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Africa Today 51.3 (2005) vii-xxiv

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Introduction to Youth and Citizenship in East Africa

Generation in Africa has recently attracted considerable and perhaps unprecedented scholarly interest. In the last four years four major institutions have hosted international conferences on youth in Africa (Social Science Research Council, University of Leiden, Northwestern University, and Amherst College), and, at last report, at least three intended to publish volumes of essays on the subject. In 2002 the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) began its Child and Youth Studies Institute. In 2003 the African Studies Association (ASA) made "Youthful Africa in the 21st Century" its annual meeting's unifying theme. According to my count, the conference hosted ten roundtable discussions and 160 presentations that examined various topics and issues related to youth in Africa. If only a fraction of these presentations make it to print, the African Studies community will have more to digest about generation than it has in a long time.

A few reasons could be cited. In terms of demography, youth are hardly insignificant in Africa, given the continent's historically high overall birthrate and youthful population. Nor is the label extremely exclusive, with definitions of "youth" shifting from one locality to the next. On a very obvious level, youth are located at the center of Africa's opportunities, challenges and crises of the early twenty-first century, so it is not a stretch for researchers to identify some of the agents who appear in their work as "youth." The ASA called for papers concerning the relationship between youth and urban space, democracy, the study of philosophy and religion, environmental change, economic development, the African Diaspora, resistance to colonialism and imperialism, rural development, visual culture, health issues, gender, information technologies, popular culture, African literature, education, and grassroots activism. Given the presence of young people in so many African cultural, political, and economic endeavors, and in consideration of the category's indeterminate quality, it is possible to elicit scholarly participation on a large scale.

It is more difficult, however, to work toward a set of common scholarly understandings about youth and generation that are neither banal nor easily assailable. How can youth be defined? How is the category constructed? Is youth a primary or secondary identity? Are young people to be known as "youth," or by some other name? What is the relationship of youth not [End Page vii] only with their elders, but with women, workers, farmers, colonial officials, and the postcolonial state? Do youth share certain interests and distinct characteristics as a stage in the life cycle? Do we simply note the youthfulness of local actors, without investing theoretical energy or ascribing any importance to their age? The best writing on youth to emerge in recent years has not only described how they are engaged in cultural production, a struggle for survival, social movements or political conflicts. It has also assisted in the effort to relieve at least some of the category's indeterminacy, without ignoring generation's essentially fluid and liminal quality. Youth is not always a homogeneous, discrete or bounded category. Generation lacks the demographic precision of gender, and, to a lesser extent, ethnicity. Nor do generations appear to always share the same material interests. Youthful status varies widely according to time and place; it tends to emerge out of local idioms and languages, and is lost or gained through the aging process and a variety of personal decisions and life events. Often invisible to censuses and maps, youth consists of a constantly shifting population moving in and out of locally determined notions of youthfulness.

Nor has generation in Africa been codified; the absence of any canonized script or normative theoretical guidelines to which scholars may refer has, until now, discouraged both research and debate, particularly among historians. Generation cannot boast of possessing "master terms" like "exploitation" (Feuer 1972:365-366). As Mark Roseman observes about generation in German history, "Generations have always seemed rather flimsy craft compared with the sturdy steamships of social class. . . . The historian of generations cannot have recourse...


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