and socialize. “Over time, I came to realize that these girls not only appreciated what I taught them [as a tutor], they also felt comfortable because they had the opportunity to meet other girls,” he said. “Zenith transformed from an academic-based environment to a safe space where they could share their problems and interact.”
He continued to work on behalf of children with BRAC, a non-profit that seeks to improve the lives of those in poverty. BRAC sent him on a 6-month training mission to Bangladesh. It was a completely foreign environment to him: he didn’t know the language, the cultural norms, the food. But the lessons he learned from that first interview as a Golden Kid propelled him to success. He became familiar with the local culture and figured out how to get people to truly open up to him about the issues that they were having.
Then, when Ebola broke out in his native Sierra Leone, Pascal worked with BRAC to reintegrate survivors into their villages and neighborhoods. On one occasion, the community refused to take back a young girl who had been infected, fearing that she was still contagious. Pascal decided to pick her up and hold her: if he was not afraid to get sick, they should not be either. Because of this small action, she was accepted back into her home.
After participating in the competitive Atlas Corps Fellowship, volunteering with World Vision, and becoming a 2017 Andrew E. Rice Award Recipient, today Pascal is an intern with our West Africa Team in Washington, DC.
As he looked back on the past and told me his story, he expressed pride in how far Sierra Leone has come since the end of the war. “I feel like Sierra Leone has made a lot of progress on child issues because children now know their rights and are protected.” He said that sexual violence is still a major issue, but “in the area of teenage pregnancy and [childhood] marriage, the awareness is really out there.”
As the country prepares for the elections in March, he is hopeful for the future and excited about the role that our radio programs keep playing in the lead up to the vote. While Golden Kids has ended several years ago, Talking Drum Studio is still a household name, one of the most active and influential radio production studios in Sierra Leone.
Consistently, Pascal underscored just how life-changing his time as a Golden Kid was. He said that had he not been part of the radio show, he would have never realized that his lifelong passion is to inspire and heal other people.
Before we parted, he reaffirmed his belief that children are key to building healthier, safer, more just societies. “I believe that children should really take issues into their own hands,” he said. “Read, listen to what other children have done around the world, and be inspired, and just start in your own community. Start from where you are, grow from that, and learn along the way.”
Blake Kraus is a Communications Associate at Search for Common Ground, based in Washington, DC.
Learn more about our work in Sierra Leone here.
Listen to Talking Drum Studio here.