This excerpt is from Marc Sommers’ Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood, published by the University of Georgia Press. The book was launched at the Wilson Center on February 28 (webcast available here).
Several years ago, I wrote that the central irony concerning Africa’s urban youth was that “they are a demographic majority that sees itself as an outcast minority
.” Since that time, field research with rural and urban youth in war and postwar contexts within and beyond Africa has led me to revise this assertion. The irony appears to apply to most developing country youth regardless of their location.
Research for this book underscores the relevance of this unfortunate irony. Youth who felt overlooked and misunderstood ran like a deep, wide river through the field data for this book. The irony surfaced in many ways, including in a theme linking the plight of urban and rural youth in an immediate and concrete fashion: 200 francs ($0.37). Amafaranga magana abiri was a common way of highlighting the plight of a youth’s immediate situation. In rural Rwanda, 200 francs is the most common daily payment for cultivating another person’s farmland. That wage rests at the core of the plans of many if not most rural youth. For male youth, those earnings are how they buy roof tiles for a house they hope to complete. For female youth, the earnings go toward personal care products and perhaps savings that might attract a male youth. In Kigali, Rwanda’s mushrooming capital, 200 francs is what it costs to buy one plate of food in a simple restaurant. This was the daily focus of many urban youth: to somehow get enough money to eat one hot meal a day (most lacked cooking facilities in their residences).
These activities circumscribe the central findings in this book: the exacting adulthood requirements in Rwanda’s countryside and the desperation of city life for its urban youth. Stuck is offered as a contribution toward a more accurate picture of contemporary Rwanda and toward a deeper understanding of the powerful influence of two dynamic forces in youth lives across the world: masculinity and urbanization.
The two forces are linked. The first step to socially recognized manhood in Rwanda is to build a house. This sets the stage for a formal, legal marriage (as opposed to an embarrassing and illegal informal arrangement) and then children. Once a man can do this, and protect and support his children and wife, manhood is achieved. Yet research for this book revealed that attaining manhood is exceedingly difficult. Many male youth are caught on a treadmill toward the first step – building a house – which they know they may never complete. Rwanda, already among the world’s highest ranked in population growth, population density, urban growth, and poverty, also has a traditional culture that is both demanding and unrelenting toward its own young people. Male youth drop out of school to start working in order to save to build their house. Then they get stuck. The fallout from this housing crisis is breathtakingly severe, and a common result is for male (and female) youth to escape adulthood requirements by migrating to an urban area, usually Kigali, where their main pressure is not obtaining adulthood but sheer survival.
The impact of this situation on female youth is profound. Because male youth get stuck, female youth get stuck too, since they cannot attain womanhood without having a formal, legal marriage and then giving birth to children. Rwanda’s infamous genocide of 1994 (and its far lesser known civil war of 1990-94) has compounded this female youth challenge, since it is estimated that there may be 88 men for every 100 women in the land. With polygamy outlawed, and if the above estimate is accurate, then perhaps 12 percent of female youth cannot marry because there aren’t enough men to wed.
A much more immediate fact is that so few male youth are able to marry because they are unable to complete their houses. In addition, the clock is ticking: while male youth strain to construct a house and consider the prospect of a life of public failure, female youth must marry before society considers them failures as well. Once unmarried women reach the age of 28, but perhaps just 24 or 25 (male youth and men debate the cutoff age), they are labeled “old ladies” or “prostitutes” and permanently forced onto the margins of society. Since no one can legally marry before the age of 21 in Rwanda, the window of marriage opportunity for female youth may be as narrow as four years. A male youth, by contrast, has more time to marry than female youth, but it’s far from forever: by his early 30s, a single male youth faces public embarrassment if his house is not completed and he still isn’t married.
The widespread inability of most male and female youth to become adults in Rwanda results in an array of negative social and economic concerns. These include illegitimate children, prostitution, the spread of HIV/AIDS, crime, a high urban growth rate, and an increase in school drop-out rates. Rwanda’s government, together with some of its largest international donors, engages with youth concerns mainly through efforts to expand access to secondary and vocational education. Its disconnect from youth priorities is stark. Even after the government and donors doubled access to secondary education, few Rwandan youth are able to attend, and many youth drop out of primary school to start wage work aimed at becoming adults. Vocational education is available to even fewer youth. Meanwhile, as we see in chapters five and seven, government restrictions on house construction and on income generation make the task of attaining adulthood, and a stable economic existence, significantly more difficult. National and international institutions in Rwanda are focused on what they think youth should be doing, not on what youth priorities are.
The importance of masculinity in the minds of Rwandans shone through the research for this book and brought forth a challenging proposition: if one wants to help young women in countries such as Rwanda, one probably has to help young men first. The traditional dependence of womanhood on manhood appears to make this necessary. Clearly, this is a troubling suggestion, since exacting a measure of independence for and direct assistance to women often seems appropriate if not absolutely urgent. But not helping male youth may prove dangerous and destructive for female and male youth alike by undermining their prospects for becoming adults. Many youth, and nonelite youth in particular, may lack the ability, and sufficient agency, to escape adulthood mandates without risking harsh and perhaps devastating repercussions.
Marc Sommers is a fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Africa Program and visiting researcher at Boston University’s African Studies Center. Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood is published by the University of Georgia Press.
Photo Credit: Marc Sommers/University of Georgia Press.