Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rwandan Youth Stymied by Culture

This is a review of Stuck – Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood by Marc Sommers. Published by the University of Georgia Press, 2012. 

Stuck is an unusual and hauntingly sad book. It is a solidly researched sociological study of what youth in today’s Rwanda see as their prospects.  Most of the youth, especially those from the overwhelmingly poor majority, find themselves caught in the transition zone of life between childhood and adulthood. They are not able to become men or women on account of a pernicious combination of culture, economics and government policy.

To become an adult in Rwanda requires that a male build a house, have some sort of income, marry in a publically acceptable fashion and have children. For a female, she must properly marry and bear children.  It sounds simple, but isn’t.  Rural youth have limited opportunities for earning money, so putting aside even a meager amount to buy roof tiles is difficult.  Furthermore, government policy to restrict new housing to planned villages severely thwarts ambitions because the requirements for those locations are too onerous. Rather than use a family farm, one must buy a plot and build a house much larger than a poor man can afford.  Obviously if men cannot meet the cultural requirement for marriage, then women too are stuck. There is no one to marry. Additionally, females are constrained by law that prohibits marriage before age 21 and, culturally by age 25 or so, females are considered too old.

One consequence of the failure to attain adulthood in rural areas is flight to the city.   Those interviewed called this “escaping.”  There youth become lost in the urban milieu, still unable to earn much money, but freed partially from their “stuckness” on their home hillside.  Life in the city comes down to scrounging one meal a day, a few pennies for local brew and visiting a prostitute.  Female options are fewer.  A percentage of them soon resort to prostitution.  Government housing policies also impact on urban youth as tracts of shanty towns are leveled for modern housing for richer folks.  The policy to ban informal trading also hinders youths’ ability to earn money.

For the poor majority education was not a viable option. Even though Rwanda laudably promotes universal primary education, few of the four hundred persons interviewed had completed primary school. Most dropped out to “dig,” i.e. perform field labor, in order to begin saving for a house.  Those bottom class folks saw kids who completed school and went on to secondary school (less than 10 percent) as a privileged class apart.

A preponderance of the youth interviewed reported they had no prospects, few dreams, and no abilities to change their fate. They were not only stuck in a netherworld where they could never attain adulthood and acceptance in society, but were perpetually doomed to exist on the margins of society and the fringes of a modern economy.

Most of the government officials interviewed for the book agreed with those observations.  They know that the crisis has already arrived and government policies exacerbate the problems rather than help solve them. The problem arises in that central government authoritarianism prevails and policies of social engineering presently underway such as the requirement to create villages in order to free up agricultural land are set in stone.  One hope is that this book will engender policy discourse and conversations that might result in modifications in national policies that will help rather than hinder youth aspirations.