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Jeunes, culture de la rue et violence urbaine en Afrique / Youth, Street Culture and Urban Violence in Africa

Georges Hérault
Pius Adesanmi

Nairobi. Summary

Deyssi Rodriguez-Torrès

Texte intégral

1This study analyses the specific social signs, the modes of social and physical survival of street children in Nairobi, as well as their role in delinquency and urban violence. Through an analysis of the organization of street children, gang life and social signs evidenced in the street, the study reveals how a street-based counter-society which thrives solely on violence was created in Nairobi.

Initiation of the youth to street culture and gang life

2In all the case studies, we observed that the youth who ends up in the street must create a ‘living space’ and new social dispositions to enable him to survive since he is on his own. The first necessity is for the youth to become a member of a gang as this provides him with a social environment and a family. Since the choice of a gang leader is determined by his strength, bravery and ability to face life in the street with its concomitant dangers, the youth who seeks admission into the gang is expected to show his strength and prove what he is capable of doing for himself and others.

3There are several rites of passage to gain admission into a gang. The rite used depends on the population of the gang, the average age of members, the spatial location and character of the gang leader. In all circumstances, it is the leader who determines the test which each newcomer must undergo to be admitted into the gang. The newcomer may be required to prove his strength by fighting a member of an enemy gang. If he is defeated, his candidacy will be rejected. He may also be forced to show his willingness to obey and also prove his allegiance: he may be flogged by the leader or be beaten up by other members of the gang. Another way of gaining admission into a gang is to present gifts and money to the leader. Whether the prospective member is admitted or rejected depends on the amount of money and the value of the gift proffered. On the other hand, he may earn the respect of the gang members and be considered tough if he succeeds in stealing or demonstrating his ability to survive in the street. Some gangs make boys who are over 12 years of age prove how tough they are by raping girls. In some gangs, a boy who seeks admission is subjected to individual or collective rape, while all aspiring female members must undergo this ordeal.

4The coherence and stability of the gang derive from the hierarchical structure of relationships and the bonds of solidarity which exist among members. This is what enables these youths, who have been cast away by society and their families, to survive in the street. Need it be mentioned that the street is the only space where they can live and express themselves. One can thus argue that the formation of gangs is a consequence of the exclusionist attitude of the state and the society which leads to the emergence of a violent counter-society in the street.

Survival in the street: from the informal to the illegal

5Street children in Nairobi have developed cyclical survival strategies which range from the informal (in the morning) to the illegal (in the afternoon, evening and at night). Several street children work in the informal sector: they scavenge in dustbins and garbage dumps, gathering paper, metallic objects, bottles and bits of wood for recycling. Some children work in food joints in exchange for something to eat; others help carry shopping at the entrance of supermarkets or luggage in motor parks.

6Illegal activities are generally carried out in groups. The child works only when he is sure of the protection of the gang leader or when accompanied by one or more members of the gang. Each gang works essentially in its own territory, moving to other places to dispose of their booty.

7Gangs whose members fall below 12 years of age steal money or objects from inside cars and snatch purses, wristwatches, jewelry or other valuable items from passers by. Those who are above 12 years carry out more nefarious activities: they offer to ‘guard’parked cars and eventually make away with headlights, radios and tyres. Some hound their victims into public toilets, threatening them with knives and making away with everything of value found on them; others pilfer people’s pockets inside moving buses and deftly disembark two or three streets away. Some gangsters, who are above 20 years old, go out at night, just to rape. They may also go out to join other groups made up of adults with whom they carry out activities bordering on professional crime.

8Expectedly, the nefarious activities of these gangs create social pressures which, in the absence of action by the state, inevitably lead to the emergence of a new mode of justice. Unfortunately, the justice in question is as ontologically violent as the crimes it seeks to eradicate. We refer here to mob justice – instant street justice whereby social actors in a given space lynch anyone suspected of having committed a crime. A good number of Nairobi street children have been killed in this manner as evidenced in the testimonies of some of them presented in the study.

The counter-society: constructing new social signs in the street

9New street codes of behaviour in Nairobi are based on gang life and unique links with street mates. This implies that contact with each other is effected on a daily basis since they are always close by. We observed that in the construction of new signs and symbols, street children are united by the fascination of violence. New identity signs are constituted through nefarious and even violent actions predicated on the compelling realities of their exclusion and needs. Survival in the street can hardly be passive. Street children are treated with violence (physical, social and symbolic) and their response cannot but be violent and aggressive. Hence, it is through a totality of violent behaviour (learnt and constructed) that the youths proclaim their identity and pave the way for the emergence of a street-based counter society.

10Our observations confirm the fact that the social organization of street children is, in the first instance, strongly determined by the creation of new identity signs. Their sociability is reflected in social links and interpersonal relationships constructed in the street, characterized as it were by regularity, cohesion and stability. Sociability is also associated with the recognition of a new authority.

11The social organization of street children also has an initial stage of violence evidenced in the initiation of new members who end up completely immersed in the group, adopting its mode of life and daily violent encounters. The practice of individual or collective violence over a period of time leads to the diversification of itineraries in an ascending mobility which initiates them into other forms of delinquency and violence. This mobility is enhanced by the evolution of the group, which must not only ensure its survival, but also defend itself against external aggression and violence produced in the city.

12This is how youths graduate from small-time delinquency to organized delinquency before ending up in urban violence. The first, and in our opinion, the most important manifestation of integration into urban violence (we have observed this all along) concerns the defence of one’s territory. The territory denotes a sense of belonging and real space which is guarded and steeped in violence in order to safeguard their gains.

13The symbols and the social regulations around the territory helps in constructing, maintaining and transmitting cultural modes and latitudes to the members of each gang. These symbols and social regulations also help in rejuvenating old forms of solidarity and creating new ones; they contribute to the acquisition of urban modes of life.

14When the territory of a gang is invaded, its social structure is undermined. The regulatory codes of the gang make it obligatory for members to collectively defend the hard-earned space. In the event of an invasion every member is alerted; each member picks up arms and on the orders of the leader, the gang war begins. This manifestation of collective integration into urban violence brings its own toll of the wounded and the dead. Neither members of the civil society nor the authorities intervene. It would seem that society implicitly recognizes the fact that these groups do indeed ‘own’ a particular space, whose boundaries must be respected.

15In the course of the integration of street children into urban violence, it soon becomes evident that they have acquired several surveillance mechanisms, organizational and regulatory structures, as well as a good grasp of the manipulation and protection of space. Already, this integration into urban violence denotes a cultural construction that is essentially of the street. This construction is singularly oriented towards the use of violence. Street culture is thus generated in a context of exclusion and misery which consolidates the street’s peculiar identity. This explains why the sense of belonging to the street (to the occupied exterior space) makes these youths defend their territories much more than their honour during gang wars.

16Space is not the only territory defended in street culture. Spatial mobility in the street enables the youth to make new manoeuvres and to reinforce social links with those adults, who equally disregard the norms of the formal society. Spatial mobility also engenders affinity, since it enables street children to create and strengthen links and understanding with members of other gangs, gangs of superior age groups (an association that can open up new criminal vistas) and even with certain policemen with whom they connive to carry out secret activities.

17Besides, the testimonies of the concerned actors show that the solidarity bonds and all the links established to guarantee stability and individual survival are broken on a daily basis. Insecurity, danger and death are part of the problems which street children must face day after day. In the course of our investigation, we observed that the triangle of poverty – street – violence is now being consolidated. This implies that neither street children nor passersby are safe. The only links which the inhabitants of the street have with ‘correct people’ can be found in illegal or violent acts. The street also generates a high mortality rate among street children. Our study reveals that more than 90 per cent of street children die violently in public places: through assassination by mob justice or the police; death resulting from being flung out of a moving bus; assassination by street mates or by the gang leader (punishment).


18This study confirms the plurality of worlds in Nairobi – the existence of a counter-society in the street. This society has its peculiar mode of life which it has begun to transmit to the second generation of street children through ‘family lineages’ created in the street. In essence, the counter-society has a formal identity, rooted in violence. It functions through an integrated totality and mode of thinking, feeling and acting, which serve the purpose of uniting street children into a distinct collectivity.

19Our study establishes a provisional conceptual model of the counter-society, a typology which presents this society as one more world in the urban milieu. This society, however lacks longevity owing to its violent codes of operation. The mortality rate is very high among the actors and death almost always results from violence. Social actors are marginalized by national institutions. They do not even have identity cards despite the fact that they live and procreate in the city. Initiation into sex is early. These youths lack access to health, leisure and educational facilities. They are in a situation where they have to fight constantly for the right to life and the right to a space in the city. This explains the frequent battles for space and territory. These battles help to maintain the cohesion of the gang, and the acceptance of the leader’s superiority.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1997

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