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Endless Liminality Just before a wedding ceremony, the man and woman (or man and man, or woman and woman) who are to marry have identities as separate individuals. They are single. At the close of the ceremony, they form a union. During the wedding ceremony itself,the two people are no longer single but not yet joined. Marked by ambiguity, the period of the ritual transition has been called the liminal stage, in which people pass through “a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or the coming state”(Turner 1969: 94).This period puts a person in “a limbo of statuslessness”(97) in which the attributes of the previous and the future identities do not apply. The liminal stage, in short, is the stage of becoming. While governments and agencies tussle over the appropriate age range that defines what a youth is, being a youth is not, fundamentally, about a person’s age at all.1 Instead, it marks the transitional stage of life between childhood and adulthood, when a person sheds her or his identity as a dependent child and strives for social and cultural fulfillment as a recognized adult. “Youth” is a moving target not because it’s so difficult to settle on an age range but because the phase of life it embodies is transition itself. Being a youth lasts much longer than a ceremony: it means experiencing the liminal stage of becoming for years. It may even become a state of permanent ambiguity, as cultural prerequisites for adulthood in many countries are hard if not impossible to attain. Two situations—one in the Middle East, the other in West Africa—have inspired catchphrases to describe young people who are unable to shed their youth identities. In Egypt and across the Middle East, Diane Singerman has found that many young people are said to “experience ‘wait adulthood’ or C h ap t e r O n e C h ap t e r O n e Youth in Waithood c h a p t e r o n e 4 An increasing rarity in Rwanda: the large, socially recognized wedding. The solemnity of these composed faces is no accident: getting married and entering adulthood is a serious affair. The groom and bride are in the center. Y o u t h i n W a i t h o o d 5 ‘waithood’as they negotiate their prolonged adolescence and remain single for long periods of time while trying to save money to marry.”2 Until youth marry, they remain in a “liminal world where they are neither children nor adults” (Singerman 2007: 6). A similarly punishing situation faces male youth in West Africa.Mats Utas draws the term “youthmen”from Abubakar Momoh’s research in Nigeria to describe the “structural marginalization” of Liberia’s war-affected youth: Due to economic crisis and increasing dependence on the central state in the 1980s an ever-growing number of young people in urban and semi-urban environments were excluded even from the possibilities of becoming adults. Possibilities to participate in the wage economy diminished and education ceased having any importance. With this crisis looming, many young men lost even the possibility to establish themselves as adults, by building a house, or getting married—even though they continued to become fathers, of children for whom they could not provide. (Utas 2005a: 150) A “youthman”in West Africa is a young man who is too old to be a youth but culturally still cannot be considered an adult man.This situation affects young women,as well.In Liberia and many other countries in Africa and the Middle East, if young men cannot become adults, then neither can young women, since an adult woman’s identity is often tied to, at the very least, becoming married in a ceremony that the couple’s society considers acceptable (which tends toward a large, expensive wedding). What Singerman and Utas essentially describe are situations in which the cultural prerequisites for adulthood are so hard to reach that “youthhood” becomes a kind of arrested liminality. They tie this to the inability of youth to find a job and, most of all, marry in the fashion that society will accept and recognize. The broader context reflects how youth demographics and the growth of cities are helping to sculpt current realities in much of today’s world. We are now in the age of youth.Today’s human population is the...


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MARC Record
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