As the youngest diplomat in the African Union Commission Chairperson’s cabinet, Aya Chebbi is galvanizing the collective power of the youth in Africa.
For Aya Chebbi, the idea that we are equal stops at the ground beneath her feet. The soil of Tunisia, her country of birth, was chiefly owned by men. That is until the 2011 revolution. At the time, Chebbi was still a teenager in class learning about George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian novel about a state in perpetual war, policed by an omnipresent government.
“It was interesting because the year of my graduation was the revolution year and we were studying 1984 by George Orwell. It was funny because everyone in the class knew what we were talking about but we couldn’t say anything about it and then the revolution happened and we were like now we know what Orwell’s 1984 means, now we know Animal Farm.”
“We were sitting for exams in January and the revolution started end of December and they decided to shut all the schools because of the trouble we were making, but that was one of the dictator’s mistakes because we had more time to organize rallies,” recalls Chebbi.
Never one to shy away from challenges, Chebbi started speaking out against the injustice suffered by Tunisians, during the revolution, through her Proudly Tunisian blog posts that were published on openDemocracy and Al Jazeera, among others. Tunisia has made historic leaps since then.
According to UN Women, about 47% of the local council positions in Tunisia were occupied by women, following the May 2018 elections. The increase is attributed to the 2016 electoral law that includes alternation between men and women on candidate lists for all elections. At 30 years old, Chebbi has played a significant role in shaping the narrative of women and youth in her own way.
“I started working for children’s rights advocacy, where we would go to children’s hospitals and community service centers. I spent two years working with different children’s organizations like the Red Cross and all sorts of grassroots national and international organizations that had a children and youth focus. I think after 2011, I started to believe in movement building and saw that it is possible to organize, not only nationally, but across borders,” Chebbi says.
That realization opened her up to a whole new world through her travels across Africa. She began to reflect on the challenges that young people faced all over the continent and found it absurd that, with the advent of technology, there was no real movement to galvanize the collective power of the youth in Africa.
Chebbi began to remedy this curious challenge by starting a mentoring program, which came from the understanding that youth often struggled while transitioning from school to work as they did not know what to do.
She founded the Youth-Programme of Holistic Empowerment Mentoring (Y-PHEM), to coach the next generation to aspire to be positive change agents, before going on to start the Afrika Youth Movement (AYM), one of Africa’s largest pan-African youth-led movements, and Afresist, a youth leadership program.
“Afresist is documenting youth work in Africa from an Africa and youth perspective. I was really [upset] with the international media’s reporting of the youth-led movement in Africa. So, I started blogging out of frustration of what international media was saying about us and began retweeting pieces for international media, saying you have to correct this narrative.”
As the first African Union (AU) Youth Envoy and the youngest diplomat at the AU Commission Chairperson’s cabinet, Chebbi’s passion and goal is to change the negative rhetoric about Africa.
“I think that is very important. Like we say all the time, we have to own our narrative as Africans and say our story and social media provides a great narrative for that but we allow other western scholars to come in and tell our story. I think it has to be a collaboration, which comes from us, and that narrative has to be shaped by us as well.”