By Susanna Myllylä

Urban youth are much affected by redevelopment processes in cities, however, their experiences and vulnerabilities are relatively little acknowledged and diversified in urban planning and policies. The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is currently undergoing a massive renewal project as it intends to become the “metropolis of Africa”. Many old urban structures, such as government-owned, slum-like kebele settlements must give a way to modern housing and commercial areas, and to large-scale infrastructures such as roads and a light rail transit system. What is then the youth agency in this context?

Addis Ababa under transformation. © Susanna Myllylä.

By examining the personal histories and future dreams of the youth, it is possible to study the modernization project of Addis at the grassroots level, rather than taking the more typical top-down approach. In my research (20142015), I have searched for those young city-dwellers who live in the backyards of kebele settlements and face the worst living conditions. Although I would prefer to consider the youth as active agents and catalysts of urban development when there are enabling factors available, my research findings also indicate that many young adults find themselves in a frustrating, stagnant position. What follows is an example of one such narrative.

This inner city kebele neighborhood is located near a busy road and a crossroads that will be expanded and thus the settlement will be partly demolished in the near future according to city plans. The site is busy with heavy traffic, street vendors, and small workshops. The air is filled with sand and dust from nearby light rail and road construction sites, adding to the severe air pollution from the smog and fumes of traffic and small industries.

Divided worlds. © Susanna Myllylä.

Jirata (name changed), a 25-year-old man, was born in the city. He is an Orthodox Christian, a member of the Oromo ethnic group. His parents divorced when he was a child, after which his mother moved to the north and his father established a new family. Jirata was sent to his grandmother’s house. He has not had any contact with his parents since. Jirata’s eyes are filled with sadness, reflecting the abandonment and solitude experienced by many other young people in Addis, where children and adolescents are often left to their grandmothers’ custody after their parents’ divorce. Also Jirata’s three nephews were sent to live in their grandma’s two-room small kebele house. Since his grandmother is supported by other relatives rather well, nobody expects Jirata to contribute financially to the household: “I gave up on everybody and have sustained myself already since I was 8 years old. I have struggled for myself only – I do not want to count on, or depend on nobody.”

Dropping out of school is common especially among the youth who live without their parents. In his early years, Jirata both studied and worked: ”I thought, I am strong enough”. According to Joanne Westwood (2013), issues related to working children often challenge our cultural perspectives about childhood and what is considered acceptable and appropriate. While it is important to prevent exploitative child labor, in cases of poverty not only children but also their families and communities can benefit from, and children can feel pride in, being able to make a contribution to their family, or paying for their education through work (Ibid).

Another grandmother’s house to be soon demolished. © Susanna Myllylä.

Jirata’s personal history includes early school dropout and a series of menial jobs – also a typical narrative of kebele youth in Addis. He has worked as a carrier of loads for neighbors, a construction site worker, a minibus driver’s assistant, and a taxi driver. It is not formal work since he does not work for a taxi owner, but casually receives day-work from taxi drivers who are tired or otherwise want take a break: “I stand by the street and look for job opportunities. So me and my friends just hang around here, and I don’t know about other areas in the city and what they could offer.” To Western eyes, young men hanging around street corners may indicate laziness. However, in Addis it is part of the dynamics of the informal economy. It is also clear from interviews that a considerable part of the poor kebele youth have participated in the modernization project of the city by working at the numerous construction sites. Young women not only sell coffee and food (and compete for spaces on the construction sites in which to market these goods), but also they join the heavy work by carrying materials.

As Jirata points out, ”not many young people have a good education here. Women and girls become pregnant before they have established themselves – which, is also the fault of men too. We have a lot of youth who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. I think we hardly have criminals here because people are involved only in their own things, and people are aware of the consequences if caught by the police. Occasionally here can be criminals arriving from other areas hiding from police.”

For the kebele youth, uncertainties regarding livelihood; petty jobs and great daily variances in income make their lives vulnerable and insecure. Jirata thinks that a person with a good education can seek a job elsewhere, and get employment more easily: “For us, this is difficult, since our work is based on connections, in an informal way. My daily income varies a lot, sometimes I get 100 birr [roughly 4.30 euros], sometimes less or more. I want to become a fully employed taxi driver, but it is difficult since there are already too many of them.” Jirata’s assumptions regarding the better position of the educated youth, especially of the university graduates, may be partly true. 

I observed that the university graduates living in kebeles often face long term unemployment, since there are too many educated applicants for each open job – a situation similar to taxi drivers. Hence it can be argued that the urban renewal project has been unable to improve the lives of the poorest youth. There can be found youth microenterprises and kebele loans for small businesses, but if one is an informal subrenter, it is not possibly to apply for such a loan. In addition, what I found striking among the youth was the lack of collective action and tight social security networks.

Youth often feel restrictions in the congested kebele settlements: “In our compound there are many gossiping women, since they do not have much to do. They talk about other people’s affairs. That’s why I usually leave home early and go to the street to work, or look for work”. Jirata would like to continue studying, and earn enough to buy property for himself. He cannot afford to think of marriage because he has no savings, but he is optimistic about the future. An 18-year old can register for the government’s housing lottery system in order to receive an apartment in a block of flats known as a ‘condominium’. 

Jirata has registered for a two-bedroom apartment, since he thinks he can afford to take care of the down payment and the required monthly payments: “I can’t wait to get a condominium. Here in the kebele we have to fight over shared resources, such as space, water, electricity – everything must be consulted and disputed with others. In a condominium, one minds his own business.” But he is aware of the uncertainties attached to these apartments: “I know people who have won in the lottery, but mostly they rented the house out in order to be able to manage the payments. I would rent it out too, if I were in a bad situation, but if I had a steady or better job, I would stay in the house.”

A new condominium area seen from a half-demolished kebele house. © Susanna Myllylä.

The youth have many views and ideas regarding the urban renewal project. Jirata points out the lack of alternatives for people: “Development is not well co-ordinated in the city. For instance, when the city starts demolishing a kebele housing area, the inhabitants are moved out before they have a new home, either in another kebele or in a condominium. People are forced to stay at their relatives’ houses for an unknown time. And in regard to road or light rail construction, the city should provide alternative roads, or when these are provided, they are in bad condition, having big holes and in the rainy season they are unpassable. We have too much congestion, which has made people angry and stressed, and we are used to saying: ”Oh this country!”

Jirata does not hesitate when offering an explanation for the poverty in kebeles: ”Because they have just turned in upon themselves and keep complaining: ‘I am stuck in a poverty trap’. At the same time, they envy someone who has succeeded in improving his life. Or, for instance, an elderly woman from my compound selling charcoal on the street: she has taken her grandchildren to live with her, which makes an extra burden for her, especially if she does not get any support – she is being pushed downwards. Actually everybody is in the same situation here.”

According to Jirata, he has been living an accidental life: “I have struggled a lot in the past; I have not had anyone or anything to rely on, and lacked support – even just to feel pity for me. I worried a lot, was frustrated, as I did not have any idea how to survive. Now I have a driver’s license so there is some hope for the future. But what I want is different from what I currently do. My life is just going on from one happening to another; things just happen to me.” Jirata is just one of many stuck in a position of inadequate life chances and poor living environments, in uncertain youthscapes (see Maira and Soep, 2004; cf. Christiansen, Utas and Vigh, 2006 ).

What is then required to cause a positive shift in the personal development of the youth, and to help them become urban citizens who are better attached to Ethiopian society? This is a crucial question to be reconsidered in light of the contemporary urban renewal that emphasizes structures over people.