Fellow Tracks the Lives of Youth in Zambia

Spotlight story on Wilson Center Fellow Karen Hansen, from Centerpoint, March 2006

Mar 01, 2006

For more than three decades, Karen Tranberg Hansen has traveled to Zambia to conduct anthropological and academic research. She has studied the lives of women, housing, commerce, and other urban issues.

While conducting fieldwork there in the 1990s, Hansen said, "I was struck by how youth seemed caught up in a system that didn't deliver much for them." Even educated youth were having trouble finding jobs and the problem was visible on the urban scene and still is today.

Zambia, located in sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the world's poorest nations. In the capital, Lusaka, more than half of its two million residents live in squatter settlements without basic services. Meanwhile, an overwhelming 65 percent of its total population of 11 million is under 24 years of age. The average life expectancy in Zambia is only 33 years old, the lowest in the world, largely the result of pervasive poverty and disease, most notably HIV/AIDS.

Because Zambians define youth as ages 15-35, "many young people never arrive at social adulthood," said Hansen, an anthropology professor at Northwestern University and currently a Wilson Center fellow. From marriage to building careers, "[Most] don't acquire resources to set up their lives."

The poorest live on the periphery and cannot afford bus fare to the city. Children hang out in the streets playing ball, walk around the markets, and watch movies at "video parlors" (often in shacks). Many are involved in church, which often provides youth programming. Those from moderate-income families go to movies, dinners, Internet cafes, or shop in one of Lusaka's three shopping malls.

Some fortunate youth attend the local university and some get to study abroad, particularly if working toward an advanced degree. "[Middle-income] youth in Zambia have an explicit desire to upgrade their skills," Hansen said. "They're concerned with not sliding into real poverty." More typically, young males get technical and vocational training and become bricklayers or mechanics and the women become tailors or find other domestic professions. Many youth work in the informal sector, or small-scale "black market" trade, because so little conventional employment exists. A select few take courses in computers and business.

Hansen has been tracking the lives of several Zambian youths for the past four years, looking at the full scope of their activities—from school to work, home to leisure—across lines of class and gender. Some young people Hansen has tracked have gotten jobs and are staying healthy.

One woman, trained as a machinist at a state-sponsored trade school, found a job at a Chinese-owned steel plant. Despite her qualifications, she is working there as a receptionist because the Chinese owners do not speak English. They did, however, provide her with computer training, helped her obtain a driver's license, and raised her salary. Now she takes business classes at night, smartly using her day job as a stepping-stone.

"This young woman found a platform to advance her career within the existing social structure and make the transition into adulthood," Hansen observed. "But many are stuck and the transition is not so easy. Still, some make it despite the obstacles."


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