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Abstract

In popular media “the youth” in Africa is often the object of wide-ranging anxieties with talk of population booms, marginalization, and the threat of radicalization. Kenya is no exception. A place with rampant youth unemployment and a durable model of gerontocratic authority, youth seems like it would be a life stage one would seek to escape in Kenya. Yet, throughout the course of my fieldwork in urban Kisumu on the western edge of the country, I found that many young people proudly took up the banner of “youth,” mobilizing it as an ethics, a political stance, and even as a quasi-profession. Some who had seemingly achieved social adulthood with formal marriages, independent households, and children of their own, even claimed to be “youth for life.” The students, musicians, and unemployed youth with whom I worked deployed youth in remarkable ways to claim resources and recognition. Yet, these were rarely claims of vulnerability; they were not demands for care within a generational frame of responsibility and dependence. This dissertation is a study of the different ways young people marshal and transform notions of “youth” in and through language. It explores “youth” as not only as a chrono-biological category, a relative generational position, and a culturally organized age grade or life stage, but also as an ever-emergent set of locally-salient social qualities and styles. That is, as a semiotic category. In the dissertation I show that young people engage a wide range of speech genres, narrative styles, and linguistic registers to invoke the category “youth” and inevitably refigure it. I argue that through their linguistic repertoires, which include dynamic styles of codeswitching and span transnational discourses of entrepreneurialism and Pentecostalism to local youth popular culture and global youth style, young people demand to be recognized as productive and unique individuals against stereotypes that discredit “the youth” as idle, destructive, and nameless.

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