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How I Overcame Cultural Monsters – Aya Chebbi, AU Envoy

Pan-African political activist, Aya Chebbi, says pan-Africanism is the solution to many of the challenges facing African youth today.

9-year-old Aya Chebbi is the first ever African Union Youth Envoy / Photo credit: Aya Twitter page
9-year-old Aya Chebbi is the first ever African Union Youth Envoy / Photo credit: Aya Twitter page

In this exclusive interview, Aya Chebbi, Tunisian blogger, women advocate and peace activist, who was recently appointed as the first African Union Youth Envoy, sent an inspiring message to African youth on their role in building a developed and prosperous African continent and also discussed her vision and the legacy she wants to leave behind in office.

You recently emerged as the first African Union Youth Envoy, did you expect your appointment?

I was surprisingly pleased with the appointment because I did not expect it. I came from activism and civil society. The movement that I founded in 2012, which has become one of the largest youth led pan-African movement is quite radical.

So, to be appointed into a diplomatic position like the AU youth envoy was not expected. I will continue to do what I used to do to mobilise youth to advocate for youth rights. I was surprised positively.

What does your appointment as the first African Union Youth Envoy mean to you and other African youth?

I think there are two messages I like people to get from this appointment. One is the transparent process through which the appointment was made. There was an open call online for everyone to submit their files. I submitted mine and I was among the 706 dossiers for this position.

A shortlist of 17 people was made and four people were invited for interview and I was among them. I was interviewed by a panel of 14 people. It was the biggest panel I have ever faced in my life: 14 panel members representing commissioners, departments, and NEPAD.

Every member of the panel had to score the participants and I was scored as the first. Then the Chairperson chose me by merit. I think this is a strong message from the African Union that young people should occupy leadership position that they merit.

And this message should go beyond Africa to other institutions, countries and international communities who are quick to point fingers at Africa when it is about corruption, nepotism, favoritism and all of that. This is one thing that can be a model to other institutions on how they can appoint young people by merit.

And it should be celebrated beyond Africa as well. I think it is something we should be proud of and it is a strong message from the African Union and its chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

The second message for African youth is that you can be whatever you want to be. As a young person, you can reach wherever you want to reach. There are only two things you need to do to do that: find your identity and live your mission. You need to know who you are what you stand for, and what are your values.

That is part of your identity. Once you know your identity, you live your mission; know why you wake up every day and why you do what you do. That’s your mission. Once these two are clear, you can be what you want to be. I want my appointment to be an inspiration to other African youth to pursue leadership positions wherever they are and whatever they do.

Aya Chebbi says the Tunisian revolution politicised her voice /  Photo credit: Aya Twitter page
Aya Chebbi says the Tunisian revolution politicised her voice / Photo credit: Aya Twitter page

My background as someone who has gone through public education in my country, Tunisia, I am a product of the public. I am a product of the Tunisia society from a conservative Muslim family. I am the only one “non-veiled” woman in my family, I am the only one who has cracked all the seals to travel the world and live differently from what the society tells me to do.

I have been a rebel in my family. We complain a lot about the education system and the oppressive culture in the society, these are realities we have to challenge and positively change. Wherever you are and whatever you do, you can be what and who you want to be and I hope my appointment could be that inspirational story because if you look at my journey for the past 30 years I can relate it to many African youth.

I had my privileges and education; but I also had challenges as a woman and as a young person who grew up in a predominantly Muslim society. As someone who grew up under dictatorship, I know so many African youth can relate with my story because they go through many of the challenges I go through every day.

I want this appointment to them that they can be what they want to be, just find your identity and live your mission.

As a young person, you can reach wherever you want to reach. There are only two things you need to do to do that: find your identity and live your mission. You need to know who you are what you stand for, and what are your values. That is part of your identity.

As African Union Youth Envoy, what are you aiming to achieve and how do you hope to achieve them?

I have a two-year mandate. This is a very short time to be able to change everything. So, I would like to focus on two main things which on one hand is to make the African Union closer to young people, to promote all the youth programmes in the AU, to open and democratize information, to popularize youth participation in the African Union.

I would like youth to feel that African Union is their home. To feel that they can walk into the AU and participate on the decision-making table. That’s on the AU side.

On the African youth side, I’ll like to mobilise African youth around agenda 2063, around African Youth Charter, and around the vision of pan-Africanism. We need to redefine the new pan-Africanism of 21st century, our generation. How do we see it? What does it mean to us?

Being inspired by the 50s and 60s liberation struggles, how does pan-Africanism translate in our daily life. To me, pan-Africanism is the solution to many of our challenges. Just coming together and putting aside all our differences and coming together with collective vision and action is the solution to overcome many of the challenges we live with as African youth today.

So, for me, it is very important that by the end of my mandate I can reach as many as possible young people to redefine together what pan-Africanism is. These are two of the main things I like to leave as legacy in office as African Youth envoy. But of course, I will share with African Youth my five-point vision very soon.

As a young person, you can reach wherever you want to reach. There are only two things you need to do to do that: find your identity and live your mission. You need to know who you are what you stand for, and what are your values. That is part of your identity.

You are known as a political activist, what informed your choice - why political activism?

As I have said in my answer to the last question, I have been a rebel in my family as a woman. Particularly as a woman, I have said no to many things. I have stood up for my choice, for what I want to be, for what I want to wear, for what I want to study. (Laughs.)

You know even at school, I was forced to study Engineering, but I had to switch to what I like to do. The rebel in me has always been there. It only matured when the Tunisian revolution happened and that kind of politicized my voice.

My voice became political when I started a blog and I was speaking about political issues, challenging the mainstream media narrative and having a say in political issues. Then I moved on to pan-African activism when I started Afrika Youth Movement in 2012 to mobilise and rally young people around for one vision to have a collective political voice.

I moved from my personal political voice as a blogger to movement building. We are the majority in this continent. We are the present and future of the continent we need to have a say in our political and social life. Why political activism?

I think because any activism should be political. Every single one of us, every young person in Africa, should have a political voice and should be a political activist. Political activism doesn’t mean that you hold a political office. That’s not what it means. Afrika Youth Movement is not a political movement.

It’s a social movement, led but civil society, students, young people from all works of life, but it has a political voice and does political actions, which means it stands up to change the political scene, landscape in different country and the continent as a whole.

I come from Le Kef, a region at the border of Tunisia and Algeria. In that area there was a ritual, Tasfih, that was practice on girls. They have to do it before they get their periods. To be in room with my two other cousins and an old lady comes in to do the ritual. It was basically scratching our knees seven times and making us lap up the blood on our knees with seven dry grapes and saying a couple of things, which sealed the ritual.

Cultural and religious factors are major challenges limiting women from fulfilling their potential in Africa. How have you been able to rise above these challenges?

Yes, they are. That’s why I am a champion of ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) at the African Union with UNFPA campaign as well. Because I have been subjected to hurtful cultural practices. I have been subjected to a cultural ritual that was in practice in the region I come from in Tunisia.

I come from Le Kef, a region at the border of Tunisia and Algeria. In that area there was a ritual, Tasfih, that was practice on girls. They have to do it before they get their periods. To be in room with my two other cousins and an old lady comes in to do the ritual.

It was basically scratching our knees seven times and making us lap up the blood on our knees with seven dry grapes and saying a couple of things, which sealed the ritual. Basically, the ritual is locking the virginal and you cannot have sexual intercourse.

They believe it is meant to make you stay a virgin until you get married. So, before you get married, you’ll do the same ritual to lift the spell. And also, if you are forced into sexual intercourse or raped, the belief is that it will not be possible.

But this practice among all other practices that always claim to protect women virginity is all about controlling women body and their choice. I lived with that for a long time with a lot of psychological damage. I know many other who girls who have been through these practices and had problems after they got married.

I also lived in a conservative family. My mother is very conservative and all the women in my family are veiled. I faced a lot of situation in the family when I had to be bold and to say what I believe and do what I want, which is not easy because it caused a lot of problems in the family.

So many of what I have been subjected is nothing to be compared to stories of women I have heard where women are put down from fulfilling their potential. Some girls are not going to school because of the decisions of men in the society. So societal and cultural practices hinder women.

I have only been able to overcome and rise above these limitations by owning my voice. A woman needs the confidence to own her voice and take the decision between her and herself to say enough, I will do what I want and be what I want.

That’s a very difficult thing to do, to own you voice and live with that every day. So, in any situation you are put into you will not be silence and you will speak out for yourself. That’s the basic thing a woman needs to challenge everything around her.

That has a lot of consequences of course. I was just lucky to have a supportive father who was conservative but never silenced me. I think that was important for me, having a father who allowed me even though we didn’t agree, he allowed and supported me to make my decision and be responsible for them.

Wherever you are and whatever you do, you can be what and who you want to be and I hope my appointment could be that inspirational story because if you look at my journey for the past thirty years I can relate it to many African youth.

What message do you have for young people in Africa?

The message I have for young people in Africa again is, be what you want to be, don’t be someone else and be the pan-Africanist that we need today. We have been talking a lot about the 60s and liberation movement. We have been inspired by a lot of freedom fighters and pan-Africanists. Now we need to be the pan-Africanists to lead this continent to develop and lead the world.

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