A Discussion with Mandiaye Petit Badji, Founder of Parole Aux Jeunes (A Voice for Youth)

With: Mandiaye Petit Badji

March 13, 2015

Background: Mandiaye Petit Badji helped create and now coordinates A Voice for Youth (Parole aux Jeunes), and he firmly believes in listening to and empowering Senegalese youth. In March 2015, Katherine Zuk of WFDD met with Mandiaye Petit Badji in Dakar, Senegal to learn more about Parole aux Jeunes. Badji outlines the specific challenges that face Senegalese youth, especially in today’s global world, and the role that he envisions for religious leaders in guiding the country’s younger generations. He describes the ways in which many Senegalese youth approach their religion and how religious leaders can best gain access to and engage with the youth, particularly on sensitive issues like reproductive health.

To begin with, could you tell me about your training?

I was born in Bignona, Senegal. Two years after I began my university studies, I had to drop out and leave the university. My mother asked me to start to contribute financially to the family. My father had passed away very early in my life, leaving my mother as a widow with six children, all boys. No one else in my family was at a level in life to take on the responsibility of supporting the family.

I enrolled in a local training center where I specialized in marketing, administration, and communication. When I finished, I applied for internships without receiving any positive responses. It is incredibly difficult to find a job, and I didn’t want to stay at home without work. Instead, I asked my mother if I could work with her in her boutique at the market. That’s how I began to work with my mother, who is a seamstress and a store owner. I would go every morning and open the boutique, and that’s where I learned to tailor clothes. The money that I earned sewing clothes allowed me to buy my first computer. 

With my computer, I was able to help others at the market with different tasks, like making business cards. During this time, I was approached by the radio—they invited me to share my story. I began to work at the radio without any prior training. During my first show, I expressed myself well and impressed the director of the radio station. After the show he made me an offer, “I would like you to create a show for your community.” I immediately thought about a show for youth, and that’s how it all began. 

How did you first start working with youth in Senegal?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) since 2007 with their youth programming. At UNFPA, we created a structure that I coordinate called Parole aux Jeunes. I began to work with them just after a conference on “Africa’s Response to HIV/AIDS” that was organized in Senegal. I was in charge of bringing together Senegalese youth and youth from around the world to participate in the conference. I had the privilege of being chosen to lead youth participation for the conference; this gave me the opportunity to be in contact with youth from around the world, to build my network, and to expand my understanding of the world. This HIV/AIDS conference helped me understand the need for youth to express themselves more and have their voices heard.

Fatima Maiga, formerly of UNFPA, sent me to Cameroon for training. When I returned, she said, “Create something for youth that they can feel ownership of!” That’s not to say that organizations already working with youth are not doing well, but she was telling me to change what was being offered. We must be close to the youth. They must be at the heart of what we do. No one else should speak on their behalf. I created Parole aux Jeunes, and I had the privilege of hosting a radio show on a community station in Grand-Yoff. Our weekly show focused on themes that interest youth. Our listeners guided the conversation, and we received an enormous volume of calls.

When authority figures speak for youth, a lot is censored and many subjects are taboo, but nothing on our show is censored and no subject is taboo. It targets youth, so it has a very casual feel. We don’t try to embellish things: we say things as they are—it’s our world, our reality. This has allowed us to attract a large audience, and people really like our show. 

Is Parole aux Jeunes associated with UNFPA, or is it independent?

We are completely independent. UNFPA and other organizations see what Parole aux Jeunes is doing, and they often call to ask us to implement activities. But we are very independent and do not belong to any one person or organization. 

Do you feel that it is important to use social media when working with youth?

Yes. When social media first appeared in Senegal, we created a profile page in each of the 14 regions of Senegal. These groups are very dynamic because UNFPA asked me to train them to use social media platforms to speak to youth about reproductive health. I’ve had the opportunity to travel around Senegal, and I assure you that when we impart knowledge to youth and tell them, “You can change the world,” they take these messages to heart.

Since 2007, we’ve been investing in our youth. We’re a social enterprise with a social structure. We aren’t trying to attract funding to buy fancy cars or construct beautiful houses. When we can to attract funding, it’s all for the youth to help them further their training and education. When I traveled around Senegal, I showed them how to use social media—before, they were using it just to share photos or speak with friends.

Sometimes I say to myself, “Wait a minute! Mark [Zuckerberg] created Facebook, and now he’s participating in G8 summits and has become very influential. We use social media. Can we also become very influential? Or are we just going to post photos?" As I really understand reproductive health and youth, I decided to focus my efforts there and see what could come of it. On our Facebook page, I often speak about health and reproduction. I’ll share videos, photos, articles, and that’s how it began. I don’t have the exact numbers, but we have more than 20,000 followers when I calculate on our social network. 

What are some of the problems facing youth today in Senegal?

We need to speak about reproductive health in Senegalese schools because youth are sexually active, just as they are elsewhere in the world. My issue is not the increase in sexual activity amongst the youth, but rather the problems that are related to the increase in sexual activity. The youth are more sexually active, but they don’t know the dangers like HIV, early pregnancies, and STIs. Often, they don’t even think of these dangers because they aren’t informed and because the subjects are taboo, so they don’t discuss them with their parents.

Recently, there was a workshop around integrating reproductive health into schools, but people were hesitant. Why? The population of Senegal is 90 percent Muslim. To speak about a subject like sexuality is not easy, and one must be very careful. There was a recent conference with religious leaders, and I asked a question about youth. These dignitaries, who call themselves the religious leaders, often witness certain dishonorable situations that happen in their homes, but they close their eyes to these situations. They go to the mosque, preach, but don’t ever speak about sexuality even though they know that these problems exist in their communities. The youth are sexually active, but are told, “Abstain!” Instead, we should tell them, “Sexuality is part of life, but there is a moment to be active, and we must choose with whom and where we do it.”

It’s said, according to Islam, we must not violate laws in terms of religion or force our fathers to speak about sexuality. We will be very polite, show that we are well educated, and say, “Papa, tell us about sexuality.” I think the first people to speak to the children about sexuality should be the parents, not an outsider like me. The youth trust me and I have confidence in myself, but I honestly prefer that it’s the parent who speaks to them about sexuality first. Then, if I speak to them, it will just complement the discussion. 

What are the problems that stem from this situation?

In Senegal, there are cases of rape—there are a lot of young girls who have this. Today, I read an article in the news titled, “He impregnates a minor and tries to imprison her father [for attempting to seek an abortion for her].” People see this and understand the problems, but no one is reacting. They say, “No, that’s their family. We’ll see how they handle it.” But the girl was raped and will suffer her whole life. If we try to be structured and work with organizations, we will waste time, there’s procedures to get funds, etc.

When there is a problem, I prefer to do my own fact-checking on the web. I’ll say, “What is the situation, and what do you think about it? Guys, we must react!” People can send in their messages. At some point, we’ll be able to send messages to the president or deputies’ Twitter accounts and automatically receive a response. We are trying to find solutions to problems through our social network.

It’s sometimes difficult, but in the last year, I’ve seen the interest in what we’re doing. I’ve done a lot of shows online—we created a show called Car Rapide—we’ve made numerous shows focused on health and reproduction for youth and adolescents. We go into neighborhoods to find youth and speak with them about youth sexuality. On our last show, we discussed girls who like to go out with grandes personnes [adults] and their relationships. The show was a great success on the internet because it is a huge problem. This is the way to create debates; allow people to appreciate it and then see the conclusions that come from the debate.

We’ve also brought religious leaders together on a website thanks to UNFPA. We share articles, videos, all that youth are doing. The youth themselves produce these articles. The youth in our region tell us that they believe everything happens in Dakar. What they don’t understand is that there isn’t funding, there isn’t money for me to be able to do more—to travel outside of Kaolack or Louga to do activities with them, for example. We would have to do fundraising. And if the partners are convinced, they will finance the projects. 

What motivates you in your work with youth?

If I waited for money, I would never do any activities. Working seven days a week is complicated. People ask me how I do it. Maybe it is because I’m still young and fresh that I have lots of energy, but at some point I’ll have to stop. The alternative is that I find individuals who are interested in what I do and explain to them what I’ve done from 2007 to 2015. Right now I’m investing myself fully in these projects, and no one is paying me.

I do it because youth need to be informed, and we need to explain certain things to them. The youth need us to talk to them, and no one can pay me to provide these kinds of services. I hope that there will be another Jo [Mandiaye’s nickname] who will replace me. At that point, I could retire and do other things—I’m interested in many other subjects, such as agriculture and technology.

The solution to the problem of youth employment is to develop agriculture and technology that could revolutionize things. In Senegal, there are acres and acres of unused forest. We could position ourselves, like China has, to develop this asset and to cultivate the land with new technologies that the youth themselves are developing. For example, it is possible to water thousands of acres in just one click. I think it is from these types of things that we could create more employment opportunities for youth, and the youth could be entrepreneurs themselves. 

Why isn’t anyone trying to attract youth to agriculture?

Youth don’t believe in it yet, but rather they believe that they need to take a boat and go to Spain, to Barcelona, or to the United States. They think that if they go to the United States, they will succeed and have more chances. Maybe that is true. I deeply believe that they should put down roots here in Senegal and make a name for themselves. Then, if you go to Europe, they’ll want to work with you. If you go to Europe or elsewhere without an education, they’ll ask you to wash toilets or you’ll spend your time washing bowls in restaurants. That’s not good. I want the youth to understand that they have a greater value added here than elsewhere.

It is just "gëm sa bopp" [believe in yourself]. All the time, we see Americans brandishing or embracing their flag. They’re ready to die for their flag. Here, the youth aren’t ready to die for their flag because they don’t have the notion of what a nation is. They don’t understand what “un people, un but, une foi” [one people, one goal, one faith] means. A person without that notion doesn’t ask himself if he loves his country; he won’t ever love his country. Rather, he’ll love someone else’s country; our educational system has a responsibility there. In our schools, there isn’t the type of education that can build or construct a real Senegal or a homo senegalensis, but we must think about this seriously. 

Is it the same thing with private schools?

There is a huge difference between private and public schools. In the private schools, the professors are always there. You don’t have the right to be late; you can’t be absent whenever you want. But in public schools, there are strikes, people don’t care, and students can cheat on homework. We claim to train students, but all that we’re going to produce are individuals who won’t be competitive on the job market and who won’t create or innovate. On the other hand, the youth who attended private schools as soon as they have their high school diplomas, they often have parents who are wealthy who send them to Europe to finish their studies and to obtain a job there four or five years later.

You see the problem. We have very few veritable leaders, trained on the ground, who have grown up in the community and also serve Senegal. Most of the time, people who work for the Senegalese government didn’t do all of their studies here. They did their higher education in Europe. 

In your work, do you involve religious leaders, or do you only work with youth?

The religious leader Oustaz Alioune Sall has radio shows on Sud-FM. One time, he said something that profoundly hurt me regarding childhood marriage. According to him, we should marry girls young, and there’s no marriage that is too early. I asked myself if he would give his own daughter away at the age of 12 or 14 years old. I tweeted about the subject, and I looked everywhere on Facebook to see how I could write to him. I was ready to engage in a debate—not theoretical—but a debate on the obvious questions.

One time, I attended a workshop on engaging religious leaders in health and the protection of mothers and children. I asked the religious leaders, “What do we do with kids that have kids? Is this not a double national issue?” No one wanted to respond, but the imams came to tell me that I was correct after the workshop. But I wished they had told me publicly. When one is a man of God, one either tells the truth or one doesn’t say anything. But for me, I believe that a man of God has a duty to tell the truth. I think that the Catholic Church is very advanced in comparison to Muslims regarding these questions. They are very open, and they speak with youth who confess more easily.

What role do you see for religious leaders in youth education on reproductive health?

Unfortunately, in Muslim societies, the youth don’t dare to confess. You have sex and don’t dare to tell your mother because she will reject you, beat you, and you risk being thrown out of the house. So youth have sexual relationships and then return to their parents’ house as though nothing happened. In my opinion, we could work better together with the religious leaders, and my idea is to do shows in which we invite religious leaders and youth and discuss in a polite manner for 20 minutes.

During such a show, youth could ask questions, and the religious leaders would respond. When they say that one must not have premarital sex, maybe it is only the religious leaders who are capable of waiting. A religious leader said that family planning has side effects. He said that to take a second wife was a side effect. Someone who can’t take a second wife and who still has sexual relationships, is that not also a side effect? Youth have sexual relationships, and I think that the sexual relationships are a secondary effect.

When a child receives a good education and upbringing in their family, there is a strong chance that the child will not taste the flower of evil before marriage. But unfortunately, when the child has not received any education and is educated by the television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, there is no censorship of what the child sees. The parents must educate their children so that they don’t see the necessity of going online to search for pornography. Parents must limit what their children are learning. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it happens. In the mosques, we hear the imams give the khutbah (Friday sermon), but they don’t talk about it. The increased sexuality of youth is a national problem that merits national solutions. Why, then, do our imams not speak about it when they preach? These are men of God who should propose solutions to daily human problems and not just cite verses. They speak in Arabic when they do their khutbah, but who understands? In Senegal, we speak French, Wolof, or another language. Very few individuals understand Arabic.

In the Catholic Church, you’re alone with the priest who lends you his ear; he listens and gives you advice. But that’s not how it happens here, and that’s a problem. They tell you “Wala taqrabu zina,” or “Stay away from fornication.” But what solutions do they give so that you don’t do it? If I tell you, “Go swim in the Atlantic Ocean,” I need to first teach you to swim and what to do in case of any complications. But if I tell you simply to dive in with sharks and other dangerous fish without giving you any means to defend yourself or to survive, you would certainly die. That’s what’s happening. Youth are becoming more sexual, and the abuse and sexual violence we hear about are due to this. 

Do you think that the fact that religion is not addressing this problem is making it worse?

Why are they afraid to speak about the problem? Because they believe that speaking to youth about sexuality will lead them to become sexually active. That’s false. Since 2007, I can’t tell you the number of youth with whom I’ve worked or friends that place more confidence in me than their fathers. They explain everything to me from A to Z. One night, and a girl sent me a text saying, “I had sex, and the guy’s condom broke. Will I get pregnant?” This text was sent at 4:00 a.m.! That means that this girl was truly in distress. I had to respond to her immediately the next morning because that could have been disastrous. I consoled her, calmed her, and told her to go to the pharmacy for contraception. Could I have told her that I couldn’t do anything because I was scared that I’d have to report to God?

If I had left her without a solution, she risked becoming pregnant, and the guy was also young like her, without the means to take care of her. She risked being kicked out of her house. That is how I thought about it. One day, I will die. I’ll have to tell God all that I did and all that I said. I prefer to give solutions to people so they can live in peace and tranquility. Even if God sends me to hell tomorrow, that is my problem.

For me I don’t think we should leave youth to have early sexual relationships, but we also shouldn’t tell them to stop if we give them mechanisms that allow them to understand that they should wait to be married to have sex. Unfortunately, when we have this type of conversation, people say, “He promotes sex.” I always repeat, “Condomize, Condomize, Condomize!” That is the best method. So youth, when you really want to have sexual relationships and you say "grawul" [it’s not a big deal], at least use a condom! 

What is your message to religious leaders?

What I would personally like to tell religious leaders, in a debate, is that we trust and believe in God, but we do not fear God. In their explanations, they want people to fear God. How can we fear something we do not know? Youth believe in God, adore God, love God, but they do not fear him. That’s normal. If someone said, “If you do this, you will burn in hell,” do the youth really understand how they will burn in hell? And what sin do you really need to be guilty of to burn in hell? They don’t teach this to youth. You’ve seen the position of imams and ulama that say they are at the heart of all and that we have to pass by them for everything. However, we have sex without passing through them. Where are they? I think of them as those who are before me when I pray, but if they think they have a great influence over the youth, they’re wrong. The youth can respect them and find them cool, but they don’t recognize their power. Power, for me, that’s Lady Gaga, who excites millions of youth who then, in turn, dress like she does.

Now, if we tell the religious leaders to make a video in which they say, “I’d like to speak with the youth to tell them to stop having sex before marriage,” the video wouldn’t reach 20 views because the youth won’t buy into it. It’s not because they don’t know that there will be a final judgment. It’s because deep inside, they think that God is very cool, that he really exists, and that if the final judgment really exists, God will pardon them. And, that’s legitimate. We cannot contest that with a young person. 

In the past, the youth addressed the religious leaders to speak about their problems. But, today is it true that they turn to the internet and speak with their friends about their problems?

There are communities called kourel. The youth come together to recite the teachings of their religious guides, sing, pray, etc. When a young person has a sexual problem and doesn’t address it with his religious guide, it’s because his guide never spoke about sexuality when he preached. He considers his religious guide as someone to whom he says, “Nanalma [bless me], I want to succeed in my work,” or “Nanalma, I want to have a beautiful wife.” That’s a pretty gesture, but it does not have any meaning. For me, the true “Nanalma is to say to the youth, “You are old enough: what you should do is work; what you should do is study.” This is the type of directive that we need to give youth. But religious leaders bless the youth and receive the 100 francs that their parents gave them.

Someone tells you that a talibé [follower] must give his addiya [money given to spiritual guide]. You don’t work or have a salary, but your father gives you at least than 1,000 or 1,500 francs as pocket money. You keep it until you have 20,000 francs, give it to your religious guide, and tell him, “Nanalma.” Then, he takes your money. For me, a serious religious guide would tell you “Keep your money! What are you doing in your life? Study hard above all! You have to learn, and then after you come back to me to tell me your results. I will pray for you!” But they take the money of a talibé that doesn’t work.

Certain religious guides don’t care what their talibés do. The essential is that they come to give addiya and for me, that is anarchy. I am sorry to say that. Certain religious leaders, when they hear this, will say, “Oh, he is crazy, this Mandiaye Petit Badji!” But this is not how we help the youth. I think that we’re not developing the leadership or entrepreneurship skills of the youth.

For the Mourides, there was Mame Cheikh Ibrahima Fall who was a hard worker. He did everything, and his ndigël [religious edict] was that you work until the sweat is on your brow, and you’ll benefit from that. That’s a true philosophy. When you see the Baye Fall in the streets, they say “Mayma” (give me). I don’t give them any coins because they are told to go work until they have sweat on their brows and to earn their living in a decent manner.

How can the youth have a good conversation with the religious leaders? Most of them haven’t taken the initial steps that would allow the youth to come to them to ask them crucial questions. It is for God to judge, but for others, I will be judged and you will also. We must stop certain things and speak to the youth in a logical way so that they can understand world issues, such as development, entrepreneurship, the economy, and health, especially maternal and child health.

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