Janet Badjan-Young is a Gambian playwright and director of the Ebunjan theatre in the Gambian capital Banjul. The Gambia has one of the highest migration rates in sub-Saharan Africa. The current government is trying to tackle the causes, but many young people still see Europe as a ‘Babylon’ instead of working to better their own country, thinks Badjan-Young, who recently won an award for her play tackling the dangers of migration.
“I’m happy that I have something to do with the theater, otherwise I’m sure I would be in jail,” roars Janet Badjan-Young, laughing gleefully. “I have too much energy, I fight with everyone, so I have to put that into something productive.”
It is hard to imagine this wise and venerable playwright in jail, but even across a phone line from The Gambia, Badjan-Young transmits enough energy to confirm she is a force of nature. She laughs long and generously during the interview. In between the merriment though, she manages to convey the wisdom of someone who is “nearly 82”, a seasoned broadcaster and former UN employee, who today writes about big social themes in her plays. From slavery to migration, she is experienced at tackling the things that matter, and should matter, to her fellow Gambians.
As if that wasn’t enough, Badjan-Young is the director of her own theatre in Banjul, (Ebujan theatre) and is planning to turn her latest play, “Backway-The desperate route to Babylon” into a radio play, “to reach even more people via listening groups,” she explains.
Dreaming of 'the Backway'
The “Backway” just won her a TAF Icon award from the TAF foundation. TAF is a pan-African property development company with a huge presence in The Gambia and Nigeria. As part of their corporate social responsibility strategy, TAF funds projects to help develop young Gambian entrepreneurs and contribute money to help nurture the next generation of global leaders.
Badjan-Young’s play centers on a couple of young men who dream of getting to Europe or “Babylon” via the “Backway”, meaning via irregular routes. One character named “Batch” is described as “a Wollof youth, 23-years-old. Tall and ungainly…He dropped out of school at the age of 16.” Another, “Dembo” is “a Mandinka youth, about 24-years-old. Short, muscular, a talented footballer. He left his village Dampha Kunda to live in greater Banjul.” Lastly, there is “Action Pac.” “A Sarahule youth, 19-years-old, he behaves older. He is loud and uncouth.”
Dembo is convinced that if he can only get to Germany, he can join a football team and become rich. Action Pac thinks the way to money is via sex or marriage to an older British woman and Batch thinks that the only way to money is via Europe or Babylon.
‘You need skills before you go and live abroad’
The three who want to try “the Backway” have not pursued their education. In the play, one of the characters tells them to keep their talk away from the students who need to concentrate on their studies and build a life in The Gambia.
Badjan-Young says this was deliberate. She herself was educated in both Britain and the US and followed her dreams of working abroad armed with her own education and a list of skills. That is the only way, she thinks, to do it properly. “I went there legally, because I was qualified. This is what these guys don’t realize, you have to have some skills before you go and live abroad.”
All Badjan-Young’s plays are extensively researched. In the case of this one, two stories had touched her personally and inspired her to write about this “pressing social issue.” One of the skeletons who comes back from the bottom of the Mediterranean to warn the three young men before they set off is called “Makalu”. His name, explains Badjan-Young, is that of a young man who had trained with her at the theater. “He was doing extremely well…and still, he decided to go the ‘backway.’”
He called her one day to tell her his mother was very ill and that he had no cash. “So I said, how much do you need? He said something like ‘3,000 dalasis (which is a bit less than 100 dollars)’ So I said, OK! And I sent the money to him via the usual channels. And then one day he called me and said, he was on his way to Dakar. I thought this was strange but I didn’t follow it up." A bit later, around Christmas time, she got another call and he said he was in Libya. “So I thought, wow, he got to Libya.” Makalu asked for more money this time, “I didn’t have the kind of money he was asking for,” explains Badjan-Young.
Makalu said he was “trying to get to Germany.” “Why would you want to do that?” Badjan-Young asked incredulously. “I heard he was in Libya for some time, the next thing I heard, he had drowned, poor thing,” says Badjan-Young. “Those are things which make you feel you ought to write about it,” she concludes.
‘All the dollar were taken’
She had another experience too which she has woven into the play. The other skeleton, a gardener, explains that to pay for his journey he stole money from his boss. Badjan-Young was that boss in a similar real-life situation. “My own gardener, he was a listless guy, never doing his work properly. I usually go to church on a Wednesday morning. When I came back, there was something urgent and I needed cash. When I ran up to my safe, I found it open and I realized that I had not closed it properly. All the dollars I had in there were taken.”
Badjan-Young admits that young people in The Gambia today probably don’t have as many opportunities to migrate legally as she did back in the sixties. Nevertheless, she believes that they have to start being creative, like the girlfriend of the character Batch in her play. “Sukai,” at the end of the play, speaks passionately about how it is possible to realize your dreams in The Gambia too. “You must stay here,” pleads Sukai of Batch, “and do your utmost to make a living in your own country. […] we are all running to Babylon looking for opportunities when we could create our own opportunities here.”
Without wanting to ruin the ending of the play, the last words, spoken by Sukai are full of hope and promise a “new beginning” if only Batch listens to her. As the lights dim, he delivers his verdict. His two friends, it is implied, will follow the fate of the skeletons despite the warnings.
Badjan-Young took her play into schools around the country. She admits that the Gambia is still far behind many other countries in terms of development and a lot more could be done to “bring it up to standard.” However, she wants young people to be aware of the positive stories of those who remain too and tries to warn against believing that riches will come to you, if only you make it Europe, or Babylon.
“Some of them have gone and come back. All of those who have gone will never try again because it is hard. There is male prostitution that goes on there too, it is a difficult topic,” says Badjan-Young. In her play, she warns that the kinds of jobs really on offer to young people from The Gambia, with no particular skills, will be at best cleaning public toilets. It is not what someone is usually dreaming of when he sets off, she thinks.
She tells the story of a young boy in school who was dreaming of going to Europe because, according to him, his cousin had gone there and married an Italian girl and had nice children with her and brought them all back to The Gambia and built a nice house. Badjan-Young’s voice takes on a slightly cynical note. “I tell them, you are not going to find an educated European who will marry you, they will be, at best, half-educated like you.” She asked the boy: “have you never wished or planned to be a good schoolteacher in The Gambia and build up this country? Quiet. He hadn’t! They are not motivated to see role models here,” complains Badjan-Young.
Similar to slavery?
In the past, she explains, we built up America and Britain as slaves, “now they are going willingly,” you can almost hear her shaking her head in despair over the phone. The route might be different but the life that most find on reaching Europe will be similar, in some ways, to that of their forefathers who were transported as slaves. “They will gladly clean toilets there [in Europe] and they don’t even want to clean the streets of The Gambia, […]it’s very sad” comments Badjan-Young sagely.
“These are young people who should be carrying on and building up the country, but if they all leave the country, who is going to do this?” asks Badjan-Young of her fellow citizens. “We need people to carry on with government and industries.” The only positive effect she can see are the remittances that get sent home. “What we want are kids who take their education seriously, we want job creation here for them and for them to have skills so they can earn their living.”
Drama to convey a message
For Badjan-Young, teaching drama gives young people confidence and helps them to continue their education. Some of the people she has trained have gone on to universities and have developed skills to stay home. She is hoping that the actors at her theatre can work with NGOs to communicate health and social issues within the community. “I hope that people who see this play will think twice or three times before embarking on this kind of route. I think it made an impact on them.”
When Badjan-Young moved back to The Gambia from Kenya, she thought that she would build a house and have a quiet retirement. It has been anything other than that. Undeterred, she can’t see herself stopping anytime soon and she hopes to continue inspiring Gambian youth to rise up and meet the challenges of their country instead of running off and chasing dreams which may lead to their death, or more certainly misery for both them, and their country.