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Waithood: The Periphery and Marginality of the Youth in Today’s World

The lecture is named after the Polish writer and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Its 100th edition was held by Professor Alcinda Honwana, world’s leading scholar on the impact of conflict on youth. In Prof. Honwana’s words, Kapuscinski had an extraordinary ability to listen to people and analyze the lives of those who face precarious livelihood conditions. He reported on coups, revolutions, disasters, the wars in Angola and Mozambique. He depicted the diversity and humanity he encounters throughout his worldwide travels: in his perspectives, the European viewpoint is not the only one. Kapuscinski rather addressed in his work the peripheries of the world.

Prof. Honwana centered her Lecture on the pivotal notion of waithood. This concept addresses youths who cannot move into adulthood, due to lacking developmental potential and education. It is a prolonged, difficult, but also dynamic process and phase.


At the root of the notion of waithood, we find issues such as marginality and periphery. Global peripheral dwellers mostly live in developing countries. Here, but also in Europe and other parts of the world, a growing number of young women and men find themselves unemployed and have to find livelihood strategies outside the “dominant” market economy. They have lost trust in the ability of their governments to deliver basic services and provide them the necessary means of sustenance.

Indeed, young people face joblessness and exclusion, but they respond to the pressures of adulthood in multiple ways. Often, they migrate in the perspective of better opportunities. However, while youth migration has become a central issue in the relation between Europe and Africa, answers have been insufficient, and the root causes of migration have not been tackled. There is, therefore, the need to avoid overshadowing these motives and drives to outline effective policies and responses to modern-day migration challenges.

The relevance of occupation for young people relates to it being a pivotal step to enter adulthood. Moreover, for women it is even more difficult to experience this transition and definitely exit youth. In Mozambique, in the past, becoming a labor migrant in the South African mines was a way to pass to adulthood: men, through this job, became husbands, fathers and caretakers for their families. In other contexts, University education endured decent employment. However, today, traditional ways of transitioning to adulthood are less effective. Young people are trapped into waithood and seek new ways and strategies to live on. The concept, now, is that of improvisation, of “getting by” in a conscious attempt to invent new ways to existing in the margin of societies.

Many engage in smuggling, street vending, criminal networks (as swindlers, traffickers and gangsters). Some migrate illegally, while others engage in relationships with sugar daddies and sugar mamas for money, gifts and access to goods. Some youths come up with more creative strategies, making mural paintings, opening blogs etc. The more vulnerable, however, can in some cases end up being recruited by Boko Haram and other terroristic organizations.

Obtaining social adulthood, overall, has become hard. Liberty of expression and other civil liberties are difficult to attain; many complain about the exploitation and marginalization they face. Some scholars point out that youth transitions have moved away from traditional patterns: they are more individualized, fragmented and do not have a clear-cut evolution. Numerous youths, in Italy, Portugal and Japan, study for a longer period, stay with their parents until their thirties or later and have a hard time in entering the labor market. Transition, in other words, is not anymore unidirectional and clear: it is more complex and it fluctuates between dependency, semi-dependency and autonomy experiences.

The social reality of increased unemployment means that more people in the West cannot achieve material and social wellbeing. Poor youths from working-class families lack perspectives to secure livelihoods and opportunities are still strongly influenced by gender, class and race disadvantages. This translates into leaving school early and without qualification, losing housing security or having educational deficits. Many youths are thus trapped in economic and systemic failures. Moreover, the traditional networks of social protection, represented by family, the community and the state, have been eroded by uncontrolled economic competition and ruthless individualism, that have established them in the age of globalization.

How do youths react? In Europe as in Africa, youths negotiate to create new structures, spaces and lifestyles. Moreover, they renegotiate their relationship with their families. For many, migration is not only a way to escape joblessness, but is also a way to be viewed as accomplished individuals by their families and communities. Many young people leave rural communities in search for opportunities in the city. Others move from small job to small job, though always aspiring to better working and living conditions, while some women end up in exploitative job relationships, also in the sex industry.

In Africa, 80% of migration takes place within the continent. Only 15 to 20% take the route to Europe or to the West – and in many cases the travel is harsh and the future unsure. In 2016, the hotspot system was developed: the aim is that of distinguishing migrants between economic migrants and asylum seekers. However, the distinction is not always clear-cut.

Importantly, the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of Refugees states that all migrants have the right to apply for asylum and have their application reviewed. Even some of those who are eligible for asylum believe that the hotspot system is violating their rights. In some cases, migrants are prevented from being relocated to a country of their choice – as the UK, for instance – where they might have their family.

North-South migration, on the other hand, is far less investigated. Young people who are unable to find jobs in the North migrate – as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal – to the global South. Most are single, well-educated and ages between 25 and 30. Numerous Portuguese nationals, for example, have moved to Mozambique – and Portuguese politicians are encouraging these migration flows. In the past decades, the relationship between Africa and Europe has been centered on the issue of migration; on this basis, the EU has established migration compacts with African countries.

Overall, waithood has changed patterns and strategies for young people. Waithood relates to individuals and to their experiences, forcing youths to imagining new ways of engaging with the world. While some struggle to make a living, others strategize and find new creative ways to find opportunities and make their way to adulthood.

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