EXCLUSIVE: Aya Chebbi, The Leading Pan-African Activist

Aderonke Ajibade
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Africa is a young continent because a large population of its people are youth. The future of the continent lies on the power of the youth hence the youth must be prepared for this task. Aya chebbi is a name shaking up the activism scene in Africa. She is the founder of Afrika Youth Movement, one of Africa’s largest pan-African youth movements.

Aya Chebbi  is an award winning Pan-African feminist, renowned blogger and internationally acclaimed Tunisian activist. She previously worked as Africa and Middle East Programs Director at World Peace Initiative Foundation, at Bureau de Cooperation Tunisie-Denmark of the Danish Foreign Affairs Ministry on bilateral cooperation, and at the Carter Center monitoring 2012 Egyptian Presidential Elections. She currently sits on the Board of Directors of CIVICUS, the World Refugee Council, Oxfam Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct and the Advisory Committee of FRIDA Young Feminist Fund. She has been an Advisor and Consultant on gender and youth for international organizations including the United Nations and the African Union Commission.

Can you tell us about yourself

I am a full time Pan-African feminist activist. My mission is to radicalize youth into PanAfricanism. Coming from North Africa, my legacy is to bridge North-South Sahara divide.

I spent my childhood years in six different cities in Tunisia, following my father who served 40 years in the Tunisian Armed Forces. I had to move to a different city with my parents every two to four years. Living in that mosaic childhood, has built the human I am today, a nomad, curious about new cultures and experiences, immersed in diversity and activist for unity.

How did you start the Afrika Youth Movement (AYM) and what’s the goal?

Following Tunisia’s revolution, I travelled across 20 African countries supporting, training and working with hundreds of social movement leaders, feminist groups, artist collectives and youth activists across the continent on mobilization, blogging and civil resistance. I realized that African youth share common struggles, mainly youth marginalization and that, in our shared marginalization, we could develop a sense of common identity and a critical consciousness that would enable us to challenge the status quo and that’s how we can lead Africa’s revolution.

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I created a Facebook group in 2012 and added inspiring youth I met or trained until the group reached 500 members. In July, 2014, I launched a Google Hangout discussion with a vision to unite these youth actors, build a bold African youth community and grow this common identity with strategic collective action. The vision and mission of the movement were shaped through inclusive online participatory dialogues, social media conversations and series of Google hangouts for the first six months. Then we launched in January 2015. We are filling a gap by connecting young Africans around the vision of pan-Africanism, empowering them to participate and mobilizing them to lead the change needed for Africa.

How many African countries currently have Afrika Youth Movement?

The movement has over 10,000 members from 40 countries across Africa and we are one of the largest youth-led pan-African movements on the continent today.

Aya Chebbi training youths in Nigeria

What have Afrika Youth Movement achieved since its inception?

We are purpose-driven activists and committed to shifting existing culture and power structures by providing alternative innovative models of organising and funding for youth empowerment. We have been operating the last 3 years as non-registered movement with no central bank account, no office, and with a small team of six volunteers but managed to mobilise and impact the lives of thousands of young people especially grassroots offline youth whom we reach through our AYM Hubs in different countries.

Perhaps I can mention two achievements we are proud of;

  1. We established a groundbreaking model of youth forums called “AYM Youth Empowerment Forum” that started in Nairobi 2017, and brought together 80 youth leaders of grassroots initiatives from 20 countries with no external funding but from members trust and investment. Our funding model is based on members’ mobilization through their organizations and community fundraising collected through mobile money transaction like Mpesa. The forum has been transformative, inclusive, impactful and life-changing for our members. One of many inspiring stories is Smith Etumba who took a bus trip from Goma via Kigali and Kampala to reach Nairobi to participate in the forum. He was exposed for the first time to an African space discussing global agenda and pan-africanism. Smith went back home and launched with other Congolese participants an AYM hub under the theme “Active youth, Drivers of Development”. The forum model was also replicated into national forums; in Lagos engaging religious leaders and Kampala engaging embassies and private sector. We are showing the way to youth that funding is not an end but it’s a means to help run our plans and we should be critical of donor funding that doesn’t come on our own terms, doesn’t empower us but make us dependent and busy doing everything else without achieving our mission.
  2. one of our achievements is also becoming a strong political voice. We occupy different spaces at the United Nations, the African Union and other institutions to advocate for our agenda. We are now recognised in these spaces for our contribution which comes from amplifying the voices of our members who trust us and mobilise collective advocacy agendas across the world. We are also very critical of NGOs and civil society actors in Africa and beyond who are claiming to be movements for activism but taking space and resources from grassroots organisers and youth.

Aya chebbi in Nigeria supporting the #bring back our girls movement

Aya chebbi training youths in Uganda

What drives your passion for activism?

I grew up as an only child in a conservative muslim extended family but I rebelled since an early age and made radical choices (in the perception of others) about how I want to live, what I want to wear, study, work and believe; with the help of a supportive father. I was born in a village on the Tunisian- Algerian borders where certain traditions were practiced on girls. Very young, I experienced patriarchal abuse, psychological violence and discrimination, and has since carried out my childhood traumas and turned them into resistance, fights and search for liberation. Activism started for me by standing up for my rights within a conservative family and society, then healing and liberating my body and my mind by unlearning and learning again, then grew into action for the collective and becoming a political voice.

As a feminist, what challenges have you faced in Africa?

It’s like having to fight twice first as a woman and now as a feminist. As a woman, I receive a good deal of patriarchy on a daily basis from chauvinism, mansplaining to sexual harassment. It’s still quite challenging as a woman to travel around the continent and work with a range of men, those who don’t take you seriously, to those who wait for the meeting to end to invite you “to finish the meeting in their hotel room”. Even in our movement, AYM, where we identify as a feminist movement, some men left the movement because they cannot accept the idea to be “led by a woman” and others feel intimidated with my assertiveness. Add to that as a woman speaking up for gender equality and identity; you then experience another level of challenges from fight back from extremists, to assault on social media for certain positions I stand for to being at risk.

#WalkTogether to #FightInequality, April 17  at London School of Economics Old Theatre

What word of advice do you have for African youth?

Be coherent with your self; coherence between what you believe, say and do, is what makes you a true leader and changemaker.

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