P196 – Pathways out of “Waithood”: Engaging with a Repertoire of Strategies
10 July, 16:00-17:30

Carling Jørgen / Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)


Research on young people across Africa has recognized the structural obstacles to establishing a life as socially recognized adults. Men and women are experiencing what Alcinda Honwana in the ECAS 2013 Lugard Lecture described as waithood, a prolonged period of suspension between childhood and adulthood. This panel examines where young adults direct their hopes and efforts in order to escape waithood, or as a reaction to the frustrations it entails. Africanists have referred to waithood as an underlying force in diverse contemporary phenomena, including transnational migration, rebel recruitment, and religious mobilization. And these phenomena are partly related to the shifting faith in education as a path towards independent livelihoods. The notion of a repertoire of strategies, used in the title of this panel, does not indicate that many opportunities are available, or that young people always act strategically. However, it emphasizes the importance of examining agency and encourages a broad approach that spans thematic specialisms.

Sortir de l’expectative: envisager un éventail de stratégies
La recherche sur les jeunes en Afrique a reconnu les obstacles structurels à l’accès à une vie adulte socialement reconnue. Hommes et femmes vivent ce que Alcinda Honwana décrit dans la conférence Lugard de l’ECAS 2013 comme « waithood », une longue période d’expectative entre l’enfance et l’âge adulte. Ce panel examine ce vers quoi ces jeunes adultes dirigent leurs espoirs et leurs efforts pour échapper à l’expectative. Les africanistes voient l’expectative comme une force sous-jacente dans divers phénomènes contemporains comme la migration transnationale, le recrutement des rebelles et la mobilisation religieuse ; eux-mêmes en partie liés à une foi relative en l’éducation. La notion « éventail de stratégies », n’indique pas qu’il existe de nombreuses possibilités, ou que les jeunes agissent toujours de façon stratégique. Toutefois, elle souligne l’intérêt d’examiner la compétence des acteurs et encourage une approche pluri-thématique.

Paper 1

Birzle Maike / University of Basel

Ludwig Susann / University of Basel

Constructing the future: life-course strategies of university graduates in Burkina Faso and Mali

This paper focuses on life-course strategies deployed by university graduates in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and Bamako, Mali. Being strongly affected by unemployment, the imagined ‘ideal’ pathway to their professional goals seems to be blocked. Hence, graduates exploit opportunities which arise as they navigate the present. When exploring how university graduates plan their future, it became obvious that hope plays an important role. Especially in contexts of uncertainty, when individual control of trajectories is limited, hope becomes crucial. Hope implies that the hoping person is doing something in order to realize his or her hope. It is this close link between hope and action that will be examined by drawing on empirical data. Based on nine months of ethnographic fieldwork in each country, this paper argues that academic youth is actively working on their education, their social and professional networks as well as their religious practice and are, therefore, not waiting, but engaging in the construction of the future they imagine for themselves.

Paper 2

Dessertine Anna / Université Paris Ouest Nanterre-la Défense

Showing off and waithood: on the social status of young men in Guinea

Based on extensive fieldwork in a village in Upper Guinea, this paper aims to show how the ways young men perform who they are can allow for a better understanding of waithood. I will focus on what young men call the ghetto or grin, a place where they usually meet to drink tea but also as they say, ‘to kill time’. I will first show how, in meeting together in this way, young and single men experience waithood by materializing it. Indeed, other inhabitants often associated these places with the unemployement and inactivity of youth. Yet, in the course of such meetings, young men interact by joking, verbal sparring, and contests to tell the best story or relate the most impressive experience. How do such activities participate in the construction of self? What do people show of themselves to each other? Can showing off be understood as a strategy or path out of waithood? I will then briefly compare this situation with that of young men working in the artisanal gold mines of the region, so as to evaluate the impact of mobility and to question the notion of opportunity with respect to waithood. Is becoming a migrant a possible way of getting out of waithood? Is finding gold enough to enter adulthood? By insisting on a wide range of waithood experiences, I hope to show that waithood may be the time during which young men (re)define their social status.

Paper 3

Both Jonna / Leiden University

Berckmoes Lidewyde / University of Amsterdam

Multiple recipes for life stage transitions: young people’s experiences in Uganda and Burundi

In this paper we take a critical look at current conceptualizations of strategies and life stage transitions among young people in Africa. Through case studies from longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork in Uganda and Burundi, we explore the merits and limits to the concept of waithood to understand the experiences of young people and their (lack of) life stage transitions. Firstly, in their strategies (or tactics) are youth necessarily oriented towards achieving the status of social adulthood? Can their efforts be directed elsewhere, for instance to ambitions of youthful adventures or to their more proximate needs; something to eat, clothing, cigarettes, or deal with an unwanted pregnancy? Second, how do we conceptualize the many young people who may have pursued aspirations of respectable social adulthood but – as time passes– decide to project these aspirations onto their offspring? Do these youth still ‘wait’? Third, what can we learn from the youths that did make this transition in the years of our ethnographic fieldwork; what are their ‘successful recipes’? And does the implicit notion of linear transitions from childhood-youth-adulthood always hold or can we see other patterns emerging ? In this paper, we focus particularly on the roles mobilization, marriage and migration play in the young people’s strategies, their orientations and their achieved social statuses.

Paper 4

Gough Katherine / Loughborough University

Pathways towards adulthood: a longitudinal analysis of young people’s aspirations, strategies and realities in Lusaka

It has been widely documented how young people across Africa, who are growing up in challenging economic, social and political environments, are struggling to achieve a recognised status of adulthood. This paper makes a novel contribution to the literature on youth transitions through analysing longitudinal, ethnographic data on youth aspirations, strategies and realities collected in Lusaka, Zambia. The fortunes of a number of young people living in a compound (low-income settlement) have been followed for a decade, starting in 2004 when they were on the cusp of leaving school. The paper shows how their strategies to achieve adulthood are constantly evolving as their lives are characterised by instability, often triggered by critical moments such as changing family situations (especially through birth, marriage and death), finding/losing a sponsor and altered housing circumstances. Furthermore, personalities and friendships are also found to play a key role. The young people’s asp irations, whilst often far from being realised, are shown to be central to shaping their practices and hence are key to understanding of their pathways towards adulthood.

Paper 5

Evans Ruth / University of Reading

Young people’s responses to the death of a relative: a vital conjuncture that complicates pathways out of waithood?

Recent research has demonstrated the highly relational, rather than ‘individualised’ nature of youth transitions in Africa, which are embedded in social relations with family members, peers and others in the community. Based on cross-cultural research funded by The Leverhulme Trust (2014-15), this paper explores the extent to which the death of a relative represents a ‘vital conjuncture’ (Johnson-Hanks, 2002) for young people in urban Senegal that reconfigures and potentially transforms young people’s familial responsibilities and their imagined futures, further complicating their pathways out of ‘waithood’. Thirty families of diverse ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds living in two major cities (Dakar and Kaolack) in Senegal were recruited. We draw on in-depth interviews with two members of each family who had experienced the death of a relative, including 30 young people (aged 12-30). We also conducted four focus groups with members of youth associations and women’s groups. We analyse young people’s responses to the death of a relative and their narratives of the effects this had on their present lives and imagined futures, in terms of education, livelihoods, familial responsibilities, residential mobility and migration. The research contributes to the growing literature on young people’s pathways out of waithood in Africa in the context of death, changing cultural and religious norms and processes of urbanisation.

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