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Review of Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa


By Michael Etherton

Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa. eds. Alcinda Honwana & Filip De Boeck. James Currey, Oxford, 2005. 324pp. ISBN 0-85255-434-6 (pb), £16.95

This is an important collection of sociological studies of African youth over the past two decades. It proposes a collective view which sees young people as breaking with both old and new African traditions. Across the continent marginalised young people reject the various pre-colonial African social traditions as well as the postcolonial structure and rhetoric of the African nation state. Young Africans reject it because in their experience they perceive neither social framework as having anything to do with them. Not only have African youth fractured the past, they are therefore, and inevitably, making a new kind of society in Africa. They are both makers and breakers within society.

The analysis of the present and emerging situation of youth in Africa is globally situated, in a key-note essay by Professors Jean and John Comaroff, within the parameters of globalization and the global neo-liberal economic order. They corroborate the results of research from other academic disciplines. Global capitalist consumerism enables youth to access a desirable lifestyle and then rubs their noses in their poverty and disenfranchisement. The Comaroffs go further:
''Yet one of the hallmarks of the present moment, of the age of globalization and postcoloniality, has been a diminishing of the capacity of governments – if not of the market forces they foster – to control adolescent bodies, energies or intentions.'' (Reflections on Youth, from Past to Postcolony, p. 22)

The various case studies in the volume demonstrate the ways in which young people live in the very eye of contradiction, as both ‘victim’ and as ‘agency’, within oppressive and extraordinary experiences. They become combatants – ‘child soldiers’ – or fellow-travellers of combatants (both boys and girls, in Liberia and Sierra Leone); child witches (particularly in the DRC); subversive masqueraders or singers (Cameroun and Botswana respectively); barbers in Arusha, Tanzania; rough street-boys in most African cities. Other essays in the volume explore the ways in which pain is registered and dealt with by children and young people.

The presentation of the material is highly structured, and the focus of the volume is strictly controlled. Authors refer to other studies in the volume, reflecting the shared perspectives of the conference that gave rise to this publication. The Introduction by the editors, the contextualising essay by John and Jean Comaroff, and Mamadou Diouf’s Afterword frame the governing ideas and are mutually referential. This approach signals an important new, or at least changed, discourse on Africa. However, it has excluded other similar discourses concerning young people in Africa, most notably the activist Rights-based approach of a sizeable number of non-government organisations [NGOs] to youthful agency in many countries. This practical work identifies similar dichotomies among disadvantaged youth. It needs the underpinning of these analyses; it also provides other paradigms in practice.

The problem of analysing ‘children’, ‘young people’, ‘youth’, is that while we have a clear idea about who we are talking about, yet we cannot easily define these categories. ‘Youth’ in Africa can include men who are perpetual students [less often women] into their thirties, even into their forties; while sixteen year olds are seen as adults. In the politically and economically fractured nation state the latter have assumed adult authority. The terminology used by adults to refer to boys and girls – ‘child’, ‘brat’, ‘adolescent’, ‘teenager’, ‘youth’, ‘minor’, ‘baby’, ‘urchin’, ‘juvenile’ and so on – have diverse, pejorative, and ultimately political connotations depending on who uses the terms to refer to whom and in what contexts. This problem concerns the categorization of a segment of the population.

Another problem concerns the individuality of youth. Who are these young African individuals? Honwana and De Boeck write that they may be: ‘…targets, students, servants, orphans, street children, combatants, healers, on-lookers, political activists, entrepreneurs, artists or witches, and they occupy more than one position at once’ (p.3). At the same time, these young individuals, with their multiple roles both as agents and as victims, eventually become individual adults. The state of youth passes into the state of adulthood. ‘Youngsters’ become ‘grown-ups’.

Diouf sums up this focus of the volume:
''In a way one is witnessing the end of the representation of youth by adults. The prescriptions of the latter have given way to the self-assertion of young people, and the self-realization of their own desires and aspirations.'' (Afterword, p. 231)

This conclusion is shared by those social activists in NGOs and civil society who base their work with young people in Africa on the international Human Rights order. They see self-assertion and self-realization as being the most significant of all the rights of young people. What the case studies explored in this volume convincingly demonstrate for these adult practitioners, are the strategic significance of the agency of young people in society.

It is difficult to know if this present generation of youth in Africa will influence future generations of young people. Will young people in future consolidate their ambiguous autonomy, remain uncontrolled by the state, and continue to be the makers and breakers of the destiny of the continent? The other alternative, perhaps, is that the young combatants today, the child witches, the discursive and creative youth of the present generation will grow into adulthood and then continue to exercise their agency. They may find new ways, in the future, if states continue to fragment, of suborning and undermining the autonomy and agency of subsequent generations of children and young people.

My only reservation about Makers and Breakers concerns the occasional lapses into the jargon of deconstruction and postmodernism. This, like development industry jargon, will alienate many readers, including creative activists in development who work with young people. The collective analysis of youth in Africa in this collection is important for a much wider readership than other academic sociologists and anthropologists. While I accept that the latter may be the intended readership of this book, the case studies and strong conceptual underpinning of this research, emphasising its wider significance, could I think be just as powerfully expressed in an English vocabulary more widely in use.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 85-87]

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