Social death and violent life chances1

Reception: April 29, 2020

Acceptance: October 19, 2020


In this article I examine the military recruitment of urban youth in West Africa and analyze their involvement in conflict as a "social navigation". I propose a perspective on youth that assumes that this generational category is both a social process and a position. The article illustrates how urban youth navigate their social ties and the options that arise from war situations to escape the social death that otherwise characterizes their situation. By describing youth as a time of stagnation and tearing apart of the social existence of young people in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, it is clear how war becomes an area of possibilities, rather than just a space of death. Thus, the concept of social navigation offers us penetrating insights into the interplay between objective structures and subjective initiative. This analytical perspective allows us to make sense of the opportunistic, sometimes fatalistic, and tactical ways that young people struggle to broaden their horizons of possibility in a world of conflict, turmoil, and dwindling resources, and lets us see how conflict coping it becomes a question of balances between social death and violent opportunities for life.

Keywords: , , , ,

Social Death and Life Opportunities

This article analyzes the military recruitment of urban youths in West Africa and analyzes their involvement in conflicts as a form of “social navigation”. We propose a perspective on the youth that assumes this generational category, both a social process and a position. The article illustrates how urban youths navigate their social links and the options that arise from wartime situations to escape social death, which otherwise is the main characteristic of their situation. When describing youth as a time of stagnation and rupture of the social existence of young people in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, wartime clearly becomes an area of possibilities, rather than just a space of death. Thus, the concept of social navigation offers deep insights into the cross-play between objective structures and subjective initiatives. This analytical perspective helps us give meaning to the sometimes-fatalistic ways and tactics with which youths struggle to broaden their horizons of possibilities in a world of conflict, unrest and diminishing resources, and shows us how facing conflict becomes a matter of balance between social death and the violent opportunities of life.

Keywords: social death, youths, Violence, Civil War, Africa.


Blufo, blufo, bluuufo. From one side of the street to the other they shouted this word to a crazy person of the place. That man, in his fifties, had gone mad during the war and now roamed the streets of downtown Bissau competing with dogs to snatch their waste from thousands of trash cans in the city. While in Europe the mentally ill are generally shunned, in Bissau, on the other hand, they are subjected to a good deal of insults and ridicule, and verbally bluff It's almost the worst thing anyone can yell at you "Bluuuuuufo”Vítor yelled again.

I knew before that a bluff He was the one whose penis has no "hat"; that is, an uncircumcised adult; someone who, being older, has not come to his feinadu.2 But further examination showed me that this term also refers to a man who will never become wise, who will never be part of Guinean society, and who will never be able to have a wife. As such, a bluff it is an intermediate category, defined by the discrepancy between chronological age and social age. Be a bluff it means being symbolically stuck in the juvenile stage, with no possibility of attaining the authority and status of an adult. It's like a social gelding.3 It is the nightmare of any young man in Bissau and is very close to becoming the predicament of an entire generation.

Based on 16 months of fieldwork with former members of the Aquentas, a youth militia recruited during the civil war in Guinea-Bissau, this article seeks to shed light on the mobilization and involvement of urban youth in the West African conflict. (see Abdulla, 1997; Bangura, 1997; Utas, 2003; Vigh, 2003). Rather than the traditional focus on the strategies of influential politicians, military commanders, and the powerful, attention is paid here to the sociopolitical tactics of young soldiers (Clausewitz, 1997; Certeau, 1988; Honwana, 2000).4 I will pay attention to the position, the possibilities and the social praxis of the young people in Bissau and then I will try to clarify the relationship between them and the military activities, and also to contribute to our general understanding of the mobilization process. The social position of young people in Bisáu and their determination to move following an expected and desired process of becoming social (social becoming).5

Youth in war

It should come as no surprise that young people are particularly attached to the war issue. Given their physical strength and position in society, young men have always made up the bulk of armies. But despite the universality of this relationship between youth and violence, there is no agreement about how we should view this relationship. In most interpretations and representations (popular and academic) the role of young people in war is emphasized as if they were potential victims, drawn into war by powerful adults, or they are treated as potential perpetrators, as non-socialized individuals and free, without social and societal constraints (Seeking, 1993; Kaplan, in Richards, 1996: xv). In other words, young men are seen What risk or in risk (Bucholtz, 2003: 532-534; Honwana, 2000). They are described as mechanically dominated or as uncontrolled agents, and its recruitment and relationship with organized violence is seen as determined by the social or generational order, or as completely alien to such order (Durham, 2000: 117; Honwana, 2000; Richards, 1996: xv; Peters and Richards, 1998). A dichotomy identified by Durham when he writes: "War is one of those places where youth initiative is extremely ambiguous ... are they young victims [drawn into war] or perpetrators of violence?" (2000: 117).

Two faces of youth and a Mannheim-style synthesis

However, in perspective, this difference is not unique to studies of youth in war. It reflects a more generic division of our ways of interpreting the concept of youth and the different ways of seeing youth in war, whether extremely active or coerced, which coincides with the two primary conceptualizations about youth in the social sciences. in general (Olwig, 2000; Olwig and Gullov, 2004; Cole, 2004). As such, the concept has been studied either as an entity in itself, that is, as a socially and culturally delimited unit, producing a 'subculture' (Wulff, 1995; Epstein, 1998),6 or as a stage in the longest generational trajectory or life cycle, that is, as a category defined by the position within the inter-generational process of becoming someone (Fortes, 1969, 1984; Meillassoux, 1981; Mannheim, 1952) . In the first perspective, youth constitutes a delimited site for the construction of ideas and practices specific to the group in question, while, in the second, youth is defined as a period of liminality, a stage or status of life, or more. precisely as an intergenerational transitional period between childhood and adulthood (Turner, 1967; Johnson-Hanks, 2002). However, if we want to correctly interpret the acts of youth, it will be necessary - I argue - that we merge the two perspectives and that we see youth in their relationship with both things, with generational dynamics and with the space or position in which agents share similar horizons and orientation points (Mannheim; Schutz and Luckmann, 1995: 115). We must analytically approach the concept as position and how process.

One of the keys to achieving this is found in the adoption of Mannheim's idea of “generation”, in which it is possible to contextualize youth as a field of forces and analyze it as an experiential delimitation (Mannheim 1952: 289). From Mannheim's perspective, a given group of young people should be seen as something very united by formative experience and interpretive horizons, resulting from their historical process to become a specific generation that will develop in specific circumstances (1952: 288, 299, 306)7 and also defined by its relative position in the intergenerational order (1952: 290-291). Mannheim's work provides a way to synthesize this bifurcated perspective on youth in the social sciences. Appropriating his approach with the modern perspective of the social sciences on young people will allow us to illuminate the ways in which youth is lived and built, as a position and as a process, considering both aspects, being and becoming someone. But if we ask ourselves why such a division exists and persists, we will find that the answer leads us to an existing connection between research traditions and the socio-political characteristics of the context from which we are working.

Lost generations and existential moratorium

Contrary to the Western perspective, where youth is the most desired stage of life, African adolescents yearn to reach the age that will endow them with a currently denied authority (Chabal and Daloz, 1999: 34).

If we carefully review social science research on youth in general, we will find that representations of youth, as “owners” and producers of a specific (sub) culture, appear primarily in areas of prosperity. This perspective is linked to analyzes of youth in the North. However, if we turn our attention to the analysis of youth in the areas of poverty and scarcity, this shift in focus seems to have the implication that such a category no longer refers to socially or culturally delimited subcultures or entities, but rather to a transitory stage within the life cycle and to larger generational pools.8 In other words, it would appear that the potential agency and status of "youth" diminishes as we move from North to South, from rich to scarcity areas. As this article will show, the definition of “what youth is” depends not only on research traditions and the context in which this category is investigated, but also on “what young people can or are capable of doing. ”In a given context. It depends on socio-political factors, on the range of possibilities given to specific groups of young people in question and on their possibilities to build their own lives and support themselves, regardless of the control of adults or institutions.

In the North, where young people ideally have the possibility of building their lives on their own, youth, as the previous quote points out, is seen as a positive social position, as a delimited entity. However, when resources are scarce and tied to political formations or networks, being young often turns into a situation of social and political immaturity, radically modifying the status of social position. “The broad meaning of a relatively superior status is always a wide range of possible options,” says Bauman (1992: 27), and thus, to the extent that young people find it easier to access resources and can build their lives for themselves, regardless of their elders, social scientists will increasingly view youth as a positively valued social segment. Thus, despite the Mannheimian possibility of achieving a synthesis of the dual concept, the youth lived It varies enormously from one society to another and from one situation to another, and such variations appear to be directly related to the possibilities of action and life chances of the specific group of young people in question (Dahrendorf, 1979).

Chabal and Daloz's initial comparison between the status of young people in different regions of the world guides our attention precisely to those differences in lived youth - and, consequently, to how the concept emerged from our data - as a broader range of the possibilities for the youth of the North, being marked as the position with high social status and turned into a category that is longed for. While in the North adults may wish not to be young, but at least to be youthful, it seems that youth in the South want adult status.

In an enlightening introduction to a book about youth culture, Helena Wulff describes how for a diverse group of young people in Manhattan, New York, youth function as a cultural moratorium. She pays attention to the efforts that people in the richest parts of the world make to remain in this social category, "expanding their youth by experimentally assuming different roles and thus postponing their adult responsibilities" (Wulff, 1995: 7; Wulff, 1994: 133). As a cultural moratorium, youth is defined as a space of freedom, status and fun. It is the main space for social and cultural creativity and innovation, and it is perceived as the place of cultural production.

However, if we focus our attention on the South, it would seem that social position somehow loses its positive connotations. Rather than being a coveted identity and social position, it would seem that being young in the South implies being part of a social category in which people feel confined and from which they seek to escape. In Bisáu, youth is not so much a space or time for fun, opportunities and freedom, but one of marginality and social liminality. In fact, the category of youth in Bisáu takes us away from that idea of the voluntary search for a cultural moratorium, since this refers to a social position where people are involuntarily trapped and will do everything possible to get out of it. This does not mean that the youth of Bisáu does not appropriate and manipulate the representation of youth disclosed from the West by the global media (Argenti, 1998). "Youth" is negotiated and communicated globally (Stephens, 1995) and these global representations impact the people of Bissau. However, a closer look will reveal that this semblance of modernity, in which so many young people spend their time cultivating it, is directly related to the fact that this is the sphere of their lives where they actually have a minimum of agency possibilities. . In other words, if we look at the praxis and predicament of young people in relation to social, political and economic factors, being young does not seem socially festive, but rather bleak. It stands out as a predicament not to be able to earn the status and responsibility of the adult, and therefore as a social position from which people try to escape, since it is characterized by marginality, stagnation and reduction of social status (social being). It is a moratorium Social, rather than a cultural one.

Social immobility and generational anomie

The difference between a cultural moratorium and a social moratorium lies in the range of possibilities available to young people. This depends on the contingencies of life and the opportunities to become a social being. We all live our lives following multiple transition routes; We do not march along a single route or a predefined set of stages (Jones and Wallace, 1992; Johnson-Hanks, 2002).9 But the number of possibilities, of life opportunities open to young people, varies widely from place to place and from region to region. The fact that the lives of the youth of Bisáu are closer to the social moratorium than to the cultural moratorium has to do with economic difficulties, deterioration and generational asymmetric control over access to resources, which significantly reduces the range of possibilities.

When I began my field work, none of my informants had a paid job, none had economic possibilities beyond daily survival, and none lived in their own home; they shared rooms with friends and depended on the goodwill and support of their fathers, mothers, uncles, or other older generations.10 Furthermore, while resources are needed to be able to marry and / or to achieve independence, this combination of unequal distribution and access to resources with deteriorating times contributed to a social dynamic where the generational order was replaced by social inertia (Gable, 1995). In other words, the continuous deterioration produces a contraction of social networks and a focus on their key relationships, where a growing number of young people find it increasingly difficult to obtain the resources to cover the ritual and social obligations necessary to establish a home or to provide in other ways the necessary support space to continue a path of social conversion from youth to adulthood. As those who control resources continue to age, the group hoping to improve their status and social position becomes more numerous. Caught in the youth category, they wait for the opportunity to move in life and achieve their social status (Chabal and Daloz, 1999). As the Comaroffs show, "the hardening of material living conditions" has placed young people in a particularly marginal position, and consequently, "in place of common axes of social division, such as class, race, gender and ethnicity, here the dominant feature of the fracture turned out to be the generation ”(1999: 284).

Sharing similarities with that anger noted in the previous quote, many young men identify their inability to secure a future for themselves in the greed of their elders (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1999: 289). Thus resentment grows slowly, as the networks that young people desperately seek to use shrink more and more. The story of my friend Seku offers us a good example of the social moratorium on youth, its proximity to social death, and the tension in such generational relationships.


I was hanging out with Seku. We had eaten and chatted leaning back on a couple of chairs in a relaxed atmosphere. Seku shared a congo with a couple of friends. A congo It is a room, independent of the parents 'or elders' houses, and is shared as a bedroom by a group of young people; this is a common alternative, instead of living under your father's or uncle's roof and rules. The congo de Seku is an annex, like any other room in Bisáu. It's a small, dank, mud-brick room with a dirt floor, sparsely furnished with a couple of beds, a few chairs (or stools), a hole for a window, and patches of lush green mold on the wallpaper. Normally Seku and his companions, Aliu and Nome, spend only the hours of sleep in their congo and the rest of the day out with his friendscollegason) or group of peers, in the stadium playing soccer or basketball, or running errands. Instead, in the rainy season, the place becomes a refuge for all of its collegason, as they gather to protect themselves from the rain, and turn the small room into a kind of smelly sauna.

Seku loves her congoIt gives him the freedom to do whatever he wants, like taking girls home to drink, party, and generally live without the damning interference of his father or the other members of his family. However, although he no longer lives in his father's house and has achieved a degree of freedom thanks to his congo, Seku continues to be almost totally dependent on the goodwill of his family and friends for food and support. In other words, despite the ideal expectation of being able to support himself, and eventually take care of his elders and his own family, Seku, at 26 years of age, shares with the rest of my interlocutors a position common dependency.

In Bissau a man has authority over his son if the son is his dependent,11 and the period of youth is generally defined by the time it takes a child to break free from this dependency. For most young men this is said to start when the boy is circumcised or when he begins to kunsi mindjer, “To meet women”, and it is recognized that he has reached adulthood by marrying, which is possible when one is able to maintain a home (Fortes, 1969: 205); In other words, when it becomes a Pattern. However, as most urban youth do not inherit land or resources, they must strive to achieve this condition of independence.12 And as youth are affected by their inability to achieve autonomy and to move on on the path of becoming someone socially, generational relationships are turning sour.

"Parents want to have their children under control"13 is Seku's complaint. But since he knows that if he defies his father's control it would probably imply that he is going to bed hungry, he became slavish in order to have the right to meals by doing what he was told, doing favors and errands, but he complains bitterly from the humiliation of having to act like little boy when in reality he already sees himself as men. When I asked him what he would like to do if he could, Seku replied:

I want to be a man with a head [of my own]14. I want to be a man of respect, a complete man, complete. You understand? I want to have my own house, children, a wife. I want a job. If you have this, then no one can tell you that you are young. You will have your own family, your own job. If you are a complete man, then you are the [only] force on your head.15

Seku wants to cross the threshold of adulthood and escape the social moratorium of youth. Neither their situation nor their aspirations are unusual among the youth in Bissau, who generally live their lives on the fringes of power and resource flows. In fact, in the present context, the phrase “then nobody can tell you that you are young” focuses our attention exactly on the general perception of youth as stigma, as a category that acquires a pejorative use when it is linked to power relations. The concept frames an interaction between a relationship defined by the domain, and the use of the label of "youth" as contempt shows, in effect, its presumed distance from authority.16

Furthermore, by not being “a man with his own head”, he draws our attention to the position of youth without authority and the possibility of doing what they want; on the contrary, the wishes of another have to be followed. "Being in control of your own head," another way of putting it, implies having the freedom to choose, make your own decisions, and follow your own desire, all of which are included in the category of adulthood. From a Guinean perspective, Seku is not a complete man, because he does not control his own life, he cannot get a wife, or maintain a home, but depends on the good will of his father.

In other words, the relationship between the generational position of youth, social mobility and access to resources has entered a vicious circle in Bissau. The continuous decline means a reduction in resources within family networks, as well as a decrease in jobs and resources among the urban population, thus making it impossible to obtain an adequate income to try to marry,17 maintain a family or somehow create a space for patronage. Finally, it is impossible to become a man of respect, an adult. As we will see later in the cases of Bernardinho and Buba, this is a situation of generational anomie where it is currently impossible for young people to achieve that position and role that has been prescribed and expected of them (Merton, 1968).18


Despite having suffered the drama of war, losing it instead of winning it, and having been seriously wounded, Bernardinho is one of the luckiest young men I met in Bissau. In fact, today he is in a better situation than other young people, having found a job after the war. But since he continues to be equally unable to move in the generational order, he continues to provide us with a good example of the precarious situation of young people.

Currently Bernardinho works as a kitchen assistant in a local canteen. Instead of money, they pay you with food. It is common in Bisáu that they do not pay money for the work done. For this reason, many young people do not receive any payment for the jobs and occasional tasks that they carry out, since they are paid with favors, both before and after. Furthermore, employers are notoriously reluctant to pay what they owe. It seems that Bernardinho likes to be paid with food, because at least it is a tangible reward. Despite being paid in kind (in naturalia), for Bernardinho his work is something valuable, because even though he is poor in economic terms, he is a strong and well-fed man. Without a doubt, he is stronger and in better shape than many other young people I met in Bissau.

Bernardinho has had the same girlfriend for the two years that I have known him, and our conversations have often drifted to the issues of partners, family, and marriage. One day in particular we were in front of the counter of a canteen, talking. Drink and food are usually served, but that day Bernardinho used the counter to cut pieces of liver as if it were his main (and only) evening meal. As we stood there, all the time it took to cut off a good chunk of the ten pounds of liver, our conversation ran from thoughts about the future to women's issues:

There are many women in Africa, many. But money ... you have to have money. If you have a wife but you don't have money, he is going to go and get it where he can. If you can't give him [money] for the market,19 she will find someone who can give it to her.
So she will leave you if you don't have money?
If she needs something, where could he [her boyfriend] get it? If you don't give it to her, where could she get it? It is the same in marriage… That is why there are almost no marriages in Africa anymore. You can know a woman for ten years, but you will never have enough money to marry her. To become a responsible man you have to get married. If you have not married, you will not be respected by society. It is the same thing with work. If you have a job, you can organize your life, you can get married, and later you can start a family… But only someone who knows you…. Only someone who knows you will give you a job… These days young people are frustrated. This is why they want to leave, to have a standard of living. You go abroad and then you can send money to your family… But it is very sad, because you are far from everyone. It is very difficult. Africans have difficult lives.

Despite his good luck in having obtained a regular and generous source of food, Bernarinho clearly feels the general discomfort of the current deterioration in Guinea-Bissau, while he is socially locked and locked in the category of young and without possibilities of reaching social mobility. Furthermore, he is well aware that his dreams of marriage and social mobility can very easily turn into a nightmare, because instead of being able to marry his girlfriend with all the positive consequences that this would have, he is faced with the constant possibility that his girlfriend leave him for someone else who can support her. In other words, there is a terrible discrepancy between what is desirable and what is possible within the forward-looking perspectives.

Unable to marry, Bernardinho is left without the means to become a "respectable man" and this locks him up in a youth social moratorium with few options to escape, except to leave the country. However, migration is itself highly dependent on the support one receives from their own networks, not only to raise enough money for the trip but also to get a passport, pay for a visa, and establish connections abroad. As the quote shows us, despite the difficulties that migration entails, it is seen by many people in Bissau as one of the only ways - along with the militia - to have a tolerable life, underlining that a local exit from the moratorium social does not seem possible at the moment. Or as my friend Amadu put it, showing me his recently stamped US visa on his passport: “Look, how precious! I'm very afraid of losing it… You know, if [I lost it and] someone found it, it would be as if a dead person found life again ”.


To some extent, Buba was in the same situation as Bernardinho, but he had no job and no expectation of getting food on a regular basis, depending on the goodwill and scarce resources of his uncle. Buba's reasons for joining Aguentas were directly linked to his family networks. His uncle had been an official "loyal" to the previous president, and had encouraged Bubas to enlist; In combination with the fact that most of his friends were leaving as well, this was motivation enough for Buba to enlist. However, as the Governo he had lost the war, Buba's uncle had lost his privileges. His house and property had been taken from him, leaving him with almost the bare minimum, which meant that he no longer had enough to meet Buba's needs.

The first time I met Buba, I was in a bad situation. Having faced the traumatic period at the end of the war, he was nervous and extremely alert, like a person giving the
impression of being trapped or cornered. I was terrified of
possible persecution and constantly fearful that the military junta would arrest him. Although he agreed to participate in the interviews, our first attempts were disastrous, because he began to whisper as soon as I took out my pen and notebook, and worse if I turned on the tape recorder. I must say, however, that Buba was really in a particularly difficult situation, given that he was one of the few Muslims in Bissau who had joined the Aguentas, and in a way he was branded as someone who fought against his own, as great proportion of officers of the Council they were muslims.

However, even though Buba is fula on his father's side, is paper on the maternal side, and maintains a close relationship with his mother's older brother, an officer of the Governo,20 the male figure that is traditionally more important from the perspective paperThey are matrilineal and avunculus-local. Also, his girlfriend, with whom he has a child, is paper like most of his friends. When I met him, he was in the company of papers, both when it comes to friendships and romances. "You're screwing my relatives," Vítor, his best friend, both of them used to joke. paper and Aguenta. Not being a practicing Muslim, Buba was sometimes more like the paper, as were many of my other informants.

When I returned to Bissau a year later, I saw Buba again. When I had left, I was living alone in a small windowless annex, built of adobe bricks or dubi and with a corrugated cardboard roof. The room had been provided by his uncle, and all that can be said is that it was better than nothing. However, he was planning to switch to something better when circumstances permitted, evidently thinking that better times were looming around the corner; but his main concern was his girlfriend and baby. "When I get a job, I'll bring my son and my girlfriend," he told me in my last interview. I left Bissau with the hope that Buba would improve her life and opportunities, that she would find a better home, and be able to establish a home to be with her family. Returning in March 2002, I was of course interested to see how it had gone on. But it hadn't improved much. Buba still lived alone in the annex, and the possibility for his life to improve had not materialized; on the contrary, it had deteriorated. He was noticeably slimmer, diminished in enthusiasm and physique, and I had a hard time hiding my alarm at seeing him weakened. "Now things have gotten worse," he said. “Before we had enough for one shot every day [one meal a day],21 but now, not even that ”, and continued:

Here the young people are disappointed. If you don't have a job, and your father doesn't have either, then for you this represents a great sadness [kansera]. If you don't work, if you don't have money, you can't get married. My son is there (and points to the Pilum neighborhood). I can't bring it… Because since I don't have a job, that's why I have to leave them there. I can't go and see for them… You know… women can't suffer like men. They can't let a day or two go by without eating. They can not! So I have to leave them there [with his wife's family].

Buba's circumstances are a good example of how unpleasant it is to live on the social moratorium. "Women cannot suffer like men" is his way of explaining why he cannot live with his wife. To the extent that he cannot find the resources to secure a meal a day, he also knows that he cannot meet the needs of his wife and baby, and therefore is unable to satisfy his emotional desires, aspiration and social obligation. It is one thing not to have money to pay for the marriage ritual and host a wedding party, thereby marking the transition from youth to adulthood. But even without such a thing, Buba cannot take care of his son and his girlfriend. In other words, the social moratorium as it is lived is much more than a generational anomie. It is a state of massive marginalization, abject poverty, incapacitation of the social condition, and –with luck– um shot every day, one meal a day.

Social death

However, most young people like Buba are not starving. His imminent death is not physical, but social. Despite the disastrous combination of local, regional and global economic and political processes, which are the cause of the current sad state of affairs, Buba is still able to feed herself thanks to her family and friendship networks in order to cover the greatest part of your daily needs. However, he is unable to meet his social needs and fulfill the process of social becoming. A key social characteristic of the youth in Bisáu is this type of social death, that is, “the absence of the possibility of a dignified life” (Hage, 2003: 132).

The underlying reason behind this drastic lack of possibilities and resources on the ground lies in a combination of thirty years of disastrous local politics and inequality-producing international structures. However, whatever the cause, the consequence of the plight of urban youth is that the possibility of meaningful advancement in life has become practically non-existent. Bissau murri'dja, Bisáu has already died, people say, indicating that they consider that stagnation and generalized reduction have frozen the city in a state of decay and deprivation with no future; crisis, conflict and war (Gable, 1995: 243; Ferguson, 1999), and the process of decline and crisis seems especially severe in relation to urban young men.

Both Meyer Fortes (1984) and Claude Meillassoux (1981) have shed light on how young men in Africa struggle to fulfill socially by achieving marriage. They show how the social prize of marriage functions as a gerontocratic element of control; as a tool in the hands of powerful elders who control access to land, wealth and, not least, value and social recognition. Young men, therefore, have traditionally had to bond, run errands, and serve important elders in the hope of future reciprocal returns that will enable them to achieve social status and recognition, either through marriage or through marriage. otherwise. In other words, the fact that elites benefit from the services of young people is nothing new, but there is a shift from the traditional heritage in the workings of power described by Fortes and Meillasoux to the current heritage structuring of power in West Africa. contemporary (Eisenstadt, 1964; Bayart, 1993; Richards, 1996; Bangura, 1997). The current economic situation in Bisáu is so dire that only very few elderly people have the option of inheriting their land or income possibilities. And the political landscape in Bissau is in a situation where reciprocal returns have drastically decreased to the point of being mere distant possibilities. In other words, as urban youth do not inherit land to cultivate and settle, nor do they benefit from the services of a diminished state, their lives are characterized by an acute lack of social options (Ferguson, 1999; Utas, 2003).

By not being able to access the resources (material and symbolic) that are required to be a full homi, a complete man, the vast majority of young men in Bissau have adjusted to what has been called the lost generation, a group of “young people [who] have finished their studies, are unemployed in the formal sector, not yet they are in a position to establish an independent household ”(O'Brien, 1996: 57; Seekings, 1996). In this deterioration, the flow of resources between the generations has slowed and the capacity of the State to provide routes for social mobility has been paralyzed, urban men have been stuck in the social position of young people without the possibility of reaching age adult.22 They are unable to achieve the desired and expected momentum and progress of life socially and culturally, resulting in (temporary) social death; in a social moratorium.

From patrimonialism to the economy of affection

What we have seen so far is that the social position of young people in Bissau is characterized by social confinement, an absence of intergenerational mobility and life opportunities and, what is worse, the impossibility of becoming someone socially. The lives of most of the young men I spoke with in Bisáu resemble the troubled social position of the bluff, described in the introductory paragraph of this article, as they bear the burden and stigma of intergenerational immobility and social stagnation; that is, they are confined to a social and generational position that ideally should be transcended.

But if we want to avoid the pitfall of seeing people young or radically predetermined, or driven by their own initiative, we will need to go beyond emphasizing this problematic situation of young men in Bissau. Young people obviously do not assume their marginality; Therefore, having shed light on the social position of the youth in Bissau, I will now turn my gaze to the ways in which young people seek to escape the social moratorium of youth and seek to achieve the realization of their existence. For this I will put my attention on the possibilities and the praxis social networks and illuminate the social relationships and networks through which young people navigate to achieve a positive social existence.

When focusing on the possibilities to navigate within the political space - or the non-space - of the youth in Bissau, ideally there are three more or less options available (and often interconnected) for young men who wish to take care of their material and social needs. ; these are the migration, the economy of affection and the patrimonialism. Migration stands out as the most desirable but the most difficult to achieve, since it requires considerable resources not only to pay for the trip, but also to grease the entire system where they provide you with a passport and a visa. However, migration makes it possible for one to become someone, an algin. In other words, by becoming migrants, young people hope to obtain an adequate amount of resources to create a space of patronage (a domain within the social sphere), to support a home and the extended family in Guinea-Bissau. But ironically, the price one often pays in achieving rapid status improvement in the home country will be having to cope with minimizing contact with the home one is supporting and also being placed at the lowest level of status in the world. the host country in the North.

From the economy of affection to patrimonialism

An active young man can also meet his needs through the economy of affection and his obligations (Hydén, 1983; Lourenço-Lindell, 1996), trusting that family, friends, religious and ethnic networks will feed him when he is needy and - hopefully - will also achieve an inheritance of some value. But, as we have seen, due to prolonged deterioration, young people have recently been marginalized within this economy of affection as they rank last on the list of obligations; that is, those where nuclear families and networks are less obliged to feed them and help them economically. Many young people survive on the economy of affection. But it is important to note that family relationships are used to meet one's immediate needs, rather than to offer a way out of the social moratorium. In fact, only a few manage to draw enough resources from family networks to secure a future. If you have a family ..., "If your family does not have ...", people say, without it being necessary to complete the sentence, since the resulting adversity is evident.

(Im) patrimonial possibilities

"If your family does not have ..." means that it will be more difficult for you to escape the social moratorium, when the few resources that exist are in the hands of a few employers, homi garandis, which control the access and flow of resources and their movement around Guinean society.23 As young people usually cannot access the amount of resources necessary to maintain a home through family networks, then one of the only possibilities they have left is to find the support of a wealthy employer and thus enter a wealth network. Patrimonialism has been defined by Bangura as

a resource distribution system that links recipients or clients to the strategic goals of benefactors or patrons. In the distribution of “patrimony”, or public resources, both employers and clients attribute more importance to personal loyalties than to bureaucratic rules that in any case should govern the distribution of such resources (Bangura, 1997: 130).

However, there is a continuum in the navigation from the relationships of affection and closed networks of obligations, passing through the employer-client relationships, to the authentic patrimonial networks, which as socio-political structures distribute public resources based on personal relationships. Young people who pretend to be part of some political faction will do so by trying to establish a reciprocal relationship with a patron, at some point in the patrimonial network, and they know that they will have to submit and struggle their way through those networks before they achieve the right. possibility of effectively benefiting from them. In other words, most of my informants were surviving thanks to the economy of affection and obligations, while simultaneously seeking the means to forge patrimonial ties and in this way ensure a possibility to take care of both their material and social needs and their immediate and future situation. But, given the scarcity of resources, it is increasingly difficult to gain access to the economy of affection and patrimonial networks, since in times of crisis they focus their attention on themselves (Douglas, 1987: 123); Thus, for many young people, being exploited by an employer through an unequal exchange of resources, favors and obligations is the best they can really aspire to (Hinkelammert, 1993), to the point that negative reciprocity encourages a social relationship to the less with the possibility of reciprocity (Sahlins, 1974), it provides affiliated youth with a wealth network and an opportunity to improve their lives in the future and to acquire social capital (Bourdieu, 1986). Beyond the condition of exploitation, the relationship contains, in other words, a possibility.24 As resources decline, young people are much more compelled to find some way to enter heritage networks in order to secure a way out of the social moratorium. Family networks can support the basics; However, they do not support, nor can they do so, those who with their efforts seek to become full homi, a complete man, as they say in Creole. That is why young people must go out and search for patrimonial networks with which they can navigate in the search to improve their situation and improve their life opportunities.25

From patrimonialism to militarism

When navigating or going through the networks, from the economy of affection (and its obligations), passing through patrimonialism, it turns out that this is not only the main route to access resources, from getting a ticket to Europe to a plate of food a day, but is actually the only way. But, by paying particular attention to the way in which young people plan their life trajectories and take care of their needs, both immediate and future, it is clear that it is not a specific patrimonial network that occupies the central place, but the perspective of social mobility. Paying attention to the above clarifies the extent to which my informants navigate the possibilities that political allegiances open, but not bound by factional allegiances.26 The turbulence of politics between factions produces what Dahrendorf would call the social options that uncover social links and networks that young people will use to navigate (1979),27 and my informants are attentive, not to charismatic leaders or ideology, but to the social possibilities and life opportunities that are uncovered as a result of the competition between networks. It is about the “political” movement, as a counterweight to our “normal” and hierarchical understanding of the State and our idea of movement within political structures as something ideologically motivated and differentiated.

With a look "from below" or "from within" we do not see any particular political order or state in Bissau, but rather rhizomatic networks and possibilities of movements that cross and cut across ideological barriers, state demarcations and national borders. The State in Africa is “a plural space of interaction and pronouncements [that] does not exist beyond the uses made of it by all social groups, including the most subordinate ones”; this is "a state of variable polarization" (Bayart, 1993: 252), with people trying to navigate these states of variable polarization, imagining new political trajectories and moving between interconnected networks, to the extent that they are involved in the politics of survival. and the search for their social identity. The political space of the youth in Bisáu is defined factionally and patrimonially, since these variables are the only options available to escape the social moratorium and seek how to build a domain inside of the ground social (Vigh, 2003). It is a tragic irony that, in this perspective, young people are locked into a social position within a very socially and politically troubled society. But as we will see, there is a situation that loosens all hardened configurations and opens closed networks: war or intensified conflict. Regardless of the normal contraction to which crises lead and that patrimonial structures are normally open to young people in such situations, to a certain extent young people cease to be secondary elements of existence and become primary agents for defense their access to resources and distribution positions. Just as the militarization of patrimonial policies turns them into militaristic policies, it follows that the networks under consideration begin to offer patronage in exchange for defense,28 providing alternative exit routes to the youth social moratorium.

What we have seen so far is how youth has become a confining space to the extent that continued economic decline has made it difficult for a boy to chart his destiny by following the prescribed and desired life trajectories. However, whether in terms of symbolic, cultural or economic capital, agents will always try to ensure an acceptable standard of living, and for this reason we must expand our current research to look at how young people try to survive when networks have contracted almost to a minimum. and resources have been walled off and put out of reach. In Creole, the answer is offered by means of a term that is at the same time a cultural institution, a self-identification and also a praxis. The answer is dubriagem.

Dubriagem and social browsing

I discovered the word dubriagem29 talking to Pedro and Justin about their life chances (Dahrendorf, 1979) in light of Bissau's disastrous deterioration, and the grim prediction of more trouble. As they were weaving an image of the difficulties that characterized their situation as urban youth - unemployment, conflicts and precariousness - a word emerged that immediately became a list of actions and relationships that served to get a job, food or simply to get ahead. When I asked them about this word, which I did not know, Pedro and Justinus replied in unison: “dubria, dubria ”. Pedro continued: “dubria... it is movement, dynamism, dynamism", He said.

His attempts to verbally explain the concept to me were, however, far outweighed by his bodily movements. As they spoke, Pedro had begun to move his upper body in a disjointed rhythmic swing. It seemed as if he was boxing against his shadow, swinging his torso back and forth as if dodging invisible punches and thrusts. Only later did I realize that, in fact, what he was avoiding were the blows and shoves of social forces. His metaphorical shadow boxing was an embodied description of how one moves through a moving social environment.

In Pedro's words, dubriagem is dynamism; a dynamic quality of attention and the ability to act in relation to the movement of the social terrain where one's life is embedded (Waage, 2002). It is a movement where there is movement, which requires both an assessment of the dangers and possibilities immediate as well as the ability to anticipate the unfolding of the social terrain and trace and specify that movement from the present to the future imagined. In this perspective, it is as much about the outline of a trajectory as it is about its concretion. It is therefore, simultaneously, the act of analyzing the possibilities of a social environment, drawing trajectories within it and specifying them in praxis. As such, this word designates both the action that allows one to survive in the here and now, as well as to venture into the imagined future towards the possibilities and opportunities of life.

Dubriagem it refers, then, to the praxis of immediate survival, as well as the acquisition of a perspective on the change of social possibilities and possible trajectories. Simultaneously it is the practice of driving (navigating) down a highway through opaque or changing socio-political circumstances, as well as the process of planning the route; And then, although military mobilization seems like a direct path to physical destruction, in fact it can be an indirect gap towards the construction of a future social being.

You said you joined the Aguentas "to see for your life."30 What is this?

If you were born here [in Bisáu] and you don't have it, if your family doesn't have it, [then] you have to look after your life. You have to dubria. If you don't do dubria for your life, you won't be able to see for your life.

See what?

[Annoyed] Your life! I… If I don't do dubria, I won't have… I will continue like this, without money.

The above quote directs our attention to the relationship between dubriagem, become a social being, and get rid of the social moratorium. To "take care of my own life" and have to dubria To achieve this, he emphasizes that Carlos has to open up and navigate following a path traced through an opaque and changing environment. His words illustrate how he has become involved both in a process untangling himself from the structures and relationships that confined him, as well as tracing a flight path towards a foreshadowed future. Then dubriagem it means that one has to stay away from immediate social dangers and simultaneously direct one's own life, through a changing and uncertain social environment, towards better possible futures and life opportunities. In Adilson's words:

Why did you join Aguentas?

Because I understood that they [government forces] could provide me with my day of change [dia di seku]…31 After ... after the war, if everything went well and we won, we would have something ... If you had achieved a good level, you would get money that you would go to the stock market, they would get you a job.

Did they say what job or just a job?

I just work, outside, somewhere outside.

Ah well, in other states. Where did you want to go?

Any country they could send me to.

In Africa or Europe?

No, in Europe (Adilson).

Recruitment offered - and offers - Adilson an escape route from the current stalemate. At the age of 34, he is one of the oldest Aguentas I know, but for someone without a home of his own, without a job, without a woman and even without the ability to take care of himself, he finds himself trapped in the category of youth. By gaining access to a heritage network through recruitment, Adilson saw an opportunity to change his life and improve his opportunities. He saw the opportunity to reposition himself socially and to undertake a process by which he became a social being, achieving that absence, which is the most treasured thing in Guinea Bissau: that empty space left by migration (Pink, 2001: 103; Gable, 1995 ).

Rather than being tied to greed or immediate financial reward, or becoming a radical example of the active and determined nature of the youth in question, military mobilization is, in other words, linked to the possible realization of the social being, something that is very clear in the following quote from Paulo:

When the war was taking place in Prabis… a lot of people went to Prabis, a lot of people went there… While we were there [and] we could hear how they were killing each other, we could hear how there was a war there. Well, while we were there we were thinking something like “we are smart, we can go and join the troops. We can become great quickly. "

The above quote illustrates the tactical evaluation of the present and future possibilities associated with the act of recruiting. Entering the army to "see for his life", that is, to see clearly what possibilities one has for movement and the possible trajectories, would be a common description of the motivation behind joining Aguentas. However, Paulo's mobilization should not be seen as a sign that he is a “lose molecule”(Kaplan in Richards, 1996), but on the contrary, as an example of the way in which youth have taken over the movement of social forces and navigated tactically in the open space by the war strategies of others, which in Guinea Bissau it is literally “dubria(r) with one's life ”.32 No kai na dubria, we [the Aguentas] feel when we try to dubriar, Paulo said during my visit in the fall of 2003, and half of the young men recruited to enter Aguentas had fallen on the battlefield. Thus, despite the fact that Paulo's tactics had failed horribly, his story offered a good description of how an urban youth sought to navigate the war as a vital juncture (Johnson-Hanks, 2002). It shows us that the mobilization is directed both towards righ now how did he imagined, seeking an escape from the social death of youth, increasing one's life opportunities and gaining strength during the process to become a social being.

Thus, navigation is focused on the near and the far, on a here and a there (Certeau, 1988: 99). When we navigate we imagine and trace a route through unstable social terrain, simultaneously crossing the next wave or obstacle and negotiating many more that will come our way along the way according to the route drawn.33 Similarly, youth involvement in war is less disconcerting if we do not see it only in relation to immediate rewards, but rather place it in the midst of an assessment of immediate and future needs and possibilities related to a changing and changing terrain. unstable. Social navigation allows us, in this way, to see the path by which we move in the midst of changing social circumstances. It represents that phenomenon of facing a terrain that at the same time faces yourself, or from a kinetic perspective, moving in the middle of an element that simultaneously moves you.34 As such, the concept of social navigation is particularly appropriate for guiding praxis in situations of change and disturbance, as it takes us away from the false image of planning and praxis as if they were different sequences throughout a traced movement. in stable fields.35

In other words, to understand the mobilization of the youth of Aguentas, we need to relate their involvement in the war with a space of minimal life opportunities to which they are confined, with the changing social terrain in which they live - as has been demonstrated by putting the focus on becoming a social being - and the future realization of the social being that they intend to build. Since it is a visualized and immediate stratagem to reach the goal when the social terrain is simultaneously moving, the concept of social navigation offers deep insights precisely on the game or the interaction between objective structures and subjective initiative. This allows us to understand those opportunistic, sometimes fatalistic tactics by which young people struggle to broaden their horizons of opportunity in a world of conflict, turmoil, and reduced or diminished resources, and thus understand the ways in which they seek to navigate networks and events, since the social terrain where their lives are embedded oscillates between peace, conflict and (sometimes) war.


We all navigate our lives along multiple trajectories to become social beings (social becoming) relating them to culturally defined, socially prescribed and / or desired ideas of the personality. What the interest in Aguentas and the young men in Bisáu shows is that many ideas are rooted in generational dynamics. Conversion into a social being is directly related to generation. In this context, the concept of youth must be viewed from a generational perspective, from both angles, how others define young people and how they define themselves. Youth is defined generationally, not just chronologically. And we must not return to the static and compartmentalized idea of life stages, but pay attention to generational dynamics that allow us to see how young people visualize and trace their life trajectories, striving to reach adulthood and fulfill their social condition (social being). They navigate their lives towards a social, symbolic and economic capital in such a way that they can escape the social moratorium of youth.

What we have seen, when we turn our attention to the Aguentas and the youth of Bisáu in general, is a group of agents whose life possibilities and opportunities are extremely limited. However, they constantly try to navigate the social terrain in which they are positioned or situated, trying to relate the movement of the socio-political milieu to the changing possibilities and social ties. What happens in situations of conflict and war in Bissau is that when they are militarized, then the patrimonial networks begin to mobilize young people to defend their interests. Networks, previously inaccessible to most young people, are beginning to offer protection to their clients in exchange for defense. And this patronage sponsorship offers possibilities for the future in return. This allows young people to begin to “see for their lives” and avoid social death, turning the mobilization into a possible “day of changes”, a dia di seku that opens prospects for the young person and an escape from the social moratorium. The mobilization of the Aguentas is an example of how a young man, an urban boy in Bisáu, achieves a balance between social death and violent opportunities for life.


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Henrik E. Vigh He obtained his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Copenhagen. He is currently a researcher at the Center for Rehabilitation and Research for Victims of Torture in Copenhagen. His research deals with youth trajectories in conflict areas in both West Africa and Europe; Thus, he has recently become interested in the study of the migrations of undocumented Africans in Europe and the networks they develop to survive and in which they remain trapped.


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