Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Guest Author Posting: Alcinda Honwana

The Time of Youth
Alcinda Honwana

The research for this book began in 2008 in Mozambique and was later expanded to South Africa, Senegal, and Tunisia. In these four countries I met young people from a range of social and economic backgrounds. I conducted individual interviews and focus-group discussions with students, young professionals, musicians and other artists, activists from various fields, and unemployed young men and women carrying out the most diverse activities to try to make ends meet.

Young people were eager to tell their stories. In long individual interviews I listened to their life stories and their views about their peers, their elders, the economy, and politics. Focus-group discussions were undertaken with diverse groups of young people. Some were all female, some all male, and some mixed. Others involved people with common interests, such as musicians and performers. I also spoke with groups belonging to particular organizations, such as party youth leagues and civil society associations. Most focus groups considered specific topics, and participants debated and exchanged views among themselves.

I also took time to interact with young people in places where they normally hung out, such as youth clubs, restaurants, and bars. Occasionally I was invited for meals at their homes and had the opportunity to meet their parents, siblings, and other relatives. The fact that my research assistants were themselves quite young facilitated my access to their social networks; I met their friends and then the friends of those friends, creating a snowball effect. My research assistants mediated between my young informants and me, as they advised me about the “dos and don’ts” and explained what was considered “cool” and “uncool.” They provided useful insights regarding ways of broaching difficult subjects. Although I speak the major languages of all four countries, they also translated and helped interpret some of the discussions conducted with young people in their mother tongues, especially Wolof in Senegal and Arabic in Tunisia.

In addition, I interviewed government officials, religious leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals who are concerned about youth. These interviews provided information about the ways these societies look at young people, specific policies and programs designed for them, and youths’ place in the economy, society, and culture.

Most of the research was conducted in urban settings, although I occasionally visited rural areas. Many young people who grow up in the economically undeveloped countryside seek a solution to their pressing problems in the cities. African cities are teeming with young men and women trying to survive on the margins of formal socioeconomic structures. For many, the city becomes a place to forge new ways of living free from the constraints of rural society. In the countryside, youth have no platform for action not only because resources are limited but also because older people tend to monopolize power; indeed, some call rural communities gerontocracies. The city promises anonymity, a degree of chaos that allows for personal freedom. Here they find possibilities for improvisation, experimentation, and desenrascar—literally, to disentangle themselves from a situation, and metaphorically, to improvise a solution from almost nothing at the very last moment.

The young people I interviewed described their daily life struggles as well as their aspirations. They shared amazing stories of resilience and survival under dire circumstances. I tell the stories of the young men in Maputo who survive by scavenging in the city’s garbage dump; of the Mozambican mukheristas, young women who engage in small-scale, cross-border trading without paying import taxes; of the young South Africans whose only form of livelihood is sporadic overnight shelf-packing in supermarkets; of the Senegalese street vendors and those desperate enough to try to make the dangerous crossing to Europe in small pirogues (boats); of the Tunisian university graduates working in European-owned call centers; and of the many young women and men who hook up with “sugar daddies” and “sugar mamas” to be able to pay high school fees and buy fashionable goods. I also introduce readers to rappers who criticize the status quo, protesters who force governments to reverse unsound policies, and revolutionaries who topple dictatorships. Indeed, young men and women do not merely wait for their lives to change. They are proactive and wake up each day with the goal of making their own lives better despite their depressing circumstances.

I was amazed by their agency as they actively set out to live as fully as possible despite their circumstances. I was equally struck by their capacity to understand the broader structural forces that shape their everyday lives. I was most impressed by their creativity and the commitment to citizenship that they sustained amid such a chaotic and often improvised existence. Young people are involved in a myriad of associations and activist groups and deeply engaged with the issues that matter to them, often on the margins of formal political structures and ideologies.

Young people were very clear about the ways they wanted me to portray them and the messages they hoped I would deliver on their behalf. They are keenly aware of the disapproving ways parents and elders, governments, and the media generally depict them. In this book I bring their own voices to the fore by using as many direct quotations as possible and providing information about who they are in order to allow the reader greater insight into their lives.

The Time of Youth focuses on the lives of many of these youths struggling with unemployment and sustainable livelihoods in the context of widespread social and economic crisis. Failed neo-liberal socio-economic policies, bad governance and political instability have caused stable jobs to disappear—without jobs young people cannot support themselves and their families. Most young Africans are living in a period of suspension between childhood and adulthood because they are unable to make the transition into adult independence -to build, buy, or rent a house for themselves, support their relatives, get married, establish families, and gain social recognition as adults. They live in a state of limbo that I call  “waithood” (a portmanteau term of “wait” and “-hood”, meaning ‘waiting for adulthood’). Unfortunately, in many of these social contexts waithood is becoming pervasive and is gradually replacing conventional adulthood. While the book focuses on four African case studies, it also argues that youth in Europe, North America and other parts of the world are facing the same crisis of joblessness and restricted futures. Thus the youth crisis, or waithood, is becoming global.

Order your copy of The Time of Youth today. To request review and/or exam copies, contact Marketing Associate Jennifer Kern at: Jennifer@styluspub.com.

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