Although Babou educates his listeners, he has no formal education. He is 43, and was born and raised in Kebemer, a rural region of Senegal about 150 kilometers northwest of Dakar. He moved to that city as a young man and quickly found work as a translator for several political activist groups that were fighting for a more open, less French-influenced democracy. He said it was easy for him, because he was one of the few people in these groups who spoke Wolof “very, very well.” Babou eventually worked his way up the communications ladder to become a Wolof translator for Cheikh Anta Diop, a French-speaking scholar of early humanity in Africa and the namesake of Senegal’s most prestigious university.
When Babou moved to New York in the 1980s, he worked the graveyard shift at a gas station. He grew restless, finding little to do to pass the time on slow nights. His Haitian co-worker listened to reggae music on the radio until the station switched in the morning to multi-language shows—in English, Arabic, and more. He wondered why there could not be a similar show focused on Senegal, in Wolof and French. Some 7,000 Senegalese live in the city.
“I was working with somebody who was a trained journalist from Senegal whose brother was my friend,” Babou said. “And I told him about it, and he said, ‘Let’s do it!’ And we started.”
Babou’s program was the first Wolof-language radio show in New York, but more striking: it was the first program broadcast in Senegal about national and political affairs to be broadcast in Wolof. “In Senegal, they had radio that was Wolof programming, but usually it was entertainment,” he said. “The serious things, they think it has to be said in French. It was the first time they hear somebody giving the same weight to French and Wolof.” There are other such programs now.
Nearly 20 years on, Babou employs four correspondents in Senegal, two in New York, and individual correspondents in France, Benin, Ivory Coast, and Mauritania. He usually records in a studio in downtown Manhattan. But Hurricane Sandy knocked it out of operation, which is why he did his election night show from Londel’s restaurant.
Many listeners called him during his absence to ask why African Time had not aired. On election night , Babou’s listeners received their first broadcast since the storm.
“People that will see you in the street, they will say, ‘We really want to know what’s happening,” he said. “They will say, ‘This evening, we are waiting for you.’”