Youth in African History

Course Material 2024/25

Today, more than 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25 and the median age on the African continent is 19. By 2030, forecasts suggest that young Africans will constitute 42% of global youth. Seeking to construct an historical context for this striking demographic reality, this paper projects the category of ‘youth’ back into the African past and examines its complex history from the nineteenth century through to the twenty-first century. Our reading of African youth is particularly influenced by ideas of gender, especially how notions of masculinity shaped the experience of being a young man whilst simultaneously being remade by the social, economic and political transformations wrought by colonialism. We also explore the ways in which female personhood was made through various social and cultural encounters. In other contexts, we highlight how the liminality of youth as a social category enabled fluid ideas of gender and the negotiation of masculine and feminine identities. Importantly, definitions of youth in African history have long been contested, and are not necessarily dependent on age. Nonetheless, conceptions of youthfulness as synonymous with rebelliousness are ubiquitous, and this is a focus throughout the paper.

We begin with warfare, slavery and young people in nineteenth-century Africa. In East Africa, the ruga-ruga, ‘wild young men without roots or family ties’, ran rampant. In Southern Africa, we meet the Zulu amabutho, who were male military regiments based on ‘age sets’. In West Africa, Ibadan’s warboys, many of whom were slaves, were known to prove their manliness by showing off their wounds and bruises. We also follow the life story of Swema, a girl born about 1855 on the border of present-day Tanzania and Mozambique, and sold into slavery as a ten-year-old. Next, we investigate the relationship between Christianity, gender and African youth in colonial Africa, examining how tensions were negotiated between missionaries, young Christian converts and their elders. We then move into the rebelliousness of youth in colonial Africa, analysing fears about juvenile delinquency, girl hawkers, and ‘wayward schoolgirls’. After that, we take up the theme of youth and masculinity, this time viewed through the lens of histories of urban gangs in twentieth-century Africa. The theme of urban life is also significant to African youth and popular culture, where the emphasis will be particularly on music and fashion. Next, we work to apply the knowledge we have developed on African youth by focusing closely on the social and political history of two youth-led uprisings: the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa and the 2010-11 Arab Spring Uprising in Tunisia and Egypt. In the final class, we discuss Africa as ‘the youthful continent’ and examine how best to understand the contemporary challenges of education, unemployment and migration, as well as the postcolonial emergence of ‘child soldiering’: all amidst the paradox of extraordinary cultural efflorescence.

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.