Child Soldiers in Africa

By Sheldon, Kathleen | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Child Soldiers in Africa


Sheldon, Kathleen, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Child Soldiers in Africa. By Alcinda Honwana. Ethnography of Political Violence series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. 202. $45.00/£29.50 cloth.

Alcinda Honwana addresses a difficult and necessary topic in her survey of child soldiers in Africa. Though the title indicates a continent-wide discussion, the book is focused primarily on Angola and Mozambique, where she carried out interviews and surveys in the 1990s. Chapter 1 begins with a quick look at the history of the wars in Angola and Mozambique, followed by a chapter that places child soldiers into a much broader context with a succinct overview of children in war through history and around the world. The rest of the book returns to the focus on Angola and Mozambique, with occasional comparative references to child soldiers in West Africa or Asia.

Honwana had privileged access to former child soldiers through her work with non-governmental organizations that were involved in rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers once peace was achieved in each country. In Mozambique she worked with "Esperança para Todos" (Hope for All) on Josina Machel Island, while in Angola she was affiliated with the Christian Children's Fund. Thus, in addition to various published sources, she collected the horrific histories and experiences of many child combatants and others who had been swept up by hostilities.

The book is arranged in a loosely chronological format, beginning with the most common ways in which young people were recruited and initiated into a life focused on violence. The next section investigates the special experiences of girls and young women who were rarely soldiers, but who were often an integral part of camp life, where they performed domestic chores and too frequently suffered rape and sexual abuse as the "wives" and girlfriends of the soldiers. Honwana next discusses the ways in which local communities and families used healing rituals to move returned child soldiers past the wartime experience and into a peaceful future. She ends the book with a discussion of how the world more generally can learn from these experiences to end the apparently spreading practice of recruiting very young boys and girls to fight and work in war.

The book is a valuable resource, though there are some problems. It sometimes becomes repetitive, as so many children and young people followed similar paths of recruitment, especially compulsory enlistment, and later of healing. It can be difficult to read yet another account of a child forced to commit an atrocity as a way to break their ties to their own families and communities, but such repetition may be necessary to impress on readers the full horror of the experiences of many children. …

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