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Stuck: Rwandan youth and the struggle for adulthood by Marc Sommers (review)
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This ethnography of Rwandan youth is a valuable addition to the literature on both African youth and contemporary Rwanda, and will be of interest to social scientists interested in youth, gender relations, rural development, ‘post-conflict’ transformation and governance. The book is a little repetitive in places, but is written in an accessible, engaging style, mixing ethnographic detail and stories with analysis and reflection.

Sommers portrays the harsh lived realities of Rwandan young men and (to a lesser extent) young women who are literally ‘stuck’ between childhood and adulthood – unable to meet the exacting socio-cultural requirements to achieve adult status. This phenomenon of ‘waithood’ – and the pressures and risks it entails – is depressingly familiar, but Sommers details its specific manifestations in the Rwandan context. In rural Rwanda, the first step towards socially acceptable manhood is for young men to build a house. Only then can they formally marry, have children and achieve recognition as adult men. Currently, however, there is a severe housing crisis with a shortage of land, strict government regulations on where and how new houses can be built, and a prohibitive price list for building materials – especially roofing. Many young men interviewed had been working for years to purchase roof tiles one by one, and literally measured progress towards manhood in terms of tiles accumulated. Several had dropped out of school early to start on this long treadmill, although aware that they may never complete their houses.

Sommers also analyses the consequences of this failed masculinity for young women, offering insights into the realities of gender relations beneath Rwanda’s positive reputation for progress on gender equality. The inability of young men to complete a house leads to marriage delays and also leaves young women ‘stuck’. Instead of achieving recognition as women through legal marriage and childbearing, young women face increased risks of informal marriage, transactional sex, bearing ‘illegitimate’ children and being labelled as ‘old ladies’ if unmarried by their mid-twenties. In response to prospects of failed adulthood and public humiliation, some youth migrate, mostly to the capital Kigali. Here, most fail to secure a stable life, facing new problems of severe un- and under-employment, hunger and social isolation. Sommers reveals that many poor urban youth face a daily struggle for survival and many young women work as prostitutes and are fatalistic about contracting HIV/AIDS.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the language used by youth to describe their situation. Sommers uncovers a vocabulary of oppositions between youth who are ‘up’ (or ‘above’) and those who are ‘down’ (or ‘below’) that literally maps onto the geographical, social and economic realities of their lives. Those who live ‘above’ on the tops of the hills close to the roads are more educated, wealthier, better-informed and able to access opportunities. Those who live ‘below’ in the remote valleys are ‘ignorant’, poor and have no opportunities, facing a daily life of ‘digging’ and distressingly low expectations. Nonetheless, their remoteness permits a kind of quiet resistance to what the government wants them to do – join associations, attend meetings and engage in unpaid communal work.

Another strength of the book is its careful but incisive analysis of Rwanda’s particular style of governance and how this compounds the entrapment of poor youth. Sommers describes the ambitious ‘high modernism’ of the political elite and its policy of ‘centralized decentralization’, which entails high levels of social control and regulation of daily life (even bodies). In this vertical system, the lowest-level officials feel unable to communicate the desperate realities of the majority of youth to their superiors, as they do not align with government policy objectives. Instead, high-level officials largely view young people as non-collaborative and unproductive, and therefore in need of guidance and direction. Sommers shows, however, that current youth policies that encourage (often compel) youth to join associations are misguided. They fail to address structural problems – such as the housing crisis and social norms around masculinity – and take little account of actual priorities voiced by youth.

Sommers’s description of the challenges of conducting and (especially) reporting the results of research in Rwanda will be familiar to many. At the outset, he...

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