It is night time in Senegal. In the capital, Dakar, a small group of young people enters the Fann hospital. They are wearing white coats, masks, and gloves, but they are not doctors. They are hip-hop artists from the citizen movement Y’en a marre, and they want to film a video for their new song, Fagaru Ci Coronavirus. In Wolof, a widely understood national language in Senegal, this means Prevent the Coronavirus. As they begin rapping, they look at the camera and scream: “Prepare yourself, prepare your loved ones” and “take precautions.”

The virus hits Africa

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus first began spreading outside of China in January, Africa initially seemed like it might be an exception to global spread. The virus was late in affecting Africa, despite deep economic links between the continent and China. Yet, on Feb. 14, the same day that the French authorities reported the first death from COVID-19 outside Asia, Egypt registered the first infection on the African continent. 

At that time, Sub-Saharan Africa still remained free of officially reported cases of the virus. This led to a series of claims that the region’s high-temperature climate, as well as a young and low-density population, would slow the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, by the beginning of March, hopes of avoiding the virus altogether vanished as South Africa registered its first case and the virus started to quickly circulate in the region. Ten days later, Bruce Bassett, a data scientist from the University of Cape Town who in January had begun tracking the virus on the continent, said that coronavirus was a “ticking time bomb” in Africa.

At present, the Coronavirus has spread to all African countries, with 142,070 confirmed cases of infection and 3,592 deaths. According to the Johns Hopkins University data, the most seriously affected countries in the Sub-Saharan region are South Africa (30,967 cases), Nigeria (9,855), Ghana (7,881), Cameroun (5,904), Soudan (4,800), Guinea (3,706), Senegal (3,645) and the Ivory Coast (2,799). In addition to concerns about the stability of already fragile health systems, drastic economic consequences are already affecting large numbers of people who work in the informal sector, and thus have limited revenues at the moment, or who are used to receiving money from abroad.

Senegal, the home of the Y’en a marre movement, registered its first confirmed Coronavirus case on March 2. The patient was a 54-year-old man returning from a trip to France. Since then, the number of infections has continued to increase. By March 23, 79 cases had been reported. On this day, President Macky Sall declared a state of emergency: closing borders, imposing a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am, shutting down many public spaces, banning public gatherings, and limiting transport. There are now at least 3,645 people infected with the virus, which is one of the highest rates in the sub-Saharan region.

Y’en a marre

Y’en a marre is a social movement that began in Senegal in 2011. It was created by a group of journalists and rappers to denounce the injustices of incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade’s regime. At that time, Fadel Barro, an investigative journalist and leading figure of the movement defined Y’en a marre as “a popular organisation which will touch the masses, which will echo the slogans and the frustration of the Senegalese, and which aims, above all, at bringing the concerns of the Senegalese to the centre of the debates.”

Y’en a marre,” which can be translated in English as “we’re fed up,” became a youth slogan in the fight against the Senegalese establishment. Hip-hop became the means for people to regain their enthusiasm and create shared experiences.

The movement gained national attention at the beginning of 2012, when young people led by the Y’en a marre leaders took to the streets to oppose President Wade ahead of the country’s presidential elections. The group’s rappers published several songs among which Daas fananal became the slogan of the protests and of the coming years. Daas fananal, specifically, is the “act of sharpening one’s knife the night before a sacrifice.” For Y’en a marre, the knife was the voter ID card that Senegalese citizens had to prepare for the elections. Wade was to be the object of the sacrifice.

Raising awareness among the people in Senegal

Since its founding, Y’en a marre has always been hostile to the political establishment. It has refused political alliances and abstained from participating in the democratic institutional process. Yet, the current pandemic has forced the movement to compromise. Y’en a marre leaders have decided to cooperate with the government, led by President Macky Sall, in order to collectively raise awareness about the spreading Coronavirus.

Specifically, the leaders met with the Ministry of Health and discussed their intention to film a new music video in which they would urge the population to take action to protect themselves and their community. Speaking with journalists after the meeting, members of the movement said that the people in the ministry “validated the messages of the song.” They affirmed that “today, political disputes must be silenced.”

Since this meeting, Y’en a marre has been one of the most active and present Senegalese forces in the fight against the spreading Coronavirus. Artists from the movement produced the hip-hop song Fagaru Ci Coronavirus and filmed its video inside the Fann hospital in Dakar. Then, together with other members, these artists launched the campaign “SA MASQUE, SA KAARÀNGE” (“Your mask, your protection”), distributing locally fabricated masks to the most affected areas of the country. 

Using the hashtag #FagaruCiCoronavirus, they also filmed a short series that has been broadcast on national TV as well as on Youtube. In each episode of this series, hip-hop songs have been used as the soundtrack to short stories explaining different behaviours that can limit the spread of the virus. 

Outside Senegal, other movements lead the action

Over the past decade, the Y’en a marre movement has served as an example for other social movements in Africa aiming at mobilising the youth and encouraging participation in civil society. In the time of Coronavirus,Y’en a marre’s actions have once again influenced initiatives in many other countries, and helped inform citizens about how their behaviour can limit the spread of the virus.

In Burkina Faso, for example, the social movement Balai citoyen has rapidly mobilised since the coronavirus arrived in the region. This non-violent movement was founded in 2013 by a reggae artist and a rapper protesting the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaoré. In recent months, Balai citoyen has launched a campaign acknowledging the risk of contagion in the country. The group’s members have extensively used social networks to promote their message; the hashtag “NePasPaniquerNePasBanaliser” (DonotpanicDonottrivialise) has become a slogan. They have also used hip-hop, just as Y’en a marre have.

Balai citoyen has also continued to hold the government to account. This is clear from a recent declaration of one of the movement’s members: “We call on the authorities to take all necessary measures so that our citizens can have all the means to face the current crisis.”

Flimbi, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is another movement that has decided to take to the street and inform people of the urgent need to protect themselves and their loved ones. The movement’s members, wearing white coats marked “Flimbi SOS” on their backs and holding microphones, have been able to reach many people and spread their message. The use of local languages, which is a technique common across all of these social movements, has helped them gain support and credibility among the population, especially the less educated.

Social movements’ role in times of crisis

The last ten years have marked a new era in the capacity of African social movements to give a voice to the youth, and in renewing the younger generations’ hope for their future. In the current health crisis, as the coronavirus reached Africa, these movements were able to reach the most isolated and least educated people by taking to the street and speaking directly to the population. 

Y’en a marre, in particular, has enjoyed great success in Senegal, both in the streets and through their action on social media and TV. Hip-hop has long been used as a tool for holding government accountable, and now it has been used to spread official messages to prevent the contagion and support the government’s instructions. 

It is unquestionable that in recent decades “Africa has become the continent of the young.” At present, people aged 0-25 account for 62% of the total population; the median age on the continent is around 19.7. But many young Africans remain highly dissatisfied with the political and socio-economic situations of their countries.

And for this reason social movements have decided to mobilised. As Kilifeu, a rapper and member of Y’en a marre, explained: “We are aware of our condition of sacrificed generation, but we do not intend to let ourselves be sacrificed. As citizens, we have a duty to participate to the management of public affairs and to democracy. It is through us that changes will come.”

In this time of crisis, it is hoped that change will result from an increased recognition of the importance of public health, and the creation of socially distant but emotionally connected communities. Once again, social movements are undoubtedly playing an important role. Organisations and activists around the world have a lot to learn from them.