Becoming a True Activist. Perspectives on Student Activism in Burkina Faso

Start date: 2 February, 2012 End date: 3 May, 2012 Project type: Master's Thesis (prior to 2018) Project code: A16403 Countries: Burkina Faso Institutions: University of Copenhagen (UCPH), Denmark Grant recipient: Hanna Ohm Cleaver Total grant: 10,000 DKK


This thesis investigates the social, political and personal struggles of student activists in Burkina Faso. It is based on three months of ethnographic fieldwork among activists in the largest national student union, National Association of Burkinabè Students (ANEB), primarily in the capital Ouagadougou. The thesis consists of an introduction, a scientific article, a paper on methods and ethics, a communication product and a conclusion. The different elements can be read as independent elements and together, as they complement each other by foregrounding different dimensions of the material and analysis. From various angles, they address the question of how Burkinabè student activists perceive and act toward their social positions and possibilities in society.

The introduction presents the empirical material and situates it in a regional and theoretical context. In addition, it presents the analytical concepts that are used in the article and shows why this study is relevant in light of current regional developments.

The article investigates students’ struggle to enhance their social position and possibilities as youth in Burkina Faso. Combining the concepts of social becoming, submission and autonomy, it shows how student activists create small-scale spaces of autonomy by collectively establishing various alternatives to existing structures. It concludes that the student union becomes a social and political platform that enables students to articulate and pursue alternative modalities of social being, embarking on the process of becoming agentive youth by becoming one. Based on this, the article argues, the case of Burkinabè student activism illuminates how processes of social becoming can encompass struggles to become autonomous and submissive simultaneously.

The paper on methods and ethics details three methodological and ethical aspects of the study, investigating processes of exclusion and inclusion, negotiation and the ethics of representation.

The communication product, published on the website, paints a picture of Burkinabè student activism with broad strokes, focusing on the issues of political participation and democracy.

The conclusion summarizes the main arguments and points to further perspectives. It argues that the thesis contributes to studies on youth and student movements in Africa on four levels. Empirically, it provides insight into one case of West African student activism that can inform our understanding of the personal, social and political aspirations of young, urban West Africans. The thesis further contributes with an Anglophone study from the Sahel region, which is most often studied by Francophone scholars and communicated to a French readership. Analytically, the thesis contributes to Nordic anthropology on youth in Africa by combining the influential concept of social becoming with a focus on submission and autonomy, illuminating how the concepts can be molded to new empirical findings. Methodologically, it contributes to anthropological discussions on participant observation by exploring ways in which the ethnographer can use herself as a socially situated person to investigate processes of exclusion and inclusion as well as the ethical and methodological value of participation. Finally, the thesis can inform policy-makers working with Burkinabè youth by providing a detailed ethnographic account of a youth community that has proven a potent political actor in Burkinabè society, illuminating their current perceptions of, and actions toward, social and political predicaments.

Together, the elements portray the ambiguous, complex and continuously changing ways of being and becoming student activists in Burkina Faso. They argue from different angles that the student union in various ways becomes a means for Burkinabè youth to shape and improve their social positions and possibilities for meaningful action.