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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

Dakar. Summary

Momar-Coumba Diop et Ousseynou Faye

Texte intégral


1The Senegalese authorities have begun to show more interest in issues which have hitherto been relegated to the background. Among such issues is the increasing necessity to map out a national campaign against poverty to ensure a more equitable distribution of national resources, and also to reduce the incidence of exclusion which worsened in the course of structural adjustment. Hence, serious attention is now being accorded youths living in precarious conditions, especially the ones in the street. It is the comprehension and reinforcement of existing knowledge on street children that constitutes the framework of the present research.

2The results of our investigations revealed that each gang in Dakar controls a given space on the street. Qualitative information is supplied on the culture of some marginal groups; their survival strategies as well as their structuring and modes of operation. The question of criminality is then addressed on the basis of police statistics for 1996. The data reveals an important increase in criminality, especially assault. It also reveals that minors are becoming more and more involved in crime (one minor out of every nine delinquents in 1995 and one out of every seven in 1996).

Youths and street culture

3Certain behaviour patterns of street children, as well as the value systems which inform such behaviour were identified. In doing this, an attempt was made to explain the existence of a street culture which is evident in the survival strategies and in the systems of representation which enable youths to live in the street. It is also evident in the behaviour acquired in and reinforced by a space which constitutes a veritable crossroads and a point of rupture in the lives of a good number of youths. Indeed, many of these youths sever links completely with their families and take to the streets in the bid to escape from a certain form of social control. Consequently, they are subjected to complex processes which deconstruct (and reconstruct) their still fragile personalities.

4Street culture is not necessarily a culture of violence. In some of its aspects, it constitutes an attempt to subvert or rewrite the dominant social norms. In describing it, information is provided on the nature and efficacy of public structures of socialization.

5There is a wide variety of street actors. This is due to the diversity of their social origins, mode of space occupation and their social heritage. One group of street children (their ages are far from being homogeneous) comprise those who occupy major urban streets for various socio-economic reasons. Even if the street is their common denominator, we often tend to forget the fact that they are not the only ones who inhabit this space about which much is often said. The street is a totality of territories occupied in different ways by the various actors. There is space for begging, especially around mosques during Friday prayers; space for the activities of the informal economy; space around markets; space for prostitution; space for the drug trade and even space for lepers, and the handicapped.

6A major fact in the history of the street is that its ownership is ambiguous,– a situation which ends up by absolving people of the responsibility of its management. For example, this has turned the management of urban wastes into a chaotic exercise. Traditional values which made city dwellers principally responsible for the management of the urban space have been largely jettisoned and the government authorities who are supposed to monitor the streets are often negligent of their responsibilities.

7It is possible to identify the social and economic pressures which produce street children. The tendency of the economy to move towards informal work activities, the crisis in subsistence agriculture which is based on the production of groundnuts, the degradation of living conditions, and the moral crisis of the family are responsible for this phenomenon. Through the activities it generates and supports, the street provides a commercial venue vital to the survival of street children. To cope with the agonizing difficulties of the street as well as the vicissitudes of their own lives, these youths must summon the courage to live by codes which will eventually destroy many of them. Sadly enough, it is this aspect of self-destruction that defines street culture for many street actors. Hence, despite the changes observed in the system of representation,- the street remains the space where not only can one lose one’s soul, but one can also be annihilated by obscure forces.

Youths and violence in the streets

8This research undertakes a detailed study of the relatively abundant literature on maladjusted youths or those in difficult situations. Our corpus consists mainly of research work and newspaper articles.

9The variety of themes treated in the literature attest to the richness of available information. The main focus of this literature concerns the profile of street actors; the activities and other survival strategies which constitute street culture; the explanation of social maladjustment and the reactions of the society.

10This literature was complemented in 1996 with quantitative data on street children. The investigation which examined the cases of a total number of 3,924 children shows that street children have a high propensity for ‘work’ even if they never learnt a trade. Indeed, 76.2 per cent of them are ‘working’. The main activities – begging and hawking – do not require any sophisticated apprenticeship.

11A significant number of the street children are beggars: 27.5 per cent of the sample. Although begging is clearly the main source of feeding for parents continue to play an important role in their lives. In fact, when asked: What is your major means of survival? 1,216 children (33.8%) mentioned their parents.

12Even though the parents of 83 per cent of the children are still alive, as many as 61 per cent claimed to have a guardian. 1,863 children carry out their street activities in the cities where their parents reside. Their fathers are mainly farmers (24.9%), traders (17.1%) or retired workers (7.5%); their mothers are mainly housewives. About one in every four children has a police record. Most of those who live permanently in the street have a police record (166 out of a total of 295 cases studied).

13With regard to feeding, the principal meals are rice (at noon) and couscous (in the evening). Meals are mainly provided by parents (39%) and through begging (34.6%). About 77 per cent of the children interviewed have no problem with feeding.

14The rate of illness is high among the children; 66.5 per cent confirmed that they often fall ill. The most frequent complaints are: headache (52.6%), stomach ache (20.9%) and influenza (14.5%).

15About 45 per cent of the children interviewed affirmed their ability to read French or Arabic. Our investigation revealed that 322 of the total number of street children interviewed had been to school, 20 had reached the junior secondary school level. Of the children living with their parents, 392 had been to school, and 24 had reached the senior secondary school level.

16The number of children who admitted to drinking alcohol was low (105 cases); of these, 37 also admitted to having committed offences – 19 cases of theft. The index of cigarette smoking reached 17.1 per cent. The consumption of tobacco is very high among career street children, about 80 per cent smoke cigarettes. The investigation did not yield the exact number of children who were using drugs, because drug use is a cultural anathema in Dakar. However, more career street children consumed hard drugs. About 907 children – 23.2 per cent of the total number interviewed – admitted to having had sexual relations with partners, including prostitutes.

Policies aimed at improving the lot of street children

17The Senegalese state inherited a corpus of legislative codes, a doctrine and infrastructures for checking delinquency from the French colonial authorities. These efforts which date back to 1850-1860, have largely inspired government’s action in the post-colonial period.

18Up to 1974, the preference of the authorities, who were content with reconstituting the territorial network bequeathed by the colonial powers, was for remand homes and the setting up of special juvenile tribunals in each regional court. During this period, the state realized that it was no longer wise to repress the delinquents through social prophylaxy, especially the remand system. Hence the work of the social worker was reoriented in a new phase which started in 1974.

19The preventive programme put in place in the social centers at Pikine and Kandé is now receiving some attention from the authorities, after having been handled half-heartedly at the initial stage. The programme was initiated in order to address the situation of the child as being in moral danger. An Open Space Educational Programme (AEMO) has also been introduced.

20How does one assess these multifaceted interventions of the state? At the institutional level, the absence of a coordinating structure for activities introduced by a multitude of administrators impedes the efficacy of government’s efforts. Besides, by laying emphasis on repression, government has long compromised all chances of success.

21The administration of social centres meant for maladjusted youths are characterized by apathy and neglect. A number of studies have identified a number of factors as being responsible for this state of affairs. These include the inadequacy of resources (which often leads to the closure of such centers), the absence of enrolment registers for minors, flaws in the pedagogical programme, the insufficiency and/or incompetence of technical staff and the repeated interference of religious leaders, parliamentarians and the judiciary.

22The difficult working conditions of the social worker in these structures contribute to his inefficiency. Furthermore, his mission is often misconstrued by the general public, his colleagues in the regular teaching profession and even the maladjusted children among whom he works. When doing investigations in a public space, he is suspected of being a security agent; in the teachers’ union to which he rightfully belongs, he is seen condescendingly as an extra hand whose task is to pick up children who have been excluded as ‘educational waste’. All these factors, along with the unconcerned attitude of the state make it impossible to properly address the question of maladjusted children.

23Government’s actions towards street children have had very limited results. This is because such actions are essentially limited to the exigence of public order, especially in the area of checking begging and wandering.


24Youths are becoming a force to be reckoned with in Senegal. One of the major observable trends in the country’s social evolution is that public agencies of socialization (schools, universities, etc.) have had their control over youths progressively eroded. In the same vein, the family has undergone numerous mutations, principally among which is the crisis of solidarity systems. This phenomenon, coupled with the massive unemployment of qualified youths, led to the progressive collapse of the post-colonial model of social promotion, which was based on educational qualification.

25On the economic side, even in the absence of a periodically updated statistical information system, recent indices point to an aggravation of mass poverty. Such a situation is not propitious to a control of quotidian violence. For a large section of the populace, it implies the collapse of what Ali El Kenz calls ‘the expectation of development’.

26What then are the reactions of youths to such an environment? Their attitude today is indicative of two major reactions. First, a massive international migration is observable. The flow is towards other African, European, and even North American countries. A reinforcement of street-based associative life is also noticeable.

27In a parallel development, government is making feeble attempts at encouraging enterprising youths in the informal sector. However, the keyword for the generality of young city dwellers is resourcefulness. This implies an astute exploitation of all the survival possibilities offered by the urban street. Furthermore, it implies a beneficial manipulation of all the activities of the informal sector. Resourcefulness also encompasses begging and all the other survival strategies of children who have broken all links with the family or who spend the majority of their time on the street. Lastly, resourcefulness betrays an awareness on the part of youths of the failure of the ambitions of the post-colonial state. This awareness is even more traumatic in that it is accompanied in certain cases by shocks and affective ruptures at the individual level.

28To reverse this trend, there is only one option: the state must re-embrace its function as a social architect, a function which has been rendered largely ineffectual today by the poverty that accompanied the Structural Adjustment Programme.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1997

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