- Youth Gangs and Street Children: culture, nurture and masculinity in Ethiopia
Development reports, policy briefings, and a significant proportion of the academic literature have often portrayed street children as passive victims of dysfunctional families and social failure, lost souls to whom the joyfulness and playfulness of being a child have been denied. As Heinonen’s book on street children in Addis Ababa provides a corrective to such a view on street children, it is to be welcomed. Yet the author is far from juxtaposing an idealistic portrayal of the street economy against an imagery of dysfunction and social failure. Instead, Heinonen often reminds us about the poverty, exclusion and marginality her informants live in. The author takes the reader into the everyday lives and stories of two groups of home-based street children and street-based children, constantly trying to situate their experiences within the broader cultural and societal dynamics of urban Ethiopian society.
The analysis of stories and the everyday lives of home-based street children, for instance, provide an interesting examination of the nature of children’s engagement with street life and the impact this has on their broader family life. In this vein, her analysis might come to suggest to the reader an implicit critique of the very category of the ‘dysfunctional family’. From this perspective, the participation in a part of the street economy, such as selling small goods or changing coins for minibus drivers, constitutes a family income. By engaging in such activities, children not only actively contribute to the income of the family but also come to negotiate roles within and outside the family. As bearers of family responsibilities, children thus come to play an important role, teaching their family members the tricks of street trading as well as being involved in different aspects of parenting. Such an adjustment of family roles is far from being peaceful, Heinonen points out. Parents sometimes want to affirm their authority over their children, just as children themselves sometimes might seek to steer such conflicts over family roles in one direction or another.
On the other hand, the stories of street-based children take Heinonen towards an examination of the relations between an existing economy of reciprocity on the street and the everyday forms of street violence. First, the author points out, the reasons for joining the street are often the fact that, in the familial context, abuse is a ‘culturally sanctioned practice of verbally and physically disciplining children’ (p. 106). Once on the street, however, children join other street children, participating in economies of reciprocity, consisting of forms of mutual protection and support. That said, this is an imperfect system, as violence constitutes another side of street life. The violence of the street, Heinonen suggests, is not an uncontrolled [End Page 662] impulse of cruel individuals but rather the performance of particular wider cultural and societal notions of masculinity that children themselves embody and inhabit in their everyday lives. They employ violence to condemn peers’ misbehaviour and often to affirm themselves over others. However, this creates a contradictory balance between reciprocity and forms of street violence that becomes more problematic as her informants become young adults. Masculine violence is not only the practice of the street, but comes to be a practice of inter-gender relations, as sexual maturity and the societal expectations of adulthood complicate the picture.
Throughout her book, Heinonen tries to locate and discuss the social and cultural reality of street children within the broader society in which they live. Her analysis of the lives of street children in their families and on the street is interesting. However, her attempts at identifying a ‘wider Ethiopian culture’ to which both she, as an Ethiopian researcher, and her informants belong is problematic. The author engages with the notion of shame (yiluññta), which she considers to be a feature of this wider Ethiopian culture. Yiluññta consists of paying attention to what others may say or even think about one...