Battles over State Making on a Frontier - Dilemmas of Schooling, Young People and Agro-Pastoralism in Hamar, Southwest Ethiopia


Sabrina Maurus , M.A.

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This dissertation analyzes battles over state making by looking at dilemmas of compulsory schooling on the southwestern frontier of the Ethiopian state. In the course of (inter)national development plans and infrastructure projects, schooling has expanded into agro-pastoralist districts in South Omo Zone, which have long constituted a shadow zone of the state. During this process, the local population has come into contact with the state more closely than ever before.
Schools constitutes a space where people in rural Africa have most contact with the state (Bierschenk & Olivier de Sardan 2014) and where state and people negotiate their relationship through the education of the young generation (Coe 2005). However, young people are not only passive objects over whom older relatives and the state decide, but they also take their own decisions concerning their education. Thus, schooling constitutes a political arena (Charton 2015), in which different logics, values and interests clash and where various actors negotiate their relationships and claims to power. Schooling creates not only metaphorically a political battlefield, since in 2014/15 the implementation of compulsory schooling literally turned into a violent conflict in Hamar district.
Starting with the intention to study those who are mostly affected by schooling, namely pupils and students, my fieldwork witnessed the development and outbreak of a violent conflict, in which compulsory schooling and girls’ schooling were major points of dispute. My ethnographic fieldwork spanned 19 months between 2012 and 2015, in which I followed children and youth from agro-pastoralist homesteads to rural schools, student hostels and schools in town, to colleges and universities, as well as in their life after school, when some become local government employees. Although schools have existed in Hamar district since the late 1960s, current schoolchildren from agro-pastoralist households are, with a few exceptions, still first-generation students, since almost none of their parents and siblings have been to school and passed national exams.
My ethnographic study of schooling goes beyond the classroom and follows the lives of students, taking the social, economic and political entanglements of their lives into account, in order to see how schooling shapes young people’s lives differently from the majority of children in Hamar, who do not go to school. To this end, I include in my study the perspectives of children and young people who have not been to school or who have dropped out of school, and the voices of their parents and siblings. This approach enables me to analyze schooling in the wider context in which students’ lives unfold and which is shaped by the requirements of compulsory schooling.Young agro-pastoralists who go to school move between different social fields and develop a distinct lifestyle. This process is described locally as children becoming temara (students), distinct from those, referred to by contrast as Hamar, who have not been to school. This change in lifestyle makes temara similar to gal, a Hamar term for the Amhara, a long-time ruling elite, and enemy. Thus, students’ lives unfold amongst social and political tensions arising from processes of developmentalist state making, and resistance to these processes, on the Ethiopian frontier, in which the social position and belonging of students is contested.Students often find themselves at junctions where they need to decide which path to take.
Due to the existence of different notions with respect to what constitutes a “proper” life course, and different expectations concerning the behavior of young people, students from agro-pastoralist communities face multiple dilemmas. I understand dilemmas as moments of difficult decision-making, where neither option appears to be fully desirable and where one can neither completely gain nor lose. Conceptualizing schooling as an arena in which different actors try to shape the course of young people’s lives at these junctions, I identify five areas of dilemma.The implementation of compulsory schooling creates economic dilemmas for the organization of agro-pastoralist households, which are subsistence-oriented and depend on young people learning particular skills and working in the household (chapter 2). While compulsory schooling requires every child to go to school and separates children from their rural living environment, agro-pastoralist households depend on young people learning from their kin within the household and their labor contribution to a diversified economy.Even when parents and/or children decide in favor of schooling, learning in school involves many struggles for both students and teachers, for instance because the language spoken by the teachers and used in the textbooks is not the same as the language spoken by the students, or because of the structural challenges in remote settings with little infrastructure (chapter 3). Thus, learning according to the official curriculum is very difficult for students in Hamar district and it is hard for them to compete successfully with students in other districts in the national exams.
Schools and agro-pastoralist households constitute spaces which set themselves apart from each other. Particularly in schools in town, students experience pressure to dress in a particular way and with a hairstyle that distinguishes them from the Hamar style. Thus, students in town adopt an urban lifestyle which makes them appear more like gal and people in wider Ethiopia rather than Hamar (chapter 4).The (dis)connections between students and Hamar are violently debated when it comes to initiation and marriage. Marriage is aimed at creating a network of social and economic relations over generations. Students trying to evade initiation and an arranged marriage feel pressure from their relatives to marry the Hamar way and not to choose a marriage partner from town. Disputes over marriage reveal gendered notions of what constitutes a proper life course, as well as locally and (inter)nationally divergent ideas of “right” and “harmful” marriage customs. In the face of these different interests in their marriage, students encounter dilemmas, since they cannot satisfy all expectations (chapter 5).
Schooling is a political battlefield, since elders and “father state” both claim children as their own, and the right to decide about their lives. The question of schoolchildren’s belonging has been negotiated violently in Hamar. Students are caught between these competing claims to power over them, and find themselves in a dilemma because they experience physical force from both sides (chapter 6). The violent conflict over young people and their education in Hamar district is part of a fight about legitimate power on the frontier of the state and reveals processes of ongoing state making and resistance to it, in which students play an intermediary role and face dilemmas.This case study analyzes the processes and dilemmas of social change and how the state and its citizens, old and young, men and women, as well as those who have been educated in school and who have not, negotiate their relationship in a rural and yet globalized world. Similar dilemmas preoccupy other rural areas in the global South, although the amount of violence which the attempted implementation of compulsory schooling in Hamar district has created is exceptional and is intensified due to the armed frontier situation.
Studies show that in many parts of rural Africa and Asia the young generation faces the challenge that the space for subsistence-oriented farming and pastoralism is shrinking due to population growth, large-scale industrial farming and climate change. At the same time, an increasing number of students compete for formal employment and jobs in the public sector and in cities, where they often find themselves in a phase of “waithood” (Honwana 2012) and “educated unemployment” (Jeffrey 2009), since the promises of schooling to deliver a bright future (Mains 2011) and a “proper job” (Ferguson & Li 2018) are not realizable for most young people. Among these challenges, young people and their families have to find ways to make a living in the present and for the future.Looking beyond the metanarrative of schooling as a “global good” and as a universal way to empower people, reduce poverty and lead children, states and the world into a bright future, this thesis shows how the implementation of compulsory schooling actually shapes the lives of young people and their kin controversially. To study the dilemmas of compulsory schooling, we have to integrate the study of youth and education into studies of kinship, politics and economy, and vice versa, in order to really see how people move through the world trying to find ways to make ends meet.