Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics and Conflict in Africa. Jon Abbink and Ineke van Kessel. Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2005. 300 pp.
This diverse collection contributed by NGO activists and academics revolve around the very unitive focus of youth in Africa, whose problems are seen as senstive baromoter of crises in various African societies. Indeed the besetting temptation to avoid when commenting on youth is to wallow in Afripessimism, though the commitment of these writers to the subject of study is such that redeeming features are to be found in unsuspected places, even in Sierra Léone (where there is now a remarkable social recovery). There is then the aim not to fall back on ‘the bleak picture’ (p. 2), but to do justice to the many positive exceptions of youth, and to their versatitly, survival skills, agency, and intentionality of action, while paying due attention to real inter-generational tension and violence. The contribution to scholarship then is correct the Africanist discourse that has denied them this justice and promoted the perception of their being problematic in essence. Youth are not only socially undesirable, unemployed, or criminal, but also engaged in the creative growth of popular aesthetics, new religious movements, local NGOs, the appropriation of ICT, sports, and politics. The editors identify three main academic responses to counter despair (pp. 8-10): to demonstrate the agency of youth; to devise interventionist policies to transform situations; and to set out descriptive-analytic accounts to explain current scenorios.
Have these objectives been met?
One of the contributions, Murray Last’s on Hausa youth, comes out of a long engagement with a people or part of Africa through history and social science, but most of the contributors are themselves realtively young,or at least nearer the beginning of their academic career. Of these, Thomas Burgess on youth in Zanzibar, goes to the archives, but lack of years and of historical sources are not surprisingly par for the course in this study. How interview material is considered to be representative of youth is seldom clarified, and when this is spread over a few far-flung parts of Africa, united only in their descent into violent conflict, suspicions of superficiality arise. One of the most memorable contributions is that by Yves Marguerat for his personal encounter with Lomé street-boys. Though inviting them into his home might raise ethical issues of fieldwork, the reader is given an insight into thinking seldom transmitted, even in this book, by distanced academic work or by scheduled interventions. Because of the alienation and the violence it is not straightforward to reproduce the thoughts of those who are not prepared to articulate them easily to an outsider.
Inevitably agency is not always identified and the ‘bleak picture’ restored. Jok Madut Jok writes out of a long war-torn situation, yet he could have criticized Sharon Hutchinson on the Nuer and found some hope in the rise of the church and local autonomy as the herds are regenerated. Simonse concludes that with pastoralist youth, ‘there is no basis on which sustainable governance and security can be built’ (p. 263), yet fails to observe that there has never been so many young pastoralists as today, and they have a meaningful autnomy that could be the envy of many youth.
Compared with Western youth, the religious factor is a significant one. Murray Last (p. 51) finds that Islam empowers the young and gives them a special expertise. Revivalist movements may assist youth to find a future in a failing society, precisely because of the requirement for a ‘total break with the past’, but this may also further rupture it. Pentecostalism has often been mentioned as a means for youth to relate to globalizing trends with their fleeting promise of empowerment, but African youth are involved in many different kinds of traditional religions, world religions, and new religious movements that may react against either for the imagined good life. Religious commitment usually crystallizes in the life-stage of youth, so could have been addressed as more central in more of the contributions, when religon mediates change in Africa and is so often associated with marginalization, identity, and violent conflict or its prevention.
Inter-generational tension and the violence of youth is directly addressed by two contributions, each focusing on East African societies that have had age-class systems, which normally function to express, yet manage, tensions betweeen formal generation-sets. Simon Simonse communicates to the editor that such social order has broken down, victimizing women, and making pastoral societies ‘internal war zones’ (p. 29). Ignoring the relatively effective system of social control, he defines Karamojong ngikaracuna as warriors, when actually the word means those who pull at the aprons; they are kept down as children. It is not an ‘age-grade’, for most youth have to wait many years for initiation, and so seniority in the traditional polity. The distinction he needs is between the warriors (ngikajok) and the bandits (ngikokelak). Neither have to be initiated, but one acts for the benefit of traditional society, while the other acts outside it, often bringing trouble to it. The first are accountable to the elders, the latter are outlaws, who would include pupils who ‘collect their school fees by staging ambushes on the road’ (p. 254). The latter is a witness to the failure of modernity, not the traditional polity, as is the government becoming entangled in conflict, ending up (he might just as well have said ‘beginning’) ‘as just another warring party in a cycle of revenge’ (p. 254). Simonse also descends to alarmism on the spread of ‘warlordism’ and ‘the omnipresence of arms’ causing conflicts ‘to become more deadly and more difficult to solve’ (pp. 252f.). Employment in NGO projects has allowed him to see misplaced European concepts and technology as determinative and this piece is quite the worst academic contribution he has made. All my publishing on Karamoja has tried to show the vanity of this kind of interventionist superiority.
Peter Kagwanja is a Gikuyu emigré, who has often written on youth and politics in Kenya, and his paper deals with another popularly demonized group, the Muingiki, who are a sharp reaction to the intense moderning direction of the Agikuyu. They ‘embraced a vision of generational transfer based on a traditional Kikuyu system Ituika (‘break’), which guaranteed a transfer of power from the elders to the younger generation’ (p. 83). He writes of them in terms resurrecting the defunct generation-set system, ‘Imagining themselves as the Iregi warriors of old’ (p. 103). He commends the self-discipline at which the movement aims: ‘its crusade against drunkenness, drug addiction, broken families, prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS has been highly successful’ (p. 97). He concludes optimistically. ‘The road to democracy in the future lies in strengthening the social movements of the youth and a break with the prevailing powerlessness and marginality of the youth in politics.’ (p. 106). This would domesticate their violence, but the trouble is that there still remains a strong drive towards modernity among the Agikuyu and even the Muingiki, for unlike the Karamojong there can be no return now to a generation-set system. Nevertheless this is the best academic contribution he has published for its insight into social forms, and a reminder of the postmodern poverty on relating the generations so that they can serve one another for the common good.
There is then a predictable diversity in quality as well as in theme and approach, but that too denotes the life of youth in Africa. If they are your interest, have a dip here!
Ben Knighton Oxford Centre for Mission Studies