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Towards an anthropology of youth in Africa

Anne-Marie Peatrik
Traduction de Matthew Cunningham
Cet article est une traduction de :
Pour une anthropologie des jeunes en Afrique [fr]


Deconstructing the “young people” category in Africa, in order to place its study on new foundations: such is the aim of this anthropological essay. Understood through its emergence and its historical establishment, particularly during the sequences of events that followed decolonisation, the “young person” category is separated out from the tangle of connected concepts (cadet social, junior, young generation), enriched with components of its construction that have gone unnoticed (calendar age, demographic and political category), explored taking account of the uncertainty surrounding the delimitations and characterisations of that phase of human development. Thus comparatively re-characterised, the means of another interpretation of the “young people” category appeared, making it possible at once to conceive of the heterogeneity of this category, to apprehend its underlying dynamics, and to sketch angles of approach for new studies.

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1Intellectual curiosity that turned into methodological investigation was the point of departure for this issue with deliberately sober titles, presenting a blueprint for an anthropology of youth in Africa. While completing issue 42 of Ateliers d’anthropologie (Rivoal and Peatrik, 2015)—which explored young people in the southern Mediterranean, based on the category shabâb (which means “young man” in Arabic and covered shared questions and research themes)—the idea arose to comparatively explore the categories “young people” and “youth” in sub-Saharan Africa. Current events also inspired this extension since young people in Senegal, Burkina Faso and other countries seemed to be following in the footsteps of their peers north of the Sahara in mobilising against the powers that be. “Young people” could thus offer a stimulating means of deepening an anthropology of the ages of life, by examining not the succession of ages, but one particular age from the perspective of a transcultural variation (Peatrik, 2001, 2003a, 2015a).

2A little-known fact should be recalled at the outset: “African youth”, a familiar presence in media and the public sphere, has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Identified in the 1920s with the “detribalised” young person quick to threaten the pre-eminence of elders and disrupt the colonial order (D’Almeida-Topor et al., 1992; Burton and Charton-Bigot [eds], 2010; Ocobock, 2017), African young people and youth blossomed in the postcolonial imagination with the eruption of a wide variety of crises that unsettled the independent states, against a backdrop of population growth with its controversial but obvious effects.

3Youths primarily constitute a demographic category and are rooted in a statistical reality. In the majority of African countries, the median age of the population is around 20 years, and it is as low as 15 in certain countries like Niger and Uganda. “In 2015, 44% of sub-Saharans (outside of Southern Africa) were under 15 years of age, two thirds were under 25; in Africa as a whole, less than 4% are over 65” (Magrin et al., 2016: 14–15). These figures cover a variety of local realities, particularly from the point of view of the demographic transition; however, those realities are not yet affecting the general trend.

4For authors who are thinking at the scale of the African continent and endeavouring to place their arguments in certain perspectives—from Joseph-Achille Mbembe’s first book (1985) to Alcinda Honwana’s essay (2012), to Stephen Smith’s recent essay (2018), their publication dates alone illustrating the phenomenon’s timespan—young people and youth in Africa alternately inspire hope or pessimism: sometimes they are the nation’s shining lights thanks to schooling, and offer proof of the continent’s economic emergence, sometimes they are threatening troublemakers and hooligans, and then sometimes they are icons of desperation, such as when we see the figures of street children, or those of child-soldiers, or young migrants at the 18-year borderline, grouped under the banner Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) according to the latest international public policy category (Golaz and Thibon [eds], 2015; Peatrik, 2015b).

  • 1 Indicative list of collective books on youth in Africa published since 2000:
    – 2000, Filip De Boeck

5At the more specific level of their disciplines, researchers are also tempted to play upon simplistic oxymorons: perpetrator/victim, guilty/innocent, heroes/villains, makers/breakers, vanguard/vandals, particularly in their titles, even though their studies display the reserve and distance that are proper for observation and analysis. However, the list of the titles of the main collective books that have been published since the turn of the millennium1 indicates, in addition to a reorientation towards this generation, the desire to return to more neutrality and explore ordinary children and youth in Africa (Durham, 2000) in their diversity and concrete activities—a concern that we share in returning to the reflexivity that this special issue encourages.

1. Conceiving the heterogeneity of the “young people” category in Africa

  • 2 Muriel Champy (2015, 2016, present volume) was completing her thesis on a particular category of “s (...)

6The large number articles received in response to the call for submissions that preceded this issue2 confirms the enthusiasm that “youth” is inspiring among researchers working in Africa. However, few of them took account of the critical and reflexive dimension that the call encouraged in the treatment of the categories “young people” and “youth” in Africa, and the articles ultimately chosen, exploring highly specific subjects, represented disparate intentions.

  • 3 Studies on children and childhood in Africa and elsewhere differ on this point (Rabain, 1979; LeVin (...)

7Rather than lament this, it seemed more judicious to turn the lens around and question this heterogeneity (also that of the discipline), something that reveals a field in which young people and youth in Africa remain poorly identified subjects of knowledge.3 This observation, which runs counter to common conceptions, calls for a few explanations, inasmuch as knowledge on this nascent field is not widely shared. Unlike Western societies, for which a sociology of youth has long existed (Galland, [1991] 2011; Van de Velde, 2008, 2015), there is nothing equivalent for African youth. On the one hand, ethnographers and anthropologists have produced an accumulation of knowledge on customary societies that is considered to have been more or less surpassed by contemporary changes and thus essentially invalidated. On the other hand, studies scattered around the respective intellectual perimeters of political scientists, demographers and historians—and more belatedly a few anthropologists and sociologists—have certainly made it possible to identify problems, but have not paved the way for cumulative knowledge.

  • 4 Especially given that, as we will see in the present volume (Champy, present volume), some authors (...)
  • 5 I would like to thank the various readers whose comments and suggestions encouraged me undertake an (...)

8This essay aims to build bridges between these areas of knowledge—in short, to reflect upon the possibility of an anthropology of youth. “How not to do away with young people and youth in Africa?” was the first, slightly provocative title proposed for this issue. Parodying humanitarian messages and prophesies on African youth, it was also a play on Bourdieu’s (1984) famous interjection during a 1978 interview with an apprentice researcher (“Youth” is only a word), but it added confusion to a stock-taking process that was already proving to be difficult.4 An introduction to the articles will provide an immediate idea of the disparate character of the analyses on young people and youth in Africa, and root the lineaments of an anthropology in the empirical investigation, in dialogue with the authors (few in number) who have made a significant contribution to these explorations.5 Deconstructed over the course of its historical emergence, the “young people” category will be analysed in relation to the connected concepts “cadet social” [“social non-firstborn”], “junior” and “young generation”. Its examination from the perspective of its demographic dimension and from that of calendar age will then lead to a newly founded examination of the shifting labels on this phase of human development, and the uncertainty of its boundaries. This new interpretation of the “young people” category in Africa will make it possible to identify new investigation frameworks suitable for capturing underlying dynamics, and to pave the way for a variety of comparisons.

9The first section contains three articles dealing with East Africa, the region of choice for original political systems that are based on the extensive use of age and generation criteria, in which authority is (now “was” for most of the populations concerned) renewed every time power is transmitted between consecutive generations and a new set of Fathers arrives (Peatrik, 1995a and b). In this context, youth—or more precisely its equivalent(s)—is not linked to the idea of crisis, nor credited with an exceptional valence: as a link in the chain of ages, endowed with moral and physical characteristics and distinctive aptitudes, youth is socially conceived or conceptually defined in the same way as other ages when they are indexed according to a grade or status.

10Among Samburu pastoralists in northern Kenya—who are often confused with their more famous cousins the Maasai—Giordano Marmone observed informal sessions that combined playing and learning, in which all children, and then only boys, practiced singing and dancing. In these sessions, he examined how the aptitudes of boys who could become leaders of future generational classes are identified and developed. These self-selection methods within groups of kids, and then of “uncircumcised ones”, in preparation for later choices reveal that beginning at this stage, the children’s exhibited egalitarianism and their group spirit coexist with practices favouring competition, individual distinction and the assertion of personal authority. What these sessions illustrate is counterintuitive in relation to fashionable ideas about societies with age sets: that beginning in childhood, youths learn to come to terms with the values of equality and hierarchy at the heart of the existence modalities of those traditional democracies.

11Also among the Samburu, Bilinda Straight shifts the focus and analyses youth by bringing together two points of view: on the one hand, that of warrior-initiates (formed into generational classes) and their lovers, whose special links with them are sealed by a gift that each man gives to his lover, consisting of pearls and necklaces that are worn proudly and boost her reputation; on the other hand, that of the colonial administration, through a human interest story that arose in the 1930s and was turned into a political opportunity by colonists determined to continue seizing those herders’ pastures. The colonists credited the idea that those young women test the ability of those warriors by encouraging them to launch raids and attack enemies. Not only does this episode still influence opinions and current land disputes, it also sheds original light on the gender relations at work between these youths, and on the capacity for action attributed to girls and young women, before boys and girls respectively transition to the stage of getting married and establishing a family.

12In the now much-transformed context of the lives of the Tigania-Igembe Meru (agro-pastoralists in the north-east of Mount Kenya who used to have a political system based on generational sets), Anne-Marie Peatrik tackles the question of age boundaries, the differentiation of “youth”, and the transition to “adulthood” in that old age-grade society. Counter to generally accepted ideas about them, the transition to the next grade was neither automatic nor devoid of strong tensions, something that the societies and cultures in question show through narratives, rules and a special vocabulary designed to handle this. Analysis of the tensions at work in terms of status consistency will be informed by a comparison with the concept of “vital conjunctures”, in a way that is not contradictory but complementary, in order to contribute to an anthropology of youth that is viewed from the perspective of its boundaries in this case.

13The more numerous contributions in the next section explore West Africa, not in order to introduce the differences between the two macro-regions, but because different phenomena relevant to young people are studied there. Some of the articles describe situations mixing traditional aspects with more contemporary dynamics, and almost all of them touch upon political engagement and occasionally revolt. Finally, the mobilisation of the image of youth appears, viewed as a rhetorical and ideological resource, and also viewed in its continuity with the imagination of the generation.

14Anna Dessertine explores what can “be youth” in a Mandinka patrilineal and village society in Guinea, where the category “young person” does not exist as such. She does this through the study of grins, those places scattered around the village where unmarried young men meet to share tea. This custom, which has a connection with a longstanding age-set sociability, also responds to the exhortation that young men should live outside the family home. Contrary to appearances, in grins, the young men, who are cadets [males who are not firstborn], are far from doing nothing and steeping in boredom. They amuse themselves clashing in spars of status, and are also displaying their availability to the older young men and elders, while some of them get ready to organise their departure to gold-bearing zones or further afield, some migrating to Europe.

15Also in a village and lineage context—this time among the Bété of the Ivory Coast, a formerly acephalous ethnic formation long integrated into the machinery of the contemporary state—Léo Montaz examines other forms of action taken by young people, who in this case belong to youth associations. During and after the Ivorian Crisis of 2002–2011, young men who returned to the village against the tide of the rural exodus revived customary age divisions or “youth associations”, which were used to put pressure on elders and legitimise their demands for access to land property and cultivation plots. By mobilising the vocabulary of autochthony in opposition to “foreigners”, they were also aiming at their integration into the village leadership. Illustrative of the historicity of youth in Africa, the youths’ assertion as a strategic group also reveals deep changes in customary societies and in the power of elders.

16In another acute crisis situation, that of illegal oil extraction from the Niger Delta and the rise of violence and civil war in Nigeria between 1996 and 2009, Akin Iwilade studied ways of “being young” (versus “being youth”) as a symbol of membership in drug gangs. Often growing out of former youth cultural societies typical of Delta populations—societies that have been turned into criminal associations—these youth gangs linked to oil diversion networks got their hands on certain districts, like the one they deliberately nicknamed Colombia in Port Harcourt, the Delta’s main oil city. Putting up a violent and anarchic front, their complex organisation enabled them to control the drug trade and prostitution. More broadly, this very special context provided a framework for the expression of rival and operational representations of young people and youth, illustrative of the manipulation of an ad hoc image of the young person as a power resource.

17Jeanne Lamaison-Boltanski studies another trajectory of the categories “young person” and “youth”, connected with the political engagement of Rasta and hip-hop musicians who have become notorious protagonists of the “Civic Broom” movement in Burkina Faso. Or how these “outcasts”, followers and producers of a locally condemned counterculture, succeeded in mobilising public opinion and found themselves at the forefront of a protest movement that made it possible to hold regular elections (2014–2015). Products of a combination of global and local influences mixing Rastafarianism, references to a transnational urban youth culture, claims of Sankara heritage and the circulation of digital tools, these rappers ended up catalysing civic criticism against the existing powers, by making themselves the crystallisation of positive images of youth and societal renewal.

18In the Tuareg communities of Niger and Mali, which were once highly stratified but are now undergoing profound change, Susan Rasmussen explores the unique position of youths who, in an urban context, perform in various mini theatrical presentations. Used by NGOs to circulate messages in response to crises that more particularly affect young people, these sketches staged in cities extend and update an old theatre and performance practice. The spirited artistic engagement of these youths and the interest they arouse stem from the fact that these actors, who come from various status backgrounds, mobilise common references: belonging to the same “age cohort” marked by the experience of unemployment, migration and rebellion, they formed a “historic generation”. From this comes the effect of the trans-Tuareg category—reflecting all of the problematic components of their communities—and their effectiveness/legitimacy on stage. It is also the source of their position as mediators not only between generations, but between their local society and the outer world. These youths on stage show, and provoke reflection on, subtle social-code changes or custom preservations, confronting unprecedented situations and experimenting with new interactions.

19Echoing these various cases, Muriel Champy analyses three monographs on categories of African young people. The small number of available monographs (in the sense of in-depth studies of a single phenomenon or group), is itself indicative of the incomplete state of knowledge. The three analysed cases are more particularly understood from the perspective of expectation and planned projects. Among the rural young people in Senegambia studied by Paolo Gaibazzi (2015), the decision whether to leave or stay extends an old migratory custom and represents a situation in which sedentariness, far from being synonymous with immobility, turns out to be a strategy, nowadays being subject to reassessments and status reversals. Jacinthe Mazzocchetti (2009), in her study of a cohort of young people (young men and women) pursuing higher education at the University of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), analyses how this generation was strongly affected by structural adjustment policies enacted in 1991. The concrete conditions of student life are examined: the lifestyles of these young people, sociability in student residences, as well as the quality of study conditions and teaching. Special attention was given to how their expectations and upward social mobility strategies were redefined, particularly as a function of their background and gender identity. Finally, Sasha Newell (2012) questions—for a segment of urban young people in Abidjan devoted to the criminal economy—what is represented by the asserted identification with “Nouchi” culture. In the “maquis” (drinking establishments) that they frequent, the “youth” culture that they assert, named after a popular Ivorian dialect, is synonymous with financial and physical ostentation, as well as with demonstrations of their ability to tolerate alcohol and get girls. These are like signs of modernity insofar as they contrast with inherited culture, that of the existing customs and powers.

  • 6 It is a publication coincidence: Alcinda Honwana (2012: 139–163; 2013), in her essay on the sociolo (...)

20Two articles making up the final section offer points of view that are both divergent and convergent: one exploring South Africa, marked by its well-known past as a long-term settlement colony and its apartheid heritage; the other explores Tunisia, and could be seen as tying up with the dialogue sketched at the beginning on “shababs” (Ateliers d’anthropologie, 42) and enriching the comparative reflection on problems that intersect.6

21Sandrine Gukelberger looks back at youth in the past, through anti-apartheid activists from the old townships of Cape Town who evoke their life history. The radical violence of the time of their youth gave them the reason for their political activism, or for a kind of avoidance, particularly on the part of women. This retrospective approach to the historic so-called Soweto generation of the 1976 youth insurrection, which some considered a “lost generation”, makes a special contribution to the anthropology of youth in Africa. Through a sociology of the politicisation that made youth into the time when opinions were formed that persisted in the course of existence, this contribution also sheds light on the emergence of youth as a descriptive and explanatory category in the field of African studies in the early 1980s, during the Soweto decade, concomitant with the end of decolonisation.

22Stefano Pontiggia analyses the action and mobilisation methods of young men in southern Tunisia’s mining city of Redeyef, which is plagued by chronic unemployment, obviously a repercussion of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. The spectacular tactics used to block railways used for phosphate wagons—burning tyre barriers or setting up precarious camps—stem not so much from an attraction to insurrection, but rather from having observed means of putting pressure on the state’s remuneration distribution system. Excluded from cronyist networks for various reasons, these young men caught in a lasting state of unfulfillment attempt to take part and take turns in the general system of waiting for work. This article, illustrating the circulation between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa of ideas and concepts (particularly the recurrent theme of waiting/expecting), reminds us not only that in the North African context, the category “young men” corresponds to a lasting status of subordination defined by the lack of house or land ownership, but also that a “young person” can have surpassed the age of youth.

2. Young people, cadets and generations: reviewing some elementary concepts

23Young people and youth: these labile, sometimes incantatory designations, whose vague, catch-all definitions favour their broad dissemination, circulate in a tangle of connected notions and concepts that are sometimes taken for synonyms. The time has come to clarify them.

  • 7 Durham, 2000; Peatrik, 2001, 2003a; Han et Antrosio, 2015; see below: part 3.

24“Youth”, most simply, designates an age of life differentiated from other ages (childhood, adulthood, old age), and the “young person” designates the person characterised by the distinctive attributes of youth. Though these categories are apparently obvious, they are not universal or natural (this already-old observation is starting to be shared7), and it is precisely around these aspects that some of the analytical problems revolve.

25It has been highlighted many times that in Africa, civil status age—that of the number of years since the date of birth—has little meaning, and also that the age called youth, like other ages, is primarily conceived in relational terms: one is older or younger than the person under consideration. Things are not quite so simple in reality, but it is important to start from this dimension. It enables the second dimension to be better tackled: the categorial component of youth and its intrinsic temporality (probably less familiar because of the questions it covers), which is extended by the last dimension considered here, namely understanding through the point of view of the actor, through his projections and expectations. Thus delimited, this exploratory essay does not aim at exhaustiveness. It sketches the broad perimeter in which the anthropology of youth in Africa belongs, and raises a few key descriptive and analytical problems.

Cadets sociaux and cadets

  • 8 There is no English equivalent of the French term cadet, hence its use in italics in this translati (...)

26In recent decades, in almost all fields of African studies, the designations “youths” and “youth” have gradually replaced the previously very fashionable category “cadet social”, variously indexed in African French by the antonyms korocratie [rule of the old or elder] or grandfrèrisme [olderbrotherism], which could have served as titles for this development. We agree that a cadet is not necessarily a youth, and a youth is not automatically someone dominated or dependent, but there is social and conceptual proximity that has caused overlapping and substitution between the two notions, and this should be scrutinised.8

27The history or intellectual genealogy of this change—revealing the increasing inadequacy of the concepts for studied societies that are themselves in the grip of change—remains to be written, but it manifests itself in a number of texts (Le Meur, 2005; Dessertine, present volume; Montaz, present volume; Lamaison-Boltanski, present volume; Gaibazzi via Champy, present volume). Let us note a few milestones that can shed light on my argument.

28As we all remember, the notion of “cadets sociaux”, which was already circulating in one way or another, was theorised by political scientist Jean-François Bayard (1979: 233–281; 1985: 325–326) in his analysis of the state in Cameroon: through their lineage position, which deprived them of positions of authority and control over revenue sources, cadets were aggregated with other potential or real excluded groups in African societies (women, youths, people of modest means, precarious workers, etc.), hence that idea of “social” cadets in the plural, which included the little man and the reject, beyond mere “family” cadets. This broadening of a category with shifting boundaries met the need to characterise the whole troop of dependents, subordinates, clients, the dominated and so on, while avoiding tacking Western-centric (and therefore inappropriate) notions of “social classes” onto African realities.

  • 9 These reminders will probably make some readers smile, but experience (namely ours in this issue) s (...)

29To better understand all the ramifications, it is necessary to take another look at what, in Africa, is understood by cadet in the strict sense—that is to say lineage cadet(s)—and review a few basic notions. Some of them pertain to very traditional knowledge and elementary definitions, while others need to be clarified.9

30The lineage or filiation group (more specific than the usual “descent group”) is broadly represented in Africa, without being universal, and this is one of the problems connected with the analysis of youth. A lineage is a social group constructed on the basis of a unilineal descent rule (patrilineal or matrilineal) traced from a reputed common ancestor. Its internal organisation is based on the birth order of the siblings. The firstborn (son or daughter) is the cornerstone of the set, and those who follow are his or her cadets. The lineage stems from him or her, their lineages hierarchising into a firstborn and cadet line, preceding a possible segmentation and dispersal.

31This order of precedence is immutable. Over time, cadets (younger or youngest siblings) get older and remain cadets. Even after becoming accomplished, a cadet man potentially remains a cadet. Succession adjustments exist, and the cadet’s relationship with the firstborn and elder siblings can assume several forms (such as adelphic succession), but the principle of lineage primogeniture remains. Thus one can understand how a young person who is the firstborn is not in the same position nor promised the same trajectory as a young cadet, even if both of them pass through the phase “youth”.

  • 10 Here we are touching upon another sensitive area in the intellectual history surrounding cadets in (...)

32These structural principles, which are essentially rules and values internalised by the actors, have at least two implications. As the extended family enlarges and develops, cadets, who are always more numerous than firstborns, are in a lasting relationship of subordination: mobilised in the context of the household economy, cadets will have to wait their turn before acceding to marriage and a less dependent position. Remember that Claude Meillassoux (1960, 1975), searching for production relationships through the magnifying glass of historical materialism, characterised this organisation as a “household mode of production” or “lineage mode of production”, based on the exploitation of the productive force of cadets and the reproductive force of women. One can imagine that this provoked lively, protracted debates, particularly with theorists working on kinship and marriage, or with representatives of the various currents of historical materialism.10 Subsequent generations of researchers in African studies no longer felt concerned by these controversies, but the notion of the cadet social stayed in their conceptual toolbox for a while.

33Furthermore, in a number of village societies, this recurrent disjunction between age and birth-rank has given rise to categories and age-set associations that group together the youths of a village or district, following a principle that cuts across lineage memberships. These age groups, which assume a very wide variety of forms—combining initiation rituals, residence criteria, pastimes, work, and formerly war activities—have particularly caught the attention of ethnologists. Mainly aggregating young people, and less commonly other age groups, they were perceived as a way to reinforce social cohesion, that of the village or that of networks whose members were scattered, by thwarting lineage segmentation dynamics that favoured the departure and secession of cadets.

  • 11 In his time, Eisenstadt was already trying to shed light on the youth crisis, namely that of the 19 (...)

34Here too, the existence of these categories of young people has generated numerous analyses. Examined from the point of view of lineage modes of production, young people’s categories and associations have been seen as reinforcing the exploitation of cadets by their elders. Or as Shmuel Eisenstadt’s (1954, 1956) theoretical contribution argues, the young people’s groups were intended to compensate for an inadequate or defective family organisation.11 These two positions were relativised by a return to field ethnography advocated by Denise Paulme (1971), who revealed the full complexity of lineage/age-set combinations, specifically in West Africa (Dugast, 1995). In East Africa, when generation-set system dynamics prevail (Bernardi, 1985; Peatrik, 1995a and b), lineage dynamics are secondary or even non-existent. We will return to this.

35Five articles in this issue (Dessertine, Montaz, Iwilade, Lamaison-Boltanski, Champy on Gaibazzi—and see also Balac [2016]), explore these problems and reveal to various degrees the continuities between old age-set associations and contemporary forms of youth grouping (quite often by cadets) that have been inspired by the break-up of families and by the social crisis. Bands of juvenile delinquents can certainly impose their reign in the paroxysmal context of civil wars, but their existence does not necessarily mean that pre-existing principles have disappeared or been forgotten. The force of primogeniture and ancestrality transforms and persists, continuing to pervade minds in places where it is valued, weaving one of the backdrops of the anthropology of youth in Africa (Marie, 1997 (ed.); Champy, 2016).

Young people and juniors

36In semantic fields that are similar to the point of being confused with one another, it is now necessary to examine the equivalence—in ordinary language and often in methodical language—between junior and cadet, and between their relational counterparts senior and firstborn, which the superimposition between seniority and primogeniture exacerbates. Seniority would make it possible to capture the firstborn and the senior at one and the same time in a single term: in short, to effect a kind of synthesis between two principles of precedence, that of lineage and that of age sets, lineage seniority and age-set seniority, so that they cohabit to the point of superimposing one another and being confused with one another.

37This attempt at synthesis in Africanist anthropology fed on comparisons between West Africa and East Africa: in these regions, the analysis of generation-set systems was progressing (Stewart, 1977; Baxter and Almagor, 1978), whereas the distinction between lineage and generation system had not yet really been established. The apparent continuity between these two forms of organisation seemed to admit of a conceptual assimilation following Dan Sperber’s 1974 hypothesis on Dorze people of Ethiopia. This merger, which was based on a misunderstanding, was taken up again ten years later in a collective book exploring age and power in Africa (Abélès and Collard [eds], 1985: 7–15):

The father/son relationship connotes an open, or relative, seniority; it marks a superiority benefiting the former but leaves free access to this superiority through the advancement of generations—that is to say those of the son. The firstborn/cadets relationship designates a closed or absolute seniority; this seniority establishes an inescapable superiority benefiting the firstborn, and the disadvantaged cadet has no way out other than through practices (of secession) and manipulations (of genealogical charts), enabling him to change position (Balandier, 1974: 106–107, quoted by Abélès and Collard, 1985: 11).

  • 12 To the point of possibly leading Sperber (1982: 11) into error. He had Georges Balandier as a mento (...)
  • 13 The year 1985 was a special, maybe pivotal year. Twenty years had passed since the period of Africa (...)

38This elegantly-worded extract from the second chapter of Anthropo-logiques entitled “Pères et fils, aînés et cadets”, Balandier (1974: 63–111), speaking of lineage in Africa, introduced the confusion between this and generation-set systems in Africa.12 Despite their resemblance, the father/son lineage relationship is quite different from the father/son generation-set relationship. The “seniority” that is a component of both—though nuanced by the epithets “open” or “closed” (Balandier remained prudent!)—created a false synthesis that propagated by means of this incidentally very interesting collective book that, probably as a sign of the times, attempted to conceive of “age”, irrespective of the definition, in light of power, no matter what its institutional modes of existence, throughout Africa.13

  • 14 Primary in the sense of preponderant (Bernardi, 1985). Combinations exist of course, but they are t (...)

39Remember that over time, a young person/junior becomes a senior, elder or old (wo)man. On that basis, we are either in a lineage context or generation-set context. Lineage is exclusive of the junior/senior relationship in the strict sense of the term: if the young person who has grown old is a firstborn, he doubles his stake in a sense; if the young person is a cadet, he is doubly subordinated in his youth, and in old age remains a subordinate elder, unless his eldest brother dies. Of course the people concerned endeavour to pull these strings, and of course organisations exist such as those age associations mentioned above, but only to a certain point, beyond which conflict or ruptures arise in what constitute institutions. As for generation systems (less widespread, but critical in analytical terms), they are structured by the succession to power of generation sets and the senior/junior relationship by which every junior becomes a senior in the course of time. In no society can these two mutually exclusive principles apply as the primary principle of organisation.14 If we stick to the strict meaning of the terms—which is the objective here—a junior is not a cadet, and a senior is not a firstborn, and the seniority they are said to share is a view from the minds of analysts (Peatrik, present volume, 1995a and b).

Young people and young generations

40“Generation”, a terribly labile category, now adds itself to this tour of related notions. It has made remarkable headway in studies on youth. What is at play in this shift from “young people”, an age category, to “generation”, a different type of category that researchers have been using, as indicated by the book titles mentioned at the beginning of this essay (see the list of books in note 1)?

41Deployment at the generation level, or simply adding a generational element, gives a different structure to young people and youth, while maintaining a certain vagueness in the boundaries, one that is conducive to integrating as many as possible. When viewed as a generation, the assortment of young people conceived as free electrons—often cadets individualised by the lineage and family crisis mentioned above—turns into a large group, a totality established by the idea that they are self-made. Their similarity and identity also came from being or having been young at the same time, being or having been contemporaneous with major events that marked their period of development, as if they had come out of the same cultural or ideological mould, from the same school of life. Having become a “generation”, young people placed in a multidimensional temporality gain an additional legitimacy, one that is ideological but also conceptual.

  • 15 Simultaneously, even superimposing other forms of sociation or social structure, like ranks, groups (...)
  • 16 In the history of studies on young people, Mead’s 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa—republished many (...)

42This singularly polymorphous category permits of many combinations. First and foremost it becomes possible to circumvent the conceptual conflicts generated by the cadet/junior/young-person superimposition (we have just seen the surreptitious shifts in meaning that caused it). At the same time, it defines youth and young people in comparison with other adjacent and alternate generations, those that preceded them and those that will follow. Young people are not primarily conceived as belonging to the same age category, but are viewed rather in their generational relationships, without explicit reference to the family said to be anomic, and outside of the sphere of the parents: people can say they belong to the same generation without reference to any kinship link. Encompassing or diluting the birth rank criterion, “generation” brings an additional paradigm for conceiving of shared belonging, equality, and also hierarchy and domination.15 The young generation furthermore incarnates the regeneration of the social body, and by extension, the possible generation conflict or “generation gap”, the quintessential manifestation of modernity, of which Mead ([1970] 1978) was the grand priestess.16

  • 17 Youth is “eternal”, in the sense of an eternal return, something that makes it a poor candidate for (...)

43“Generation” also has the great conceptual advantage of being a category that crosses boundaries, whereas this is less the case with “youth” because it lacks historicity.17 Certain major international events have had a lifelong effect on those who were young when they took place (Newman, 1996; Cole and Durham, 2007: 1–28). “Generation” became a special medium for conceiving of globalisation—driven by capitalism or liberalism (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000, 2005)—or political mobilisations, whether historical (Burgess, 2005b) or contemporary (Kagwanja, 2005; Maupeu, 2012; Pontiggia, present volume). The analysis in Alcinda Honwana’s (2012) essay on the political mobilisation of youth in Africa and in the Muslim world (as well as elsewhere) was partly based on the transnational notion “waithood generation”: young people stuck without achievements and without transitioning to adulthood. We will return to this later.

  • 18 See the rich collective book edited by Marie-Claude Smouts (2007), both discussed and prefaced by G (...)

44This fact is far from neutral, since it reflects and relates to debates that have always marked African studies. To the same extent that cadets sociaux seem to have lost their analytical attraction—as if they had been linked to a concluded phase of African societies, that of decolonisation and the first years of independence (see note 13)—the notions “young person” and “young generation” have spread over the past twenty years as emic and etic, descriptive and analytical categories, as if they appeared to be more adequate for conceiving of postcolonial situations and new dominations (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000: 109, 2005: 28). Far be it from us to want to wade into those debates.18 We thought it was important to capture the circulation of the concepts—nomadic concepts as Stengers (1987) and Bourdieu (2016) called them—that gravitate around “youth” in Africa, a category in which all of the political and analytical tensions running through contemporary African societies diffract each other. Its intelligibility conditions the ability to define new subjects of research.

  • 19 The editors of books on generations in Africa have each dedicated a few pages to which we refer the (...)

45It would take more than one article to particularise and untangle all of the instances of “generation” mentioned above.19 For example, “historical generation” (covering the Structural Adjustment generation by Mazzocchetti via Champy, the Soweto generation by Gukelberger, the tichumera generation by Rasmussen, or Pontiggia’s generational narratives in the present volume) does not exactly cover the cohort generations of demographers and longitudinal analysis (Antoine et al., 2001), though it touches on them. When it came to journalists and politicians, the various fathers of the nation and others did not fail to understand the value of “being a generation” and cultivating the generation as the “site of memory” (Nora, [1992] 1997; Arnaut, 2005; N’Guessan, 2015; Gukelberger, present volume). Going back to the period of decolonisation, in Uganda for example (Summers, 2010), the valence of “generation” seemed reversed: one spoke of the “child population” and of the crisis of growth within the young generation of that “adolescent population” (as populations acceding to independence were called), a scenario that broadens the narrative of the “ages” of humanity characteristic of 19th-century evolutionism. But generations exist in other institutional forms in Africa, which can get tangled up with the imaginary young generations presented above: the customary “generation” of East African generation-set systems (Peatrik, 2003b, present volume; Marmone, present volume; Straight, present volume), the classificatory “generation” of kinship terminology, and the genealogical “generation” underpinning the filiation and primogeniture group through which we broached the question.

3. Young people as an age category

46By viewing youth no longer as a relative position, but rather as one of the categories of the ages of life, it becomes possible to decentre its meaning and attain another point of view, that of the body (and the person): the question of its advancement over time, the importance of designations and, at the same time, of delimitations. In short, and to get straight to our argument: “youth” does not exist in the traditional repertoire of African languages, and logically, neither does “young person” as an individual characterised by the distinctive traits of youth. And when these terms come up, their presence is the result of borrowing, usually from French or English. What is covered by what could pass for a radical nominalism?


47In Maa, the language of the Samburu people (Marmone, present volume; Straight, present volume) and in Kimeru (Peatrik, present volume), there are no terms that translate what Westerners understand by “child”, “youth” or “adult”. This also applies to the Malinke people (Dessertine, present volume) and could be extended to the Wolof people (Rabain, 2003), the Dogon people (Jolly, 2003) and the Guro people (Haxaire, 2003), among other examples in West Africa. This list is far from exhaustive. To evaluate this, one would have to have access to all terms designating ages of life: for men and for women. This would make it possible to correct the gender asymmetry hitherto created by studies mostly examining boys and young men (Champy, present volume). Nor should one neglect the names of each status group, when a given society is made up of several of these groups.

48African societies and cultures have produced a number of age divisions and many scales of the ages of life, and none of them directly represents what Westerners understand by “young person” and “youth”. The divisions are or were different, and a wide variety of systems were mobilised (and are still mobilised) by the delimitations, including the most elaborate rituals, the most trivial gestures, countless territorial and residential modalities (Wilson, 1951; Gabail, 2012; Dessertine, present volume; Iwilade, present volume), the rich pallet of terms of reference and address, and the endless resources of onomastics. These ways of doing things both reflect and implement ethnotheories concerning ages and ontogeny, that is to say local representations of the evolution and components of the person-body, from conception through development, aging and death. The separation established by Marcel Mauss ([1936] 1968, [1938] 1968)—in a way that was fortuitous but in tune with the Western body/person duality—is ineffective here, and even creates an obstacle in the analysis of young people and of any other age of life. One cannot explore the age of the body without talking about the person that it incarnates, and reciprocally, a person’s age is inseparable from the state of their body. This is a fundamental fact of the anthropology of the ages of life. The individual person, whoever it might be, is wrought by the development of their body over time, a development that is itself conditioned by the concrete existential modalities at work in a society and culture at a particular moment in a given place. What is therefore necessary is to define new analytical units based on the “person-body”, like the concept “ontogenesis” (Peatrik, 2003a), transposed from biology and reworked to integrate a cultural component.

  • 20 These aspects were addressed by my elderly interlocutors in 1986–1993 during my ethno-demographic s (...)

49Broadly speaking, the developmental curve of the human being (Homo sapiens) is the same everywhere, but in the abundance of actually existing societies, the very wide variety of systems make it evident that there is a close link between the definition of ages and the nature of the society, culture or historical period under consideration. Thus the developmental curve of the human being—whose distinctive feature is the child’s long dependence on adults (which in evolutionary terms could be the root of the lengthening human lifespan and the appearance of grandparents)—is particularly influenced by food and health contexts. The progress of puberty is a good example of this conditioning. The phenomenon is well-known, but all of its components remain insufficiently analysed: in girls, menstruation begins increasingly early (for some more than others), whereas boys’ puberty is subject to less variation. Has anyone assessed the consequences of this global tendency proven in Africa, where it is spoken of by elders?20 The phenomenon has been observed for a long time, and it is amusing to recall that Van Gennep ([1909] 198: 93–125) made the wide variation in signs of puberty one of the tools for analysing its rites of passage, described over a century ago. The manifestations and real or assumed causes of this variability lie at the foundation of the anthropology of youth, and the observation obviously applies to Africa and the rest of the world.

50In this entry by means of age categories (which is one of many approaches we could have taken), we will more particularly consider the question of the characterisation of the “young” person and the question of age limits.

Young people and youth cultures

51We should take a moment to look at the distinctive traits of “youth” and more deeply explore the theme that Ivorian sociologists G. Koné et al. (2017) outlined with a certain humour in their article on young people and land in the south-west Ivory Coast:

We would point out that, in an emic way, we are rooting the concept of “young person” in the context in our study in Neyo country. To put it plainly, in Neyo country, the term “young” is defined in contrast to that of “old”. It refers to generations that, because of their state of health and their athletic abilities, can handle the deployment of physical energy needed for the long walks often organised through the village territories, particularly for the purpose of demarcating their boundaries. The concept “old people” or “elders” refers to generations said to be tired because they can no longer travel. In this register, every Neyo is attributed the status “young” (regardless of their biological age) as long as they are capable of doing these exercises (2017: 69).

52Between a person-body conception and ontology, this characterisation of youth is reminiscent of the qualities required in farm work contests among the Senufo people of the northern Ivory Coast studied by Marianne Lemaire (2009). The winners among the young men quintessentially embody constitutive strength in those villages of valiant farmers. Or the characterisation evokes the Soninke people (Gaibazzi via Champy, present volume), who valorise “calloused hands” and mastery of farming activities, which is considered fundamental to young people’s fulfilment and the maturing of their sense of responsibility. This echoes the definition of “young” in another rural world, that of Madagascar: “Being young [tanora], means having the strength to work the land!” Tanora is a state that follows the age of pre-pubescent childhood (zaza) and precedes that of the elders, “fathers and mothers” (raiamandreny) (Burnod et al., 2016). In a more ideological vein, and as a political resource serving their land claims, one thinks of Bété young people returning to the countryside (Montaz, present volume) who, in their membership in youth societies, claim to adhere to an ideal of participation in collective farm work. But this celebration of youthful energy through engagement in work can turn into its opposite when children and young people placed in apprenticeships are exploited by artisans and elders who abuse their position as superiors (Viti, 2005, 2018; Agbu, 2009).

53In East-African societies, which are more conditioned by the pastoral economy, “youth” would conjure up the questionable valorisation of livestock raids conducted by “circumcised warriors”, at the instigation of young women, their lovers, in line with nefarious images co-constructed during the colonial era and marked by the prudishness of Victorian morality, linking seduction with incitement to violence (Straight, present volume).

  • 21 Heald, [1989] 1998, 1999; Casajus, 2005; Houseman, 2008; Ocobock, 2017. Initiation, and sacrifice ( (...)

54On a darker level, one that is implicit and rarely questioned, we should turn our attention to the qualities attributed to “children” who are very early involved in the household economy, some of whom have been forced to become child combatants. As Honwana (2006: 41, 52) furtively mentions: “In Angola and Mozambique, as in many other contexts, children are often portrayed as strong and resilient, as survivors who grow in difficult conditions”, letting it be understood that these qualities are not unconnected with the children’s unscrupulous enlistment by warlords under an initiatory guise (ibid.: 49–74). Would the strength and resilience attributed to children and young people also be related to their supposed ability to withstand pain and corporal punishment (Last, 2000; Archambault, 2009; Ocobock, 2012; Peatrik, present volume)? Then what is one to think of situations in which resistance to inflicted ordeals is dressed up as purgative and formative—in short, as certain initiatory processes? What faults and flaws are violence and suffering supposed to correct among novices? At the heart of the institution, what is at stake is precisely the ability to master the degree of violence inflicted by initiators, in order not to fail in transition and metamorphosis. When it becomes initiatory, violence has many facets, but all of them sound out the characteristics considered inherent to the novice’s person-body.21

55In the contemporary urban world, age categories and their distinctive qualities are shaped more in the course of individual and linguistic interactions. From these everyday verbal and nonverbal kinds of rhetoric—performed on occasions and in places that vary widely—emerge characterising prototypes and clichés, stigmatising or valorising shifters, which lie at the heart of the fabrication of ages and youth: in them, behaviours are commented upon, and models or injunctions to conform to expectations are stated (Masquelier and Siran, 2000; Durham, 2004).

  • 22 “Youthscape” (Maira and Soep, 2004) denotes highly diverse but primarily transnational contexts con (...)

56Regarding gangs (from Colombia to Port Harcourt), Iwilade (present volume) shows how two antagonistic representations—“being young” versus “being youth”—shape existences within youthscapes22 in which powers confront one another and construct themselves. In this context, “being young” means being less than nothing: a passive, dominated cadet who “isn’t one of them”, who “doesn’t belong” to gangs and militias. In reality, those who aren’t one of them—“Jew men” and “angels”—represent the great majority of young men, while only a fraction of them qualify as “being youth”, in the sense of acting like a young person, overdoing virile violence, “being one of them”, belonging to a group, almost having a status (an acquired status that is almost an age status) and thereby accessing networks in the illegal economy. There, “playing at youth” has become a resource, a situation reminiscent of the Nouchi culture claimed by disadvantaged urban young people in Abidjan (Newell via Champy, present volume), and also reminiscent of the “being-youth” trajectory recounted by Lamaison-Boltanski (present volume) in Burkina Faso: that of social outcasts who, after being proud paragons of irresponsible youth, transformed themselves into spearheads of an exemplary youth driven by an energy placed in the service of everyone.

57In all of these cases, the “youth culture” of those young men (some of whom are pushing 40) is fed by the transnational circulation of music and images (on a wide variety of mediums), which are closely woven into local values, as B. Weiss (2009) showed with regard to the sociability of barber stalls in Tanzania. To broaden the sociological spectrum of images of youth, we could mention the young urban figures sketched by caricaturists in the Kenyan national press, as studied by Georges Ogola (2006). Some very famous ones portray the troubles of modern parents and the way young people from the new middle classes behave: a girl is called “The Investment” in the sense of a future resource—and also called “bridewealth” in academic parlance—because the more qualified a girl is, the more she is valorised in the matrimonial field; her brother, called “Whispers Jr.”, prefers to nickname himself “Ras Whispero” in the Rasta style, and defends his right to wear dreadlocks and play the “rude boy”, which is all about defying parents seeking honourability (Lamaison-Boltanski, present volume).

  • 23 See Galland ([1991] 2011: 42–45); Honwana (2012: 85–88, 133–134) for a history of this concept, ini (...)

58An analysis exploring the abundant representations of youth, as well as the productions of “youth cultures” that explicitly convey images of youth, could generate enough material for a whole chapter, or even a book. The study of “youth subcultures”, “youth cultures” and young people’s ways of doing things (“the youth style”), are some of the oldest and most well-established studies in the field of urban youth in industrial and postmodern societies.23 Cleary, these descriptive and analytical concepts have circulated widely in studies on youth in Africa. Should this be seen as the effect of the frequent proximity between the age of the investigators (new researchers) and that of the people they are investigating? Very probably (Champy, present volume). The fact that these “cultures” assume concrete form in groups and places that are easily circumscribed is not trivial either. Finally, in “youth culture”, one still discerns its original, seductive meaning relating to counterculture and subversion of the established order, even if this dimension is not always so obvious. Counterculture resonates with outcasts, or what could be called “tribes”, in quotation marks. This register leads to questions much investigated by political scientists of “youth culture”, insofar as it favours political and/or religious engagement (Lamaison-Boltanski, present volume; Lamont, 2010).

Youth and calendar age

59We must now consider another dimension of youth, buried much deeper in practices and representations, a dimension that the profusion of images risks masking, though it concerns the category “young people” in Africa in more than one sense: namely, calendar age and its creeping effects.

  • 24 On this subject, see the very stimulating article by Boris Samuel (2016), or Cabane and Tantchou (2 (...)

60Every study on young people and youth in Africa is introduced by demographic orders of magnitude (ours does not depart from this custom), sometimes followed by flights of catastrophism or optimism. Beyond the contradictory judgements that these numbers reflect, their status in the production of knowledge is rarely questioned by the non-demographers who study “young people” in Africa, revealing the presence of a quite curious disciplinary barrier. Here we do not intend to reopen the vast question of the politics of large numbers (Desrosières, 1993) and of the construction of statistics at the state level,24 but our aim is rather to encourage a closer dialogue with demographers who have developed an increasing reflexivity with regard to their instruments and their scales of analysis (Golaz et al., 2016; Héran, 2018) and are producing research that could more directly inspire anthropologists investigating young people and youth in Africa. Since demographers need data on “entry into the reproductive life-cycle”, and are therefore interested in that particular phase of human existence, they produce enlightening materials on the appearance of the age of youth.

  • 25 For example, the invention of that new age called “adolescence” at the turn of the 20th century in (...)

61All of this started in the West. The pioneering investigations of Philippe Ariès ([1960] 1973) into the feeling of childhood opened the door to many studies in history, anthropology, political science and sociology, which showed the historicity of the definition of youth and the variation of categories and boundaries (Pellegrin, 1981; Zelizer, 1985; Percheron and Rémond, 1991; Fabre, 1996; Galland, [1991] 1997).25 This past directly sheds light on the African trajectory of the category “young” and its supplement, birth age, two concepts that arrived through the coloniser’s knowledge and way of proceeding.

  • 26 “Chronological age” because the year of birth makes it possible to date an event that happened to a (...)
  • 27 As a matter of interest, remember that calendrical computi existed (or still exist) in customary Af (...)

62“Youth” and its “birthday” age limits form a quite particular intellectual and political apparatus (Peatrik, 2003a; Schmitt, 2007). Age calculated from the date of birth, sometimes called chronological age,26 assumes that the age in question is recorded in one way or another. Vital records provide for this, but, precisely, the existence of this administration is historically dated, as is the calendrical computus referenced for calculating years. The year of birth reflects a calendar age, indexed against a universal fixed point, which has a logic different form relative age based on birth order for example. It is also different from the age attributed to an age or generation category that an individual belongs to. The three can coexist. Human beings know how to combine heterogeneous criteria, but only to a certain point when they use them for practical purposes.27

63In Africa, the notions of birth age and vital records started to spread during the colonial era beginning in cities, for the administrative and fiscal purpose of counting and identifying the natives. We remember the British “hut and poll tax” and its French equivalent the “capitation” tax, and the age of 14 for boys and 16 for girls being the line between childhood and adulthood, or 16 being the age when boys were allowed to start working in the British colonies (Ocobock, 2017: 2, 63; Ferme, 1998). These censuses, initially very approximate, and distorted particularly by citizens’ subterfuge, became less and less erroneous as census techniques developed. From the colonies to the independent states, a single bureaucratic rationality endured and gradually developed (Cordell et al., 2010; Cordell, 2010).

64Calendar age through vital records became a tool for governing populations, as was the case in the West (Percheron and Rémond, 1991; Peatrik; 2003a; Deschavanne and Tavoillot, [2007] 2009: 165–175). Schools and other institutions dedicated to educating young people increased its use, and its legitimacy was strengthened when international organisations (the UN and its various bodies, and the League of Nations before that) promoted various public policies for the protection of “children” and “young people” (WHO, UNICEF), heralding the “UN child” or the “development child” (Suremain and Bonnet, 2014: 3–21)

International age limits



UN Secretariat/UNESCO/ILO

young people: 15–24

UN-Habitat (Urban Youth Fund)

young people: 15–32 


young individuals:10–24
young people: 15–24

UNICEF/Convention on the Rights of the Child

children: under the age of 18

African Youth Charter

young people: 15–35 

Source: based on Gastineau and Golaz, 2016: 11.

65Everyone’s studies reveal the growing impact of calendar age on children and young people’s way of living in Africa, without the researchers necessarily being clearly conscious of it. Honwana’s research on child-soldiers was triggered by the discrepancy between the age limit of 15 years established at the international level in 1977 (to differentiate “children” enlisted by force from “children” voluntarily enlisted), and the limit of 18 years added in 1989, distinguishing the “child” (and related universal rights) from the “young person” (Honwana, 2006: 19–22, 31–40). On the subject of young men in Tunisia, Pontiggia (present volume) made passing reference to the subtle use of calendar age by various protagonists to avoid using the somewhat stigmatising designation “young person”.

66Here again, questions are starting to be asked anew, as shown by the research conducted in France by Adeline Perrot (2017) on “mijor” migrants (a portmanteau word combining “minor” and “major”) who play around with age limit of 18 years and with the changes of status it occasions, determining whether or not they qualify to receive Aide sociale à l’enfance (ASE).

  • 28 The ANR Piaf (Papiers d’identité en Afrique 2015–2019) should produce new materials on these questi (...)

67The spread of birth age, a product of calendar age and vital records, is accelerating nowadays, sometimes coupled with biometric identity, this time directly linked with electoral processes and democratisation, in Kenya for example, where fraudulent vote exclusion is increasingly debated, and is being fought through the use of this technique.28

  • 29 Better known and recognised is the effect of censuses on ethnic identity. By requiring respondents (...)
  • 30 The population pyramid, which represents a population’s structure as a function of age at time t, w (...)

68In this new paradigm characteristic of the contemporary colonial and postcolonial bureaucratic rationality, the tools of demography contributed to an effect that was quite unintentional but significant. The years of birth and death are central to its analytical apparatus. The use of various counting methods (Ohadike, 2006; Pison and Ohadike, 2006) and repeated censuses over the decades contributed to the spread of these categories,29 just as in another register, the stratum-based representation in population pyramids30 popularised certain results. In short, birth-date age is an innovation whose effects are certainly spreading, producing more and more threshold effects based on calendar limits.

  • 31 As another example, in Burkina Faso, Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès (2007: 342) reports that between 1998 an (...)

69In an article that had an impact on studies on young people in Africa, Philippe Antoine et al. (2001), described investigations conducted in Dakar, Yaoundé and Antanarivo (three capitals then in a deep economic recession), where developments in micro-demography enabled them to measure and show young people’s lengthening wait to enter adulthood, by successively satisfying the three (Western) canonical conditions that mark it: securing a job (economic autonomy), getting married, and achieving residential autonomy.31 The dispersal of the criteria indicative of the transition to adulthood, now dissociated and de-synchronised, has caused a lengthening of the preceding period and a reorganisation of socialisation, defining a new age of youth, the characteristics of which are becoming similar to youth in other societies around the world (Calvès et al., 2006). Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (2002, 2006)—using a slightly different methodology to investigate behaviour in Cameroon among Beti girls and young women from educated urban middle-class strata—observed the same dissociation of the three criteria. The conclusions she drew incline towards a critique of the cycle of life conceived as a succession of stages (Peatrik, present volume), and she highlights the role of certain values that implicitly guide these women’s choices: it is not so much youth that is getting longer, but what has changed are rather the modalities for accessing a certain honourable status that is still valorised.

70Echoing these conclusions, in later research conducted in a rural environment among the Bwa (Mali), Véronique Hertrich (2013) observed that first-marriage age has noticeably increased, and the period preceding it has changed. Known as yaromu, this once-carefree phase spent with friends of the same age actually gave a free hand to elders, who set about arranging marriages that would ensure the reproduction of lineages. Nowadays, other modalities have appeared, bringing a new seriousness to that age. Young people, both boys and girls, now undertake temporary migrations that delay their marriage. After confronting various formative experiences, they return and contribute in a new way to marriage negotiations and to the preparatory phase preceding marriage, both of which are increasingly eluding the control of elders, but this does not mean that the valorisation of marriage is declining among these young people. Village elders have had to come to terms with new the ways in which youth is lived and marriage is arranged.

  • 32 See note 20 on early marriage. Symmetrically, and still secondarily at present, birth age is at the (...)

71Micro-demographic—even micro-economic—studies on nuptiality regimes, schooling (Grysole, 2018), and reproductive biographies make it possible to objectify the fluctuations in age limits and the characterisations of a new age thereby defined: youth.32 They offer material for new studies on marriage processes, the dowry and bridewealth, and new parentalities. Among the “young people” thereby defined, one could begin untangling the imbroglio of love and money or status (Johnson-Hanks, 2006: 157–192; Thomas and Cole, 2009; Stasik, 2016), which has an effect on emotions and gender relations, between the search for autonomy and the search for love. The studies make it possible to give substance to the expectations of youth, through the in situ examination of their concrete ways of realising their plans and mapping their itineraries.

72Interwoven with other criteria, calendar age both reflects and accounts for the limit changes that are contributing to the establishment of youth categories in Africa. Measuring age as an accumulation of birthday years results in a form of time passage that either superimposes or replaces other ways of conceiving of a person’s age, prospects, future, or expectation of what could happen. This certainly offers a promising avenue, which we will extend to a few points of reference that are more qualitative, before concluding this essay about the anthropology of youth in Africa.

4. Young people, subjects, individuals, actors

73Understanding young people and youth in terms of statuses and groupings, then through the categorisation of ages and the evolution of the person-body, led us to the question of the limits and modalities of the end of youth. In line with these elements, viewed from another angle, we will now consider the question of individual intentions and “waiting”, the latest development that has provoked varied and sometimes controversial analyses that reveal the singularity of the category that young people and their youth constitute in Africa.

74Once again we are presented with a cloud of terms and concepts that overlap without being synonyms, used by the authors in turn: the young person considered as an individual/subject, equipped with intentions, or an actor equipped with an agency, who is not solely “driven” by one position or category-affiliation or by an expectation of conformity to roles and attitudes: that is to say categories from general sociology and comparative anthropology that, moreover, have taken on certain particular characteristics in the field of African studies (Werbner, 2002). Knowing that space is limited in this essay, we pull only a few exploratory threads of this problem, which also leads to the key question of individualisms in Africa (Riesman, 1974; Peatrik, 2003a: 15–19) and elsewhere (Dumont, 1983; Ehrenberg, 2018).

75In a variety of guises, questions about individual expectations and projections arise in all of the contributions: the retrospective itineraries of activists in South Africa (Gukelberger, present volume), stage performances put on by Tuareg young people (Rasmussen, present volume), the history of the “Civic Broom” movement in Burkina Faso (Lamaison-Boltanski, present volume), and that of young men returning to Bété country (Montaz, present volume). These are various individual figures of political engagement that will enrich the already abundant repertoire of youth mobilisations. Straddling these political modalities and the more prosaic modalities of the quest for resources, we will have to consider the intentions of the young men who barricaded railways in Tunisia (Pontiggia, present volume), or “young people” in Nigeria attempting to access the resources of secret networks (Iwilade, present volume), or Samburu warriors in Kenya compelled to undertake cattle raids (Straight, present volume). This is another approach that has been staked out and has long been associated with youth, namely the recourse to violence and excesses in order to access resources.

76Other forms of action, ways of doing things and projecting oneself—more discreet and peaceful this time—appear among young Malinké villagers (Dessertine, present volume; Gaibazzi via Champy, present volume), among the Bwa studied by Hertrich, and more broadly among rural young people explored by Gastineau and Golaz (2016), and also among the urban young people in Burkina Faso studied by Mazzocchetti via Champy (present volume), and the Cameroonian young women studied by Johnson-Hanks (2002, 2006). Finally, we should not leave out the little-known but revealing perspective on that form of individualism characteristic of East African generation-set systems and the very forward projection they represent, that of Samburu boys and the singling-out of future eminent persons (Marmone, present volume), or the transposition of these values into the grading of the contemporary scholastic institution (Peatrik, present volume, 2003a).

77This multiplicity in young people’s doing or acting statuses—perspicaciously examined by Durham (2008: 151–178), who was surprised by the ubiquitousness of the expression “agency of youth” in anthropological publications—first addresses the interweaved questions of the inner delimitation of youth and the temporality inherent in that category. The intention or capacity for action attributed to the “young” individual reveals the presence of certain thresholds that condition these ages’ forms of existence, whether implicitly or not.

Discernment and autonomy as age markers

78Concerning childhood, and linked with the end of that age, is the question of the ability to act and exercise judgement, attributable to the growing subject: here and elsewhere, now and in the past, one has used various terms to speak of the “age of discretion” or the “age of reason” in the sense of the ability to tell the difference between good and evil (Pivron et al., 1991), or the ascription of responsibility for actions according to various calendrical or initiatory limits: the age limit for lawful sexuality, for authorised pregnancy, for marriage, the limit that separates the ages of minority and majority, of childhood and youth… In each instance, the markers differ and they rarely coincide with one another, indicating a first centre of tensions and incongruities that, for example, lie at the heart of the activity of juvenile courts. At the other end of this temporal process, as has already been mentioned in relation to demographic studies, the threshold of the end of youth and the transition to adulthood raises more questions (but on other foundations) about the criteria of autonomy and responsibility, the ability to forego help from—or free oneself from—one’s birth family, to form new relationships and establish oneself on one’s own account. Implicitly or more explicitly, all of the contributions in this volume evoke the question of ending childhood, the question of the anticipation of the end of childhood and the beginning of the equivalent of adulthood.

79This moral tension, changing over time and constitutive of the course of that phase of life we are calling “youth”, could be the subject of a comparative study exploring the possible universality of this problem in human societies. It is realised in a revealing way in North African and sub-Saharan societies and cultures in which one can remain “young” in the sense of being a minor until middle age (Pontiggia, present volume Jamous, 2015; Simenel, 2015), or even remain a “child” in cases of perennial status-subordination (Rasmussen, present volume). It underpins the demographic studies already mentioned, and was anticipated by certain socio-anthropologists. Thus Honwana, whose works have influenced the nascent field of studies on youth in Africa in recent years, touches upon this idea, which emerges when her successive articles and books are compared.

80From the point of view of the anthropology of ages, there exists an instructive methodological continuity—not commented upon by the author, but one that we would like to highlight—between the “child-soldiers” studied in Mozambique and Angola (Honwana, 2005, 2006) and the “waiting youth” of large African cities studied in four countries (Honwana, 2012, 2013), in the sense that they stem from an identical development of the young subject and from one common way of conceiving of age categories. As the name suggests, the child-soldier is both a child and an adult. Because of war, rituals are unable to be performed, so the boundary differentiations and role differentiations that these activate between childhood adulthood have disappeared. The lack of distinction between ages has made possible the maximal inconsistency that the “child-soldier” names and makes thinkable, and incidentally opens the door to the dual characterisation as the “victim” of the violence of adults that should be protecting them, and the “perpetrator” of violent acts that they must have decided or agreed to commit. At the other end of the sequence, urban young people of the “waithood generation” are confronted with a condition that is the opposite of that of child-soldiers. They are no longer children but not yet adults. In short, they have no age (this could be another way of characterising youth, in line with Bourdieu’s paradox, 1978) and they are stuck in a liminal phase that has a tendency to endure. But beyond this reversal, the parallel continues: they are also young people implicitly viewed as divorced from custom, as victims of the economic crisis precipitated by Structural Adjustment policies (Honwana, 2012: 5), and as actors engaged in various tactic for getting by.

81In both cases, these figures of youth are hand in glove with the “globalisation” produced through the circulation of cassettes and through radio, social networks and the internet, which have served as vehicles for a culture of violence and a young globalised culture: for example Rambo images and the imaginary world of war that modelled the behaviour of child-soldiers in Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Angola (Richards, [1996] 1998; Ferme, 1998; Honwana, 2006: 45) or soap operas and well-known music genres like hip-hop that infuse the globalised imagination of urban young people (Honwana, 2012: 90, 133–134).

  • 33 The portmanteau word “waithood”, condensing “waiting for adulthood”, was coined on the model of the (...)
  • 34 And as such they are indebted to an anthropology of affliction and recovery, of which Honwana was a (...)

82To name these paradoxical states of “youth”, two portmanteau words have been coined and mobilised as very useful analytical shifters. To the “child-soldiers”, the young people of the “waithood generation” responded, a process that has made it possible to capture the inherent tensions constitutive of these singular age categories, indicative of a disturbance in the flow of time: both child and adult on the one hand, neither child nor adult on the other.33 Defined by a distortion of temporality, the representatives of these age categories built upon inconsistency belong (an additional characteristic) in the category of those who are victimised and dominated.34 However, both being positioned in terms of domination, these dominated subjects with singular ages are nevertheless actors. But in different ways.

  • 35 Remember that it is we, quite obviously, who are using this concept. The various elements character (...)
  • 36 The surprising propagation of the analyses of Michel de Certeau—an author who has explored dominati (...)

83To clarify the status inconsistency35 that gets pushed to its maximum in the case of child-soldiers who exist in the interstices between victims and perpetrators, Honwana (2005, 2006: 70–74) enlisted the help of an author who achieved a remarkable breakthrough in the field of African studies: Michel de Certeau ([1980] 1990), a historian of the Modern Period to whom we owe the notion (borrowed from the military language formalised by Clausewitz) of “tactical actor”, in the sense of the tactics used by individuals who are in situations of domination, without any strategy possible other than subordination and obedience, but are not devoid of a capacity for tactical action (an “agency of their own”) that is within the reach of people who are weak and have little power (Scott, 1985), transposed in this case to child-soldiers.36 As for urban young people, the inconsistency of their situation is viewed this time in the dual light of the culture of getting by—presented as the manifestation of a particular “youth subculture”, an aspect that has already been mentioned—and especially the culture of “waiting”, a dimension we will now examine.

Waithood, the attribute of youth?

  • 37 In French attente covers two linked meanings that English separates: attente in the sense of waitin (...)

84Waiting,37 as an attitude characteristic of youth, is a notion that spread like wildfire among specialists in the Muslim-Arab and sub-Saharan worlds in the early 2010s (Rivoal, 2010, 2015; Khosrokhavar, 2011). It was said to be an attribute of a large population of young people without prospects of work or marriage, doomed to escapism (the culture of getting by), criminal behaviours, revolt or enlistment under various banners.

85In this volume, various ethnographies led to nuancing or moving away from a view that owes too much to a sociology of mobilisations, that of a “waithood generation” ready to flare up, just like the Soweto generation in 1976 (Gukelberger, present volume) or the 1968 generation that would have included young people north and south of the Sahara. In this present case, waiting is not synonymous with boredom or idleness, but rather an active time of metamorphosis (Dessertine, present volume), sometimes based on a phenomenographical understanding of the body postures of waiting and rest (Dessertine, 2017). It is also the waiting of sedentary farmers denoting a proactive immobility (Gaibazzi via Champy, present volume), or impatience that turns into violence in order to attempt, very prosaically, to take one’s turn, either getting into the clientelist queue of the Tunisian state, or getting access to resources (Pontiggia, present volume).

86Waiting postures diffract into a wide array of representations that range from political and religious mobilisation (including eschatologies and utopias/dystopias) to anticipatory, affective and cognitive dispositions characteristic of the human spirit, and include various corporeal ways of marking waiting, or of anticipating the future during the planning or implementation of economic or matrimonial projects, for example. If we take the more general point of view of the anthropology of the ages of life (the frame of reference at the root of this essay), then waiting—that is to say a particular way of projecting oneself—could be viewed as a temporality inherent in youth, which is in the grip of body-growth and the uncertain perception of hoped and feared metamorphoses, subject to acceleration or deceleration, between precociousness and underdevelopment (Peatrik, present volume; Le Courant, 2014). This is certainly a promising avenue. The identification of later representations of time and of the existential workings that underpin them would offer original markers of each of the subsequent ages (Augé, 2014). Retrospective evocations of youth would punctuate time, ever-changing as the given phase gets further away from the beginning (Gukelberger, present volume).

87In contrast empirically, methodologically and analytically—and to conclude this sketch of the anthropology of youth in Africa connected with the hypothesis of a hybridisation of customary frameworks and contemporary realities—we will briefly mention a very well-known book that examined young people in Africa, but did not present itself as doing so. In a different way, it illustrates the great variety of intellectual conditions that apply to “youth”.

  • 38 This did not escape the attention of Michèle Dacher (1999) when wrote with enthusiasm about that bo (...)

88Coordinated by Alain Marie (1997), L’Afrique des individus presents collective research, in this case mostly in urban West Africa, focusing on the effects of Structural Adjustments, through the fate of witnesses and actors, studied by means of the biographical method used by sociologists and ethnographers.38 It resulted in six case studies, three of which were directly dedicated to young people. They link the appearance of new forms of individualisation to that new phase of existence, which was not expressly characterised as “youth”, though the findings testify to its development. The results of this well-known research inspired numerous subsequent studies (Calvès and Marcoux, 2007; Mazzocchetti via Champy, present volume). Quite brutally deprived of job opportunities in the public service, university graduates found themselves unemployed in large numbers and unable to pay back the investments made in their education by members of their lineage. The increasing difficulty of satisfying customary expectations and solidarities contradictorily provoked the toughening of the authority of elders and the loosening of lineage hierarchies. Increasingly freed from lineage subordinations that were becoming obsolete, and after having escaped this final fetter, the cadet became a free electron heralding the birth of the “young person” and the assertion of other forms of sociability. In reality, the pattern is less unequivocal. Primogeniture has also changed, ancestrality has resisted, and debt has caused witchcraft crises. Individualism would proceed from a seemingly inescapable tug-of-war between the “crisis of the community subject” and the assertion of the singular individual (Marie, 1997). And it is in this new so-called youth phase that this change of direction indicative of new trajectories has started or has become more visible.


* *

89At the end of this journey exploring the category of youth in Africa, what should we retain from this vast field in development? The balance sheet can seem dense and complex, the areas of investigation multifarious and scattered, the avenues numerous and disparate, if one adopts the point of view adopted here of the possibility of an anthropology, but it is also promising, and more stimulating than ever.

90The enthusiasm that the “young person” category has generated in institutions and the media reveals the questions that ordinary people and scholars are asking about the hidden or obvious transformations of African societies. Often separated like a footnoted subtext of this essay, various indicators led to revisiting fifty years of African studies, during which a major change of referent took place almost surreptitiously. Over those decades, and as the “moment” of colonial domination receded in time, the figure of the young person in all its variations supplanted that of the cadet social and its various manifestations, in the wake of lineage reconstructions and in the shadow of the crisis of both primogeniture and the community subject. Here there is initial material to explore, both in the field of the intellectual history and current state of studies in Africa, and also in the empirical validity of this substitution.

91It will be useful to scrutinise the (re)structuring at work in the new young age categories and in the redefinition of old ones. Elements of the position of the cadet and/or junior become more complex and transmute under the effect of increasing references to calendar age, through school life, various national and international public policies, and the bureaucratisation of states. The pragmatics of age limits and the repertory of names will offer special territory for ethnographic observation. In the same way, it will be necessary to systematically enrich the data by including knowledge from the female side of age questions, hitherto explored too seldomly, or from perspectives that are not very conducive to understanding the ordinary lives of the young people who remain the primary focus here.

92Put into circulation in the public realm in Africa under the dual effect of political designation and demographic delimitation, the category “young” also conveys the unequal advance of the ages of life and of successive generations. It reflects a demographic growth that aggregates increasingly diverse and unequal family situations and modalities of existence, which consequently contribute to the creation, through successive cohorts, of new kinds of “young people” and “youth” in line with new modalities that should be investigated. Between micro-demography and macro-demography, and by wisely conjugating the qualification and quantification of the phenomena, it will be necessary to confront questions about the valence attributed to the growing child, the desirable number of children, and the place assigned to new young people, between household routines and new customs.

93Revealing of the unequal breakthrough of new bureaucratic and family authority regimes, and cutting across these bodies of power, the “young” category is also understood from the point of view of the development of the person-body and his/her modes of existence, which could be subsumed into the concept of “accomplishment regimes”, which should be made into the hypothesis of the next studies. Apart from the fact that in these first ages, an accomplishment regime can only be a sketch that is nevertheless significant enough, these branch off to varying degrees depending on forms of subordination and gender relations, insofar as they organise or do not organise the possibility of accomplishment for everyone. It should be stressed: the ages of life, and youth more particularly, can only be trivial components of life in society. But when the category “young person” (or any other age category) assumes importance, this category must be questioned: insofar as it affects modalities of sociation, it raises questions about the whole of the social structure and hierarchy from which it emanates, and about the political dynamics that it potentially represents.

94It is one of the advantages of the transcultural approach to the “young person” category at the root of this essay that it has revealed some unanticipated workings behind the singularity of the status of the “young people” category in Africa. As much as the “young person” in Arab-speaking worlds—evoked in the introduction—draws from a local lexeme and emic category that offer a springboard for descriptive and analytical investigation, the “young people” category in Africa reveals a very different trajectory, more complex and just as instructive as long as one gives oneself the means to untangle it.

95Comparative studies between large cultural areas makes it possible to temper hasty generalisations, particularly the idea that youth or young generations are quintessential transnational categories in our globalised world. Of course there are common traits to be found. The massive circulation of “youth culture” by the culture and entertainment industries has contributed to crystallising a certain “youth” held up as a globalised standard, but ethnography reveals its local variations. Pursuing this transcultural variation of young people and youth, where these categories manifest a particular form of salience or valence, will probably provide original pictures of the contemporary world, beyond the hackneyed clichés of globalisation. One thinks for example of the young people and youth of the former Soviet region, or those in parts of Scandinavia. Journeys in search of young people and youth in various Asian subcontinents would certainly be fruitful… and one must not forget the continental or insular areas in so-called Latin America and the Pacific archipelagos. This would be another way to give shape to an anthropology of young people in the contemporary world.

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1 Indicative list of collective books on youth in Africa published since 2000:
– 2000, Filip De Boeck and Alcinda Honwana (eds),
Enfants, jeunes et politiques, thematic special section of Politique africaine, 80 [French publication of 6 out of 12 articles by the anglophone group 2005b]
2001, René Collignon and Mamadou Diouf (eds), Les jeunes, hantise de l’espace public dans les sociétés du Sud?, thematic issue of Autrepart, 18 [11 articles]
– 2005a, Jon Abbink and Ineke van Kessel (eds), Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics and Conflict in Africa (Leiden, Brill) [13 articles]
– 2005
b, Alcinda Honwana and Filip De Boeck (eds), Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Post-Colonial Africa (Oxford/Trenton/Dakar, James Currey/Africa World Press/Codesria) [12 articles]
– 2006, Catrine Christiansen, Mats Utas and Henrik E. Vigh (eds),
Navigating Youth, Generating Adulthood: Social Becoming in an African Context (Uppsala, The Nordic Africa Institute) [10 articles]
– 2008, Erdmute Alber, Sjaak van der Geest and Susan Reynolds Whyte (eds),
Generations in Africa: Connections and Conflicts (Berlin, Lit) [Beiträge zur Afrikaforsgung, Bd 33; 17 articles]
– 2010, Andrew Burton and Hélène Charton-Bigot (eds),
Generations Past: Youth in East African History (Athens, Ohio University Press) [13 articles]
2012, Muriel Gomez-Perez and Marie-Nathalie Leblanc (eds), L’Afrique des générations: entre tensions et négociations (Paris, Karthala) [21 articles]
2016, Dominique Bois, Faranirina V. Rajaonah and Violaine Tisseau (eds), Jeunesses et dynamiques générationnelles xixe-xxie siècles (Madagascar, Mozambique, Afrique du Sud) (Paris, L’Harmattan) [Cahiers Afrique, 29; 12 articles].

Part of this chronological sequence has a connection with the role played by CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa), based in Dakar, a semi-public research organisation founded in 1973 and financed in part by the UN and UNICEF. In 2002, the “Child and Youth Programme” that has existed since 1994 was turned into the more broadly scoped Child and Youth Institute, in which Alcinda Honwana played a leading role. In 2003, the annual conference of the powerful African Studies Association was dedicated to the theme: “Youthful Africa in the 21st Century” (see Mamadou Diouf, 2003, and accounts by historians Thomas Burgess, 2005a, and Richard Waller, 2006). The boom of “youth studies” and specialised journals is part of the broader growth of “development studies” and “cultural studies”, which, in this form, were institutionalised mainly in the English-speaking academic world.

2 Muriel Champy (2015, 2016, present volume) was completing her thesis on a particular category of “street children” in Ouagadougou, the bakoroman, in reality boys and young men! It seemed wise to ask her to get involved in this project, and she gladly agreed, placing her diligence and perspicacity in the service of an issue that owes much to her, for which I express my warm thanks.

3 Studies on children and childhood in Africa and elsewhere differ on this point (Rabain, 1979; LeVine, 2007; Razy, 2007; Bonnet et al., 2012; Coquet and Macherel [ed.], 2013). Authors are particularly more reflexive on questions of method, because they are aware that babies and toddlers are difficult subjects to apprehend, whereas this judgement does not immediately come to mind when it is a matter of young people, about whom the very opposite is noticed: who would not feel qualified to write about the common experience of youth? Having said this, in certain situations, it is wise to approach youth by means of childhood, and sometimes it is even impossible to do otherwise.

4 Especially given that, as we will see in the present volume (Champy, present volume), some authors writing about young people have not situated their work within this theme, as if this indexation were futile or ambiguous from the point of view of scientific credibility. The legitimisation strategy devised for this theme during the 2003 ASA conference, and the publishing programme that accompanied it, appear all the more eloquent as a result (see note 1).

5 I would like to thank the various readers whose comments and suggestions encouraged me undertake an investigation whose inevitable inadequacies are quite obviously my sole responsibility.

6 It is a publication coincidence: Alcinda Honwana (2012: 139–163; 2013), in her essay on the sociology of the youth mobilisation in Africa, considered it relevant to conduct investigations in Tunisia (Peatrik, 2015a), in addition to her previous investigations in Mozambique, South Africa and Senegal.

7 Durham, 2000; Peatrik, 2001, 2003a; Han et Antrosio, 2015; see below: part 3.

8 There is no English equivalent of the French term cadet, hence its use in italics in this translation. The non-existence of this category in English has hindered the circulation of concepts and sown confusion and even controversy, as the continuation of this development will show.

9 These reminders will probably make some readers smile, but experience (namely ours in this issue) shows that these basic notions of social anthropology or sociology in Africa have been lost from sight. Yet they constitute one of the foundations of the anthropology of youth in Africa: see Augé (ed.) (1975), Gruénais (1985), or the relevant entries in the French dictionary of ethnology and anthropology (Bonte and Izard (eds) ([1991] 2004), or Pradelles de Latour (2018) for a re-examination. In his text on migration from West Africa to France and the fate of second-generation youths, Pradelles de Latour cannot avoid a few short paragraphs painting a preliminary picture of the world of lineage.

10 Here we are touching upon another sensitive area in the intellectual history surrounding cadets in Africa, driven in part by the various Marxists or Marxians who were at the forefront of the francophone academic scene, and the anglophone scene to a lesser extent: their debates and disagreements brought their fervour and their dissonance right into the practice of ethnography for some thirty years, from the decade of African independence to the end of the Cold War. The second edition of Bayart’s book (1985: 283–332) provides a good glimpse into these controversies, thanks to the appendices at the end of the volume, compiling the criticism his research generated.

11 In his time, Eisenstadt was already trying to shed light on the youth crisis, namely that of the 1950s in the West, making reference to African customary societies (1954), drawing from them a universal explanatory model (1956) with the help of other examples, particularly drawn from the alternative kibbutz/moshav models underpinning the Zionist utopia. David Rosen (2005) independently pursued this genealogy fifty years later, this time exploring the very sensitive and highly publicised subject of child soldiers—another category of children and young people typically outside of family links. He compared the case of Jewish child combatants in Europe and Palestine (1920–1950) with that of child combatants in both Sierra Leone (1991–2001) and the Palestinian territories (from 1969).

12 To the point of possibly leading Sperber (1982: 11) into error. He had Georges Balandier as a mentor in social anthropology and published his article on the Dorze people in Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie, where Balandier was one of the managing editors.

13 The year 1985 was a special, maybe pivotal year. Twenty years had passed since the period of African independence. The collective book edited by Abélès and Collard entitled Age, pouvoir et société en Afrique noire (1985), forms a quite interesting triptych with two other books: the first by Mbembe (1985), which “launched” the question of Jeunes et de l’ordre politique en Afrique noire [Young People and the Political Order in Black Africa] and itself echoed the second book, Bayart (1985), whose second edition had just been published (see note 10). In those years, the term “young people” started to hit the mark. Mbembe examined young people who had grown up since independence, that new generation which had “no memory of colonisation […], recognising itself neither in the ideology of négritude, which it rejects, nor in that of authenticity, which it distorts with laughter and contempt. Pan-Africanism finds no more favour in their eyes” (1985: 7). The year 1985 indicated a transition between: a) the reflux of anthropology inspired by structural functionalism, mixed with various degrees of historical materialism, but soon criticised by the post-modernist and post-colonial current; and b) the gradual establishment of research on young people—a subject that was in the news (Le Bris and Chauveau, 1993) and had recently been legitimised by its first placement in historical perspective (D’Almeida-Topor et al., 1992)—and the consequences in Africa of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the shock of structural adjustments. During the same period, and independently, the AIDS epidemic, which was reaching its first alert level around 1985, contributed to the boom in the research subject “young people and youth” in Africa as a segment of the population that was particularly vulnerable, especially its female component (Nyairo and Kamaara, 2010). This is shown for example by publications by Isabelle Bardem (Bardem and Gobatto, 1995; Sévédé-Bardem, 1998) and by her later involvement in “childhood” protection with UNICEF (see note 1). Finally, the triple issue of Cahiers d’études africaines (Jewsiewicki [ed.], 1998), dedicated to forms of violence and their rise in Africa, offers a significant point of reference in the chronology of the destabilisation of African states, of which the emergence of the “child-soldier” was one of the signs receiving the most media coverage, whereas the figure of the street child, under other names, had been defined in the 1950s (Champy, 2016: 24). The study of young people in Africa is therefore part of a genuine historical trajectory that is just as political as it is conceptual and institutional, often trumpeted by successive intellectual generations, and this link, still active under various guises, must be untangled in order to make progress in this blueprint for an anthropology of youth.

14 Primary in the sense of preponderant (Bernardi, 1985). Combinations exist of course, but they are then secondary models, in which there is a shift from the notion of systematically constructed generation or age “sets” or groups, to that of a “category” with vague boundaries and less strict applications.

15 Simultaneously, even superimposing other forms of sociation or social structure, like ranks, groups of statuses (Rasmussen, present volume; Burgess, 2005b), classes, casts and all other principles of hierarchisation.

16 In the history of studies on young people, Mead’s 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa—republished many times, giving an account of a sexual freedom among the Tonga that contrasted with the strict education received by young Americans—was an important milestone, even if the solidity of her observations was challenged much later (Tcherkézoff, 2001).

17 Youth is “eternal”, in the sense of an eternal return, something that makes it a poor candidate for historicity and change, whereas every generation is of course mortal, but immediately historical through the shared events that constitute it.

18 See the rich collective book edited by Marie-Claude Smouts (2007), both discussed and prefaced by George Balandier, who said that there, he was placing himself in a “pre-post” situation. Bayart (1985: 240) viewed the presence of young people and women as protagonists of the cadets sociaux, as he reminds us in his Disputatio (2010) directed at subaltern and postcolonial studies.

19 The editors of books on generations in Africa have each dedicated a few pages to which we refer the reader: Alber et al., 2008: 1–23; Gomez-Perez and Leblanc (eds), 2012: 13–34. For a more in-depth treatment of certain aspects in sociology and history, and more centred on the West, see Attias-Donfut, 1988: 9–76; Chauvel, 1998; Galland, [1991] 2011: 99–127; Winock, 2011; Mauger, 2015; in anthropology, Peatrik is working on a synthesis of these questions.

20 These aspects were addressed by my elderly interlocutors in 1986–1993 during my ethno-demographic studies among the Meru in Kenya (1999: 475–506, 2019: 387–412). They saw these as the effect of changes in certain dietary habits after the colonial conquest. For example, salt consumption—whose effects on growth they knew well since they experimented with it on their own herds—increased because this commodity came into common use. But to this day, I have not found any works explicitly exploring the causes and effects of the lower age of puberty on women’s reproductive career and on the consecutive change of the ages of life, in Africa and elsewhere. The various campaigns against the early marriage of girls, particularly in Africa, could give rise to some research, on the assumption that, setting aside the role of poverty or alliances, the age of girls at the time of marriage has diminished over the past century, in connection with increasingly early menstruation. This is an area that remains to be studied. A few references can be found in Rochebrochard (1999), Doyle (2010), Rollet (2015).

21 Heald, [1989] 1998, 1999; Casajus, 2005; Houseman, 2008; Ocobock, 2017. Initiation, and sacrifice (Tornay, 2001), often go hand-in-hand with the qualities attributed to young people. The regenerative agency attributed to youth, starting with its ability to confront death, is an old theme of the anthropology of religions, a theme that concerns many cultures throughout the world (Varagnac, 1948), following ritual scripts that are very different however. In Africa, in places where ancestor worship is practiced, this proximity is implemented in initiatory societies during mask removal rituals in which novices are confronted with the threatening presence of ancestral spirits, and the need to either not anger them or appease them with adequate offerings. In generation-set systems in East Africa, the ritual confrontation with death proceeds (proceeded) mainly during war raids (Straight, present volume; Peatrik, 2013a and b). We have not found references relating to Africa exploring the idea that the young warrior sacrificing himself to combat reaches paradise, in line with an eschatology influenced by Islam.

22 “Youthscape” (Maira and Soep, 2004) denotes highly diverse but primarily transnational contexts conducive to the circulation of images (including digital images), in which ideologies and ways of presenting youth and being-youth in society are deployed and produced.

23 See Galland ([1991] 2011: 42–45); Honwana (2012: 85–88, 133–134) for a history of this concept, initially closely linked to studies on the culture of dominated classes (is it alienated from bourgeois classes or not?), echoing other contemporary concepts like the culture of poor people and that of the working classes (Hoggart, [1957] 2009).

24 On this subject, see the very stimulating article by Boris Samuel (2016), or Cabane and Tantchou (2016).

25 For example, the invention of that new age called “adolescence” at the turn of the 20th century in Europe and the United States, not the old term, but the one linked to the spread the educational and medical conditioning of the course of life (see Galland, [1991] 1997: 37–44; Thiercé, 1999).

26 “Chronological age” because the year of birth makes it possible to date an event that happened to a person and place it in a shared chronology. However, chronological age produces a troublesome pleonasm: what age would not be chrono-logical, and would not be based on a temporal component? Hence the notion of “calendar age”, which is more culturally precise and less subject to ambiguities. The definition of so-called chronological age was accompanied by the split into “biological age” and “social age”. In reality, this analytical convenience creates more problems than it solves. This has been mentioned. Revisiting calendar age provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at these questions.

27 As a matter of interest, remember that calendrical computi existed (or still exist) in customary Africa, in close connection with certain religious or political rituals (such as the Sigui of Dogon people or the Gada of the Borana people) whose performance at a locally calculated moment marks collective and individual time in the given society (Legesse, 1979; Cartry, 1986; Jolly, 2003).

28 The ANR Piaf (Papiers d’identité en Afrique 2015–2019) should produce new materials on these questions (Awenengo Dalberto and Banégas, 2018) and hopefully on the question of calendar age.

29 Better known and recognised is the effect of censuses on ethnic identity. By requiring respondents to declare a single ethnicity to the detriment of plural and shifting affiliations, censuses contributed to the reification of categories and the ethnicisation of relations (Bazin, 1985). Some states have officially put an end to it: in Kenya, where censuses have taken place every ten years since 1948, ethnic affiliation was not publicised after the past two censuses. The tension has eased but not disappeared, because it is still suspected that some have access to illegally obtained data that is not available to others.

30 The population pyramid, which represents a population’s structure as a function of age at time t, was invented in 1870 for heuristic and educational purposes (Bourdelais, 1993: 86).

31 As another example, in Burkina Faso, Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès (2007: 342) reports that between 1998 and 2003, the median age of urban men at the time of their first marriage rose from 26.6 to 29.8, a spectacular three-year increase in the space of five years.

32 See note 20 on early marriage. Symmetrically, and still secondarily at present, birth age is at the heart of the question of retirement financing, in connection with the “demographic aging” of populations in Africa: it is another consequence of the use of calendar age to set the limit between the wage earner of active life and the pensioner dependant on pension funds, thereby institutionalising that new old age (Golaz and Sajoux [eds], 2018). At both ends of existence, the spread of calendar age reveals its effects in the delimitation and definition of new age categories.

33 The portmanteau word “waithood”, condensing “waiting for adulthood”, was coined on the model of the French term “adulescent”, which combines adolescent and adulte to refer to young people who are still tied to their parents’ home, even though they have passed the age of twenty. It offers the additional lexical benefit that the radical -hood has the virtue of designating a state, by nature a persistent one. Symmetrically at the beginning of youth, we should mention another French portmanteau word, “ado-naissant”, coined by Singly (2006) to designate the phenomenon of the early appearance of signs of adolescence in children, in the West at least. In short, the portmanteau words make it possible to capture and characterise passing time and its effect on subjects, and they translate the difficulty of assigning limits to the ages of childhood and youth (Peatrik, present volume). That which is particularly true of this phase in the growth and metamorphosis of the person-body, also applies in another way to subsequent ages, but that is a whole other story!

34 And as such they are indebted to an anthropology of affliction and recovery, of which Honwana was an early specialist. She explains (2006: 18–25) how she was initially contacted to offer help—inspired by the practices of tradition—to children who were victims of the war in Mozambique and in Angola (whether soldiers or not).

35 Remember that it is we, quite obviously, who are using this concept. The various elements characterising an individual’s position could be consistent (harmonious, complementary) or inconsistent, creating dissensions in the position, which give rise to tensions and constitute the root of actions. This concept—at least in terms of description—seemed to us very adapted to capturing the dynamic inherent in the ages of life, which are intrinsically linked to the flow of time. This makes and breaks all age categories, producing repetition, now consistent, now inconsistent with other elements of the position, hence the concept of status inconsistency (Lenski, 1954; Mendras, 1975: 87–90; Peatrik, 2003a), which is conveyed in ordinary language by expressions like “being precocious” or “being underdeveloped”, “acting/not acting one’s age”, etc.

36 The surprising propagation of the analyses of Michel de Certeau—an author who has explored domination (not without reference to the Hegelian master-slave dialectic), by focusing on the cunning of the dominated, transformed into a tactic of “poor people” and people of little means, which he placed at the heart of everyday interactions—became a subject of research (Pires Marques, 2010). This propagation has followed at least two routes: via the United States (where Certeau was translated in 1984), in the fields of cultural studies and English-language African studies; in France, through a well-known anthropologist, originally an Africanist so to speak, Marc Augé ([1994] 2010), who used Certeau’s work to fill conceptual gaps in structural-functionalist studies, and to better describe contemporary situations (Pires Marques, 2010: 45). There one found another manifestation and ramification of the analytical crisis of the cadet in Africa (see notes 10, 13, 18).

37 In French attente covers two linked meanings that English separates: attente in the sense of waiting one’s turn (to wait), and attente in the sense of hoping for something (to expect). The lexeme “waithood” created by Honwana attempts to capture this ambiguity in English. To draw attention to this ambiguity in the translation, we have added quotation marks.

38 This did not escape the attention of Michèle Dacher (1999) when wrote with enthusiasm about that book. We should point out that demographers like the previously-mentioned Philippe Antoine have their own biographical method, hence this clarification.

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Anne-Marie Peatrik, « Towards an anthropology of youth in Africa »Ateliers d’anthropologie [En ligne], 47 | 2020, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2020, consulté le 22 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Marie Peatrik

Directrice de recherche émérite CNRS, LESC–UMR7186 (Université Paris Nanterre/CNRS)

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