27 June 2001

Senegal: Pop Stars and Youth Break Taboos to Spread AIDS Message

Louga, Senegal — Baaba Maal sings, DJ Amadi raps, Regina Diompy and Boubacar Sagna 'preach' to their peers. But they speak with one voice and one message - protect yourself, be safe and stay alive. They are the youth of Senegal and are taking the threat of AIDS very seriously. Using music, rap and discussion sessions, they jointly spread the word about HIV/AIDS and promote safe sex, or no sex, all over Senegal.

Baaba Maal is a respected and popular musician in Senegal. He is also a goodwill ambassador and youth emissary for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in his own country, other parts of Africa and all over the world. The name of his band Daande Lenol, means the Voice of the People. Maal says he uses his music to talk about the problems of young people, poverty and society. The UN capitalises on this by adapting the singer's packed worldwide concert schedule as a stage to deliver the message about HIV/AIDS.

Maal told allAfrica.com, in Senegal's second city St Louis where he was performing, that he had travelled extensively throughout the country, in Guinea and other neighbouring West African nations, talking about HIV/AIDS during his concerts. He also makes a point of going on field trips to remote villages and urban areas to familiarize himself with AIDS-related projects and programmes.

"The challenge is to make people understand," says Maal. "The important thing for me to do is to make these people understand and know what's going on. Sometimes people don't believe that HIV exists."

DJ Awadi, a rapper with Senegalese group, Positive Black Soul, based in the capital, Dakar, says, "it is really important for our generation to understand that AIDS is a real disease. A lot of people are dying, because they do not have enough communication about this disease."

He laments that perhaps the urban youth in Dakar may be aware, "but in most of the country they don't know nothing about it (AIDS). Maybe they hear about it on 1 December (World AIDS Day), they talk a bit about it and that's it. Afterwards they forget and they continue doing what they used to do," which, says DJ Awadi, is to practise unsafe sex.

The same refrain comes from Regina Diompy, a 20 year old student, and Boubacar Sagna, who is 19. Both have become youth advocates on HIV/AIDS in Louga, a northern Senegalese town, where they belong to their school's Anti-AIDS club (Club Anti-Sida du Lycee Malick Sall).

Diompy agrees that "AIDS exists. But here in Senegal, it's a bit taboo. Me, for example, if I were to contract AIDS, I wouldn't wake up one day and go trumpeting the fact around town. I know they do it in other countries, to make people aware, but here it's still taboo to talk about these things." She says she and others are trying to break the silence and shatter those myths.

Diompy, who is a Catholic in a country that is ninety percent Muslim, says young Senegalese must appreciate that they are not the same as the youth in the West and that they are brought up differently. Although they may dress like their Western counterparts, says Diompy, "we maintain our culture and traditions and respect our customs. But, unlike the Europeans, it's taboo for us to disrespect or insult our parents. Some Senegalese may dress like Europeans and try to imitate Europeans half the time, who take their boyfriends home and even start having sexual relations, but here it's different".

Chipping in with his views, Boubacar Sagna, a young Muslim, adds that what is original about Senegalese tradition is that it is "inculcated in us at an early age and stays with us. You can't just jettison your culture. Yes I may wear my baseball cap backwards, but I know my culture tells me to be faithful, respect your mother and father, say prayers, don't drink alcohol, don't just eat anything, don't dance anyhow, respect others and respect yourself. That's what my culture tells me. And I may travel outside the country and adopt other customs, but I will always keep mine."

Baaba Maal feels a sense of obligation, as a singer, to fellow Senegalese. "We play music. But we know that, as musicians, we have other roles and responsibilities, because people listen to us. One of these social responsibilities is the education of the masses. Musicians must have the role of telling the truth to people". He drums the message home, "Abstinence, fidelity and condoms."

DJ Awadi raps a similar theme in lyrical but candid words in three languages, French, Wolof and English. "We want the message to be spread all over the world, not just Senegal and Africa. We don't want to stay in a cultural ghetto. We talk about corruption, injustice in the system, politics, daily life, humour and AIDS". Awadi says Positive Black Soul chose rap, because of its impact and accessibility. "We have a lot to say about Senegal, about Africa and about the image of Africa, and rap was the perfect music for us to say all the things we had in our heads."

HIV was the topic of the last album by Positive Black Soul, with one track called Ecoute Fils (Listen Son). DJ Amadi's rap, in colloquial French and Wolof, is grim and blunt and comes in the form of a letter. It says: "Wear condoms. Don't think that AIDS is for other people, it can catch you. Listen Son, the vicious virus is around. It's a serious situation. I must warn you that there's talk of death. Dozens, hundreds, thousands. You know around here, these things are taboo. Listen Son, if I've decided to write to you, it's because this very serious. One slip and you've had it. It can catch you too. It's taboo. You could have worn a condom and stuck to one partner. But you said that was for others. Don't be dumb. For five minutes of pleasure, you could mortgage the rest of your life, just to show off. I don't want to cry tomorrow. I've found one, just one, and she's a beautiful Peul. Listen Son, if I'm writing to you it's because it's serious."

As he speaks to an audience in St Louis, of mainly young Senegalese peppered with journalists, Baaba Maal stresses that the youth in his country must "take care about the lives of others. You are not by yourself in society. Ours is a society which is connected. People work together, live together, they exchange ideas. You know where you come from, so you must know what must be responsible in your society."

Maal does not limit his discussions to the youth. He also chats with Islamic religious leaders and women's groups. "I can talk to them. I can talk to them about everything that is a problem of society, because there are so many taboos."

He says Senegal, with a comparatively low rate of HIV (currently at one per cent of the adult population) is lucky. "We have a lot of young leaders, religious leaders who are very open and who are very ready to listen and to do something about AIDS, because they are more relaxed."

Boubacar Sagna brought up another interesting topic in a long conversation with allAfrica.com about Senegalese youth, their sex habits and their knowledge about HIV/AIDS. Sagna said that Europeans may reproach Africans for conducting 'virginity' tests, but that this was part of African tradition and custom "and should remain dear to us". More philosophically, he added: "In Senegal, your parents warn you that if you're not still a virgin at 18-19 years, they will kill you. Of course they won't, but at least they scare you. And it's that fear and that belief in your tradition that means you don't act just any old how. We are black and we will remain black. There's a saying where I come from, that even if a tree trunk lies in the water for years, it will never become a crocodile. We cannot change our mentality and our colour."

For DJ Awadi, the future for the youth of Africa is more AIDS' awareness and less carelessness. And he is adamant that the continent must be given the chance to produce cheap copies of the anti-retroviral medication that can help suppress the symptoms of AIDS.

"In Senegal and for Africa, the lack of communication kills - a lot, a lot. Most of the people say, 'yeah, we have to fight against AIDS', but most of the African countries aren't given the opportunity to produce the triple therapy (anti-retrovirals). Just give us the right to produce anti-retrovirals. It's more important than anything else. It's important for us to have these drugs. In India and Brazil they produce these drugs. In Africa, people don't have enough money to buy this (expensive treatment). And we could keep talking about it for 10, 20, 30 years if they don't give us the right to produce these medicines."

Other articles in the series:

Part 1: A Beacon of Hope in Africa's Fight Against AIDS

Part 2: Living With AIDS - Mabeye's Story

Part 4: Prostitution - Frontline of the War to Contain HIV

Part 5: Women - Vulnerable but Vital Campaigners Against AIDS

Part 6: 'This Is My Whole Life' - A Scientist's Dedication to Defeating AIDS

Part 7: Praise for AIDS Success - But the Struggle Continues

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