Day One—As 2015 comes to a close, drummers, government officials and community members line the dusty road. Smiles, music, and salutations surround the more than 350 youth walking together, slowly, across the Gambian Upper River Region (URR). Visible in their eyes is determination, as they set out on their human rights mission. 

This group of over 300 young people proudly took part in the Annual Youth Caravan and Forum in the Gambia between December 25th and 31st. They trekked to six Fula villages to gather their peers and elders for an open discussion on the human rights and responsibilities of youth.

These youth were active participants in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), where they learned about human rights and responsibilities. They then used the caravan as a way to share and foster learning around best practices, skills and new knowledge acquired during the CEP classes. By demonstrating their new skills to other communities in the region, they hope to become more involved in decision-making and encourage wider participation from other youth in the region. 

As a way of sharing with their parents, peers, and local authorities in each of the villages visited during the event, youth participants presented on human rights and their corresponding responsibilities, while explaining their importance to youth in particular. They also used skits and personal testimonies to show how rights are relevant in young people’s lives. These outlets touched on the pressing issues affecting each community and how to work together to solve them. As human rights and youth engagement are to be celebrated, the caravan organized a cultural night of performances at each stop along the way.

Day Seven—the end of the caravan approaches as the youth march from Sare Gubu Muntaga to Sare Gubu Basiru. The village chief, Alagie Demba Bah, welcomes his visitors into his home, where he has chosen to host the forum that culminates this year’s caravan. He opens the floor declaring how this is “an important meeting in the history of my village and the Sandu District as a whole. Tostan’s intervention in the URR is a blessing, as it contributed to the improvement of the living conditions of the people in my village, especially women and children. He urges the youth to continue the activities of the program—as the future leaders of their communities.

Shortly after Chief Bah’s introduction, Hawa Jawo, a participant from Sotuma Samba Koi, submitted the group’s youth manifesto. This manifesto highlighted five basic human rights: the right to food, employment, recreation facilities, a clean environment, and child protection [against harmful practices like FGC & child marriage]. 

Hawa Jawo handing the manifesto to Chief of Sandu Ansou Kambaye, National Coordinator of Tostan Gambia, explained that this is an opportunity that “creates dialogue…about problems facing youth and strategies for positive ways to contribute to their long term development.” Local police officer Yamandu Susso and Senior Agriculture Officer Ebou Lowe expressed similar sentiments, remarking that “Tostan’s intervention has contributed to the empowerment of the people of URR in so many ways and complements the efforts of the government in the maintenance of peace and security.”

Chief Bah reflects on the positive changes he’s seen in his community and his region: the Tostan Community Management Committees are resolving family, marital and inter-community conflicts, youth are participating in decision-making meetings, and women have found their voices in public settings. He thanks the youth for carrying out their responsibilities by sharing their knowledge—and challenges them to keep up the momentum. After all, he points out, sharing knowledge is a noble contribution to national development. 

It is clear: the atmosphere is hopeful and spirits are high.  

Contributions from Edrisa Keita and Lamin Fatty