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  • Generations Past: Youth in East African history by Andrew Burton, Hélène Charton-Bigot
  • Nakanyike B. Musisi
Generations Past: Youth in East African historyAndrew Burton and Hélène Charton-Bigot. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2010.

Emerging out of a multidisciplinary conference held in Nyeri, Kenya, in 2006, Generations Past is indeed a unique book—the first anthology of essays examining African youth in historical context. It consists of twelve chapters with an introduction by Thomas Burgess and Andrew Burton. Contributors range from an assistant professor to fully fledged professors. Eleven of the twelve essays are by historians with the outlying essay co-authored by scholars from the disciplines of Religious Studies and Literature. Most of the societies covered are the traditional darlings of historians, namely Ganda, Nyoro, Ankole, Haya, Nyamwezi, Masai, and the best known pastoralists in the region, the Karamajong and Turkana. Subjects include warfare and conflict, cattle raiding, moral economy, urbanization and employment, discipline and punishment, youth and elders as metaphor, nationalism, vigilantism, labour camps, sex, the power of advertising and HIV/AIDS. All but two essays narrate a history of what the youth did or what was done to them. The period covered is from the eighteenth century to the present.

This thought-provoking anthology addresses some of the existing gaps in our understanding of the study of youth and generations in East Africa. It asks several sound and valid questions; for example: How have gerontocratic values endured or deteriorated over time? Given the numerical strength of this segment of Africa”s population, why has this generation not been at the heart of historiographical analysis? What has been the relationship between generations? How is the past linked to the present? Supported by detailed evidence presented in discrete case studies, Generations Past successfully addresses these questions and eventually arrives at the inevitable conclusion that youth and generation are indeed dynamic complex concepts. The historical analysis presented in Generations Past is one that sees the urban space as a symbol and a site of experimental rupture—a productive space that facilitates the development of a specific youth and indeed a deviant subculture, as well as a space of affirmation, liberation and citizenship. The book gives a disruptive potent to the city, upsetting structures of authority, weakening the family, challenging established forms of order and offering anonymity.

Nonetheless, like all good and pioneering books, Generations Past has its own shortcomings. First, if the anthology”s task is “to understand, with some degree of sympathy, the social origins of such violence, and to resist the slur of „senseless” violence often imputed to African societies,” why then start with Richard Reid”s article, which undermines this goal? Unfortunately, Reid has not moved an inch from a historiography that positions Buganda”s past in this “senseless” cruelty of its youthful monarchs. I would suggest that instead of arranging the book in a chronological order, it could have been organized thematically to give it a different focus from that of studies they so rightly criticize. Why not, for example, initiate the collection with James Giblin”s or Carol Summers” articles?

Second, while the Introduction claims that “the language of generation speaks to how boys and girls became men and women, helps define notions of masculinity and femininity” (19), it fails to address gender, masculinity and femininity in any analytical or meaningful way. Rather, these terms are presented with unqualified simplicity. Moreover, by privileging the experience of one gender while concealing or downplaying that of the other, the authors fetishize and cast precolonial Africa in a fixed mould of unchanging culture. In addition, the volume”s casual and uncritical treatment of the concept of patriarchy and universalizing language is regrettable. Patriarchy is an elaborate system of subjugation that goes beyond “women eloping with their male lovers and fighting the nature of marriage with both their fathers and husbands” (10). Finally, heavily loaded and gendered assertions are sometimes made without supporting evidence. Where is the evidence, for example, for the assertion that “for female youth, behaving badly was defined not so much in terms of their labour as their sexuality.” Luise White, whose work is quoted to support this assertion...

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