“In Ethiopia, there is too much time. Tomorrow is very far from today. The evening is very far from the afternoon. There is no difference between today, yesterday, and tomorrow.” In the early 2000s, statements such as this were common among unemployed young men in Jimma, Ethiopia. They complained, “We live like chickens, we are just eating and sleeping,” to express their frustration with their inability to experience change over time. A life of “eating and sleeping” or “simply sitting” was contrasted with the Amharic term lout. Lout generally refers to change, but there are many different types of change. Young men often used lout to imply qualitative improvement over time in a way that is best captured by the concept of progress. “Living like chickens” implies that life lacked meaning, simply moving here and there without any purpose besides filling one’s stomach. Ideally, life would proceed along a series of incremental improvements, but with rates of unemployment at close to 50 percent, most young men saw themselves in 10 years living with their parents and unable to marry or start a family of their own. They complained of having too much unstructured time and that introspective thoughts about one’s future were a source of unease. Unlike the time-space compression described by David Harvey (1989) for the West, for many youth in Ethiopia, the inability to experience progress, in the sense of actualizing a future that is different than one’s present (Koselleck  1985), caused time to expand rather than contract, producing a sensation similar to Western notions of boredom.
In this article I explore the interrelationship between economic shifts, boredom, and conceptions of progress. I argue that boredom emerges specifically out of a failure to actualize expectations of progress. In her book Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity, philosopher Elizabeth Goodstein writes, “Boredom marks the discrepancy between the actual and the imagined” (2005: 124). Goodstein’s analysis of the emergence of discourses concerning boredom in nineteenth-century Europe provides a useful lens on the contemporary Ethiopian case, because in both situations people are highly concerned with progress and temporality. Notions of progress appear at a certain point in history when the relationship between experience and expectations shifts (Koselleck  1985). Expectations for the future are generally based on what one has experienced in the past, but as people begin to believe in the inevitability of progress this changes. In discussing the advent of progress in relation to increased technological innovation in Europe, Reinhart Koselleck explains, “What was new was that the expectations that reached out for the future became detached from all that previous experience had to offer” ( 1985: 279). In other words, faith in progress is based on the expectation that the future will not be like what one has experienced in the past, and instead it will be qualitatively better. Goodstein argues that the conception of progress described by Koselleck “constitutes the condition of possibility for modern boredom” (2005: 122–123). Boredom is not only the sensation of having too much time; it is also the sense that the passage of time and day-to-day experience are not meaningful because they do not conform to expectations of progress.
Yasmine Musharbash offers a similar conclusion based on her ethnographic study of an Australian Aboriginal settlement. Musharbash explains that “boredom arises when values and circumstances fail to correspond, when ways of being in the world and the world jar” (2007: 315). Musharbash notes that this disjuncture between values and experience is always socioculturally specific, and I examine disjunctures between expectations and realities regarding shifts in young men’s social relationships. I begin by exploring the roots of young men’s expectations of progress, and the particular way progress was conceptualized in urban Ethiopia. Based on research conducted from 2003 to 2005, I argue that young men conceived of progress in terms of specific movement through the life course, the accumulation of dependents, and changes in their social relationships. When those changes were not actualized, young men struggled with an overabundance of time and an overwhelming sense of boredom.
I occasionally returned to Jimma over the next decade and followed the lives of my research participants as Ethiopia passed through a period of dramatic economic growth. In the second half of the article, I examine changes in economic opportunity and urban infrastructural development that occurred between 2005 and 2015. As young men found employment or reentered the education system, their temporal relationship to the present and future changed, and boredom was largely erased. However, a disjuncture between expectations for the future and one’s lived experience remained. Young men’s urban environment underwent a dramatic transformation with the construction of new roads and high-rise buildings in the city center. In speaking about urban growth, young men expressed frustration with a gap between actual and imagined changes in their city, but not in a way that can be characterized as boredom. I use this additional case of a mismatch between expectations and realities for the passage of time to better identify the specific characteristics of Ethiopian boredom. In contrast to other types of frustration with temporal change, boredom and young men’s broader struggles with time were embedded in social relationships. More generally, I argue that analyses of temporal change and related concepts like progress must give attention to specific practices and values regarding social relationships.
Education and expectations of work
Extremely high rates of urban youth unemployment and the emergence of boredom among young men in the 1990s and early 2000s were due to a simultaneous expansion of education and contraction of economic opportunity.1 The value of education in Ethiopia emerged during the mid-twentieth century together with the development of permanent residential populations in many urban centers. During this period, the prestige and desirability of government employment as an urban occupation developed in Jimma. The prestige of government work was partially based on the traditional hierarchical relationship between nobility and farmers. As Allan Hoben (1970: 222) explains in describing Addis Ababa under the reign of Haile Sellasie, the government administrator replaced the traditional nobility, and education took the place of military activity as a means for accessing social mobility. Owning land and a longer presence in the city increased one’s chances of obtaining an education. Finishing secondary school virtually guaranteed one a position as an administrator or teacher. At this point, an occupational hierarchy between those with or without government work began to develop. Government workers had both political and economic power, while others generally performed the service work and manual labor necessary to maintain life in the city.
For the generation made up of the parents of the youth in my study, who came of age under Haile Sellasie (1941–1974) and the early part of the Derg regime (1974–1991), education was the key to accessing status through government employment. By the early 1990s, most urban youth were completing their primary education, and around half had at least some secondary education (CSA 1999). In general, these youth aspired to use their education to access government employment, but for most it was not possible. Under the Derg, the public sector also expanded, and while it may not have been able to absorb all secondary school graduates, it certainly prevented the extremely high levels of unemployment that began in the 1990s. In contrast, the structural adjustment policies mandated by the International Monetary Fund during the 1990s drastically downsized the Ethiopian public sector and eliminated many of the jobs that the growing population of secondary school graduates expected and desired.
The total urban unemployment rate for individuals between the ages of 10 and 65 rose from 7.9 percent in 1984 to 22 percent in 1994 and to 26.4 percent in 1999, with young people forming the bulk of the unemployed (Bizuneh et al. 2001). Rates of unemployment for young people were particularly high, and in the mid-1990s around 50 percent of urban young men between the ages of 15 and 30 were unemployed, meaning their main activity did not include wage employment, casual work, or work in the informal private sector (Serneels 2007: 173–174). Nearly all unemployed young men were actively looking for work (173). I used a similar definition of employment in my study and considered young men to be unemployed if they were not performing work for payment more than once per week and were actively seeking employment.
Students of the 1990s and early 2000s were very different than the elite group of the past. With the increase in the number of students the quality of education declined. A typical secondary school classroom contained 80 to 90 students, sharing books and learning in English, a language many students did not understand well. In 1994 only around 10 percent of young people between the ages of 20 and 29 had advanced to postsecondary education (CSA 1999). Although the few youth who obtained a postsecondary degree were generally able to access desirable government employment, the vast majority left school with few practical skills and little hope of securing employment.
The decrease in the value of education created a gap between one’s probable life trajectory and aspirations. In the absence of jobs that young people believed were fitting with their education status, urban Ethiopian youth of all class backgrounds in the early 2000s frequently accepted extended periods of unemployment. In urban areas during the late 1990s, rates of unemployment were higher among young people with a secondary education than those with lower levels of education (Serneels 2007). The ability to wait for work that fits one’s level of education and remain unemployed for a long time is a reflection of the relatively privileged social and economic position occupied by most urban young men. The unemployed young men in my study represented a variety of class backgrounds, but all of them were born and raised in the city, and this provided a distinct advantage in relation to Ethiopia’s predominantly rural population. Even youth from poor families had extended social networks that provided them with the support necessary to remain unemployed for a number of years. That said, all of the young men in my study who worked in the informal economy were from poor families; this was not a route pursued by middle-class young men. Many young men from poor families were able to use their social networks to support themselves during extended periods of unemployment, but this was clearly much easier for young men from middle-class families than those from poor families.
Progress and the problem of time
Education not only created expectations among urban youth that they would be able to access high-status government employment, but it also conditioned them to expect progress in their lives. Education is a progressive process in that it involves gradual linear improvements. As one advances from grade to grade, it is assumed that this movement has created a change within one’s self as well. The educated individual expects to be transformed so that his future will be better than the present. Contrasts between unemployment and life as a student are revealing. In the early 2000s, many young men in Jimma had completed secondary school and remained unemployed after graduation. For these young men, school was the last time they were involved in a structured activity. One difference from unemployment is simply that school makes a person very busy and therefore eliminates the problem of passing excessive amounts of time. Possibly more significant is one’s relationship to his future. As one young man who had been unemployed for two years after completing grade 12 put it, “When I was a student, I had no thoughts. I learned, I studied, and I didn’t worry about the future. Now I always think about the future. I don’t know how long this condition will last. Maybe it will be the same year after year.” In contrast to student life, days pass with unemployment, but one’s material and social positions remain the same. Long-term unemployment prevented youth from imagining a desirable future and placing their lives within a narrative of progress.
Because of the expansion of education and urbanization, the young men I studied were far more embedded in an ideology of progress through education than previous generations were. Most urban youth were the sons and daughters of parents who did not advance beyond primary education. Despite living through a Marxist revolution that was associated with particular notions of modernity (Donham 1999), their lack of education meant that the parents of youth in my study often did not internalize an ideology of progress as it pertained to their own lives. The mother of an unemployed young man explained, “Today’s generation is different. They are educated and they have knowledge about the world. Today they want so many things.” In describing their life histories, most parents spoke of the movement from a rural area to Jimma as a major shift in their life. Upon arriving in Jimma, they generally accepted whatever work was available and were not as concerned with issues of status as their children. Parents often argued that their children’s lives should be different than their own, specifically because of their children’s higher level of education, and they were disappointed when this was not the case. Young men’s expectations were structured less by their parents’ careers than state-directed efforts to expand access to education. Through formal education, the state promoted an international discourse of modernization that shifted young men’s expectations concerning the future and ultimately their experience of boredom.
In the Ethiopian case, ideals concerning progress as incremental improvements in one’s life with the passage of time were conceptualized specifically in terms of linear changes in social relationships. Young men’s narratives of aspiration typically began with education, followed by work, and then helping younger siblings before moving out of one’s parents’ home in order to marry and start a family. Finally, young men believed one should support his parents and if possible create a project or business that would benefit his community. Most urban youth were able to attain the first step in this narrative and pursue their education to the secondary level, but they were unable to find employment, and this created a dead end in their pursuit of aspirations.
The emphasis on raising one’s children in a different manner than one’s self so that they may have a better life was common among young men. Opposing education and small families with symbols of working-class urban life like shuro and sharing rooms emphasized different future trajectories. Young men conceived of progress in terms of not only repositioning themselves within social relationships but ensuring that one’s children enjoy this status as well.
Without something big [a source of money], I won’t even think about marriage or children. Even if I am rich I will never have more than two children. With two kids I can educate them properly so that they can reach the university. If they don’t reach the university, I will send them to America. Of course I could get a job and have children now. Even if I was only making 100 birr [about $12 at that time] a month, I could feed them shuro,2 but that kind of life is not good for children. They will not learn properly, and they will end up shining shoes or something like that. You want your children to have a better life than yourself. You want them to improve and have a good life.
The underlying problem was that the smooth transition between education and government employment that would support incremental changes in young men’s social relationships had been ruptured. Young men sought to raise a family in which their children would lead modern progressive lives that involve more than “eating and sleeping.” They could not access the economic resources necessary to take on the normative responsibilities of adults, and therefore they could not move through time in the manner they desired. Young men were in the ambiguous position of aspiring to achieve progressive changes in their social relations but lacking any faith that this could be accomplished.
The overaccumulation of time
The temporal problem of young men was based both in their relationship to the future and the experience of time in the present. Largely as a result of their inability to achieve progressive changes in their relationships with others, young men experienced unstructured time as an overabundant and potentially dangerous quantity. For young men, the most salient quality of time was its lack of structure, and it was something to be “passed” (yasallefal) or “killed” (yasgedal). This experience of time is increasingly common in Africa and much of the Global South. As young people fail to attain aspirations, they become frustrated with an inability to place their own lives within a hopeful narrative (Hansen 2005; Jeffrey 2010; Jeffrey et al. 2008; Musharbash 2007; Ralph 2008; Schielke 2008; Weiss 2004).
The burden of too much time was a privilege of gender and urban residence. Unlike rural young men who contributed a great deal of labor to family farms, young men in cities were expected to do very little household work and were generally free from participating in any activities directly associated with the reproduction of the household. In contrast, young women spent nearly all of their time doing tedious housework. While young men expressed an interest in working partially as an escape from boredom, young women explained that the best part of their day included activities like drinking coffee with friends when they were free to relax and socialize.
The problem of too much unstructured time was that it led to introspective thinking and feelings of stress. “Thought” (assab) was a key term in these narratives representing a broad range of feelings including stress and depression, and “thoughtlessness” was often described as a desired emotional state. As one unemployed young man explained, “When I am alone with too much time I think too much. This is the worst part of the day. I think about my future. For how long will I live with my parents? Will my life ever change?” Young men did not want to think about their continued dependence on their family, their inability to marry, and the indefinite continuation of their joblessness. Time stretched in front of youth, and the future seemed relatively certain but definitely not desirable.
With limited prospects for attaining progress, young men’s temporal experiences resonated with what Jane Guyer (2007) describes as a shift from the “near future” to the “long term” or “prophetic time.” Rather than experiencing “incremental time” (Smith 2011) through work and education, young men found themselves dreaming of a distant future in which their lives were suddenly transformed. Young men passed their time with layers and layers of chewata, a style of conversation and joking that literally translates as “play.” As one unemployed young man claimed, “When I am with my friends, I don’t think. If there is good chewata, I don’t worry about the future.” This comment reflects a very particular notion of “think” and “the future.” As they passed time with each other, young men avoided worries about the near future and attaining the next stage in a linear narrative of progressive changes within social relationships that often plagued them when they were alone. As a different young man explained, “Being alone is the worse part of my day. This is when I feel stress and think too much. I start thinking about my future and wondering what I will do. Usually if I am alone in the afternoon, I try to fall asleep and forget about my life.”
However, particularly while chewing khat (a mild stimulant), conversations among friends often involved the imagination of hopeful futures. These conversations consistently focused on the distant future. Young men talked of traveling to the United States, finding work, and eventually returning to Ethiopia with a great deal of wealth. At least for the moment these fantasies were believable. Young men imagined going to the United States through the Diversity Visa lottery, a random and complete transformation that would radically remake their lives without requiring passage through a series of linear changes. Young men’s intensive focus on the horizon of the distant future had a reciprocal relationship with their experience of the present. The present increasingly became nothing more than a waiting period for a future transformation. Social relationships were still at the heart of this narrative—young men wished to use international travel to reposition themselves in relation to others—but this was not the gradual repositioning they had previously imagined. The failure to actualize narratives of progress left young men stuck in the present, bored and waiting for change.
“Africa rising,” a developmental state, and the end of boredom
After completing my long-term research with unemployed young men, I returned to Jimma a number of times. On each of these follow-up trips, I tracked down the youth who were involved in my research. When we met they no longer spoke of boredom and having too much time. I occasionally heard complaints about the length of the day or the desire to kill time, but this was not the dominant refrain I had encountered in the early 2000s. Instead, these men, many of whom no longer fit well in the category of youth, inserted themselves into new temporal narratives. As I detail below, these narratives do not necessarily conform to the progressive ideals voiced in the early 2000s. The passage of time was still key for young men, but they placed more emphasis on the near, rather than distant, future.
This shifting relationship to time and the future is grounded in broader political-economic changes, some global and some specific to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, the beginning of the twenty-first century has been characterized by a peculiar combination of unprecedented economic growth and daily struggles to access basic needs. Journalists and scholars have suggested that Ethiopia is as an example of “Africa rising” or “emerging Africa” (Mahajan 2009; Radelet 2010). Ethiopia’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a rate of more than 8 percent annually between 2001 and 2010, and this growth has continued during the current decade (Economist 2011). The Ethiopian government has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure to achieve this goal (African Business 2011). Beginning in the early 2000s, unemployment rates among urban young men in Ethiopia began to drop significantly (Broussard and Tekleselassie 2012).
However, most of the urban Ethiopians I know laugh at claims of economic security and improved day-to-day lives. Beginning with the global food crisis in 2008, the cost of staple foods rose dramatically in Ethiopia, forcing many families to skip meals (Ulimwengu et al. 2009). Urban Ethiopians jokingly formed new words by combining the Amharic terms for breakfast and lunch, but rather than a leisurely meal on a Sunday morning, these “brunches” are daily and an important means of skipping meals to save money. The value of the Ethiopian birr had held steady at roughly 8.5:1 in relation to the US dollar for a number of years until rampant inflation began around 2008. In 2015, one US dollar was equal to more than 20 Ethiopian birr. For the many urban Ethiopians who depended on government salaries that had not kept up with inflation, this meant the price of day-to-day necessities more than doubled.
The decline in youthful narratives of boredom occurred in this context of economic growth and an increasing struggle to get by. Unemployed young men explained that the networks of reciprocity they had relied on in the past had dried up. Sons of government employees and pensioners could no longer rely on support from their parents. Waiting for desirable work was no longer an option. The marginal degree of privilege that allowed many young men, including those from poor families, to be bored was erased.
At the same time, after losing to the opposition in nearly all urban centers in the 2005 election,3 Ethiopia’s ruling party began to make massive investments in urban infrastructure. In contrast to Peter Radelet’s (2010) claim that recent economic growth in emerging Africa has been supported by the long-term impacts of structural adjustment policies and the downsizing of the public sector, growth in Ethiopia is closely linked with state investment in roads, hydropower dams, education, and urban microcredit schemes aimed at creating jobs. Particularly after 2005, much of this investment occurred in cities.
Although causal relationships are difficult to determine, it is likely that government polices related to education and job creation in particular contributed to the decrease in unemployment. The Ethiopian state has vastly expanded opportunities for postsecondary education, meaning that many young people who finish secondary school are not immediately entering the labor force. Full-time, public university enrollment increased from 34,000 in 2000 to 125,000 in 2007, and more than 70 percent of these students were men (Reisberg and Rumbley 2010). In the early 2000s there were only three public universities in the country, but by 2014 there were more than 30. At the same time postsecondary technical training schools have opened throughout the country. The state has also organized young people to work on infrastructural development projects and provided loans to youth for starting small businesses. These opportunities for education and work are primarily available to men, and this may explain why unemployment rates among young women have remained stable. Many of the young men involved in my long-term research in the early 2000s found opportunities in postsecondary education and state-supported infrastructural development.
When I had last seen him in 2005, Habtamu was in his mid-twenties and had been unemployed for more than three years. At that time he spent most of his time chewing khat. He told me, “I am afraid of the future. Every day is the same. Next year I need to have change, either good work or education. If I can’t do this then I would rather die than continue this way.” When I visited Jimma in 2008, Habtamu invited me to the house he shared with his older sister. We sat on overstuffed sofas, sipping strong cups of coffee, gossiping about other young men from the neighborhood, and discussing his plans for the future. His siblings, who lived in the United States, had begun paying for him to study toward his bachelor’s degree in Jimma University’s engineering program.4 He was currently in his third year of the six-year evening study program, and he was confident in finding employment after graduation. I did not get the impression that he was in a hurry to complete the program. Returning to school seemed to provide Habtamu with a sense of satisfaction and direction he previously lacked. He still chewed khat, but now studying in the afternoon and classes in the evening provided him with a focus for his mental energy. Khat was no longer a means to kill time; rather, it supported study, an activity Habtamu perceived as productive because of its role in supporting movement toward a desirable future.
Habtamu was moving toward a clear, socially approved goal. He was once again immersed in the progressive linear change that many urban Ethiopians associate with education. If Habtamu struggled with the maintenance of hope in the past, he now seemed to be quite confident that through education his future would be better and more desirable than the present. When I visited him again in 2009, our conversations continued to focus on education. Habtamu claimed he would not be satisfied with a bachelor’s degree, and he hoped to pursue a master’s. This would qualify him to teach at the university level and enable him to continue his involvement in education for the foreseeable future. I have not seen Habtamu since 2009, but his family reports that he is working as an electrical engineer at a government-owned sugar factory in the remote, and extremely hot, Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia. For Habtamu, education and work supported the economic independence that many young men associate with progress and becoming an adult.
The sugar factory in Afar is just one of the state-sponsored projects that has created job opportunities for young men. Other young men have left Jimma to work on asphalt road construction and hydropower dams. They have gradually changed their position in relations of reciprocity with their family, increasingly providing support for their parents and siblings. Although breaks in construction projects often necessitate a return to their parents’ home, over the years the young men who have found work on these project take on more of the normative responsibilities of adult men.
Like Habtamu, Holyfield, who takes his nickname from the boxer his friends think he resembles, was an unemployed young man who participated in my 2003–2005 research. In those days I consistently found him hanging out on a corner with a couple friends, talking and passing the time. I spent a good deal of time with Holyfield during my visits to Jimma in 2012 and 2015. He was working on a joint government/international nongovernmental organization project, constructing cobblestone roads in Jimma.5 Urban cobblestone road construction began around 2008, and within five years approximately 100,000 temporary jobs had been created. Although the work required heavy manual labor and was not highly paid, Holyfield took great pride in it. He described his work with phrases like “working for injera,” “working to live,” and “living hand to mouth.” These were nearly the exact phrases that had been used to denigrate available work in the early 2000s, but now Holyfield claimed that even if work did not bring great profit, it still has value. Certainly, many young men in Jimma still argued against the value of “working to live,” but Holyfield demonstrates an attitude I found among other formerly unemployed young men who adopted narratives that were heavily focused on the present. Holyfield explained that the biggest change resulting from work was his mental health: “This is the most important thing. Before life was very stressful, always thinking about the future. Now I am so busy with work that I have no time for thoughts. I work, take a shower, eat, and then sleep. My mind is free and it feels good.” A different young man who was working in asphalt road construction described his life as “work, pray, work, pray, work, pray.” In these narratives, the empty space of waiting, doing nothing, and having too much time is erased. Repetition is not a problem as long as life provides little space for thought and contemplation of the future.
At the same time, despite the emphasis on “living hand to mouth,” Holyfield and other young men were earning incomes and experiencing changes in their social relationships with others. In 2012 Holyfield’s financial independence had expanded significantly. Previously he had worked as a laborer on cobblestone projects. By 2012 he had organized a cobblestone construction company with other young men, many of whom he had passed a great deal of time with when they were unemployed, and this gave him access to a much greater share of the profits. He had opened a savings account at a bank and was saving money in order to obtain a driver’s license. He had built a separate room for himself off his parents’ house and furnished the room with his own purchases. Holyfield consistently espoused a narrative in which work was associated with respect. “A person who does not work is not respected. This sort of person is a duriye. He has dirty clothes and bad hair. If youth from the neighborhood ask me for money, I tell them to come to our construction site and I will teach them how to work.” By 2015, Holyfield was married and his wife was expecting their first child. He had used his savings from his cobblestone work to purchase a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi that he leased to a friend, both creating work for his friend and gaining an additional source of income for himself. Referring to his ability to accumulate dependents and take on the responsibilities of an adult, Holyfield proudly told me there had been progress in his life.
The changing temporal experiences of young men in Jimma further demonstrate the relationship between boredom and progress. Boredom was eased when young men were able to reconnect with narratives of progress. This occurred partially through the creation of employment opportunities that allowed young men to work, support their extended family, and begin to establish families of their own. A revision of young men’s conceptions of progress was also part of this process. Young men placed greater intrinsic value on the act of working, evaluating time spent in the present not only as a means to something else but as an ends in itself. In this process the future moved closer. Life was no longer centered on waiting for the distant future; rather, there was a return to the near future, and working to achieve particular steps in a linear process of becoming. Life in the present began to take on qualitative value as it became useful for moving toward the near future.
Growth without change: Boredom and the changing urban landscape
The same urban infrastructural development projects that created job opportunities for young men have transformed the urban landscape. These projects created another source of change in the lives of young men, as their lived environment has been remade. In Jimma, major urban asphalt road construction projects began in 2009, and although the road construction did not go smoothly, many of the roads were finished by the end of 2014. Particularly in the central Mercado neighborhood, new high-rise buildings accompanied the new roads. The municipal government resettled families to more peripheral areas to make room for this new construction.
As I returned to Jimma for brief visits, conversations turned away from young men’s individual lives and focused on the changes in the city. Young men used the same Amharic word, lout, which I have translated as progress, to refer to transformations in the city. In referencing urban transformation, lout takes on a different meaning than the experience of progress within social relationships that I described above. Young men often began our discussions of Jimma with, “Lout alleh?”—“Has there been lout?” They wanted my response to this question, and even more so, they wanted to give me their assessment. In these discussions, it quickly became clear that at times people used lout to refer to the physical growth of the city, and at other times lout referenced a more abstract sense of change that could provide satisfaction if it was experienced at a personal level.
Many young men claimed that Jimma had experienced significant growth, pointing to the new five-story hotel on the corner where Holyfield and his friends once spent hours passing the time in the shade. They also pointed out the new cobblestone roads, some of them built by Holyfield’s company, and praised the reduction in mud and dust. Although some of the growth had occurred slowly, with a great deal of starting and stopping, by 2015 Jimma residents generally acknowledged that the city had grown dramatically in the past five years. However, many did not equate these changes with a deeper sense of change. They stated simply and directly, “There is no change” (Lout yellem). Some of these critiques focused on delays in the construction process. “Roads are never finished, they only produce dust,” noted one acquaintance of mine, in regard to the asphalt resurfacing projects that were delayed for multiple years without completion. However, many roads and buildings were finished, and for many residents this still did not bring a sense of change.
In 2015 I ran into one of the young men who had been involved in my research in the early 2000s. I had not seen him since 2005. He had traveled to the Gambella region, on the edge of the Ethiopia/South Sudan border, to work on a rice plantation and had only recently returned to Jimma. He was working as a construction foreman on one of the new buildings going up in the Mercado, a neighborhood where his parents had lived before being forced to leave to make room for new commercial development. We sat in a rooftop café sipping a macchiato, looking out at all of the new buildings that had gone up in the neighborhood. Where once there were simple shops made from corrugated tin, there were now four- and five-story cement buildings, filled with shops and cafés. “This is only for the rich,” he claimed. “It does nothing for the poor.” Pointing across the street at one of the new high-rises, he noted, “These building are empty.” He clarified that he was referring not only to some of the empty spaces for rent but also to the fact that so many of the shops offered the same goods and services. Cafés, mobile phone shops, Internet access—many of the shops sold the opportunity to connect with others. In contrast, this young man claimed there was no reliable access to water, electricity, and phone networks. This was a frequent comment I heard from Jimma residents: “What good are new buildings and roads when there is no water and electricity?” From this perspective, growth was empty. There were certainly new physical structures to be seen, but these were contrasted with a deeper form of change that would go beyond transforming the landscape and transform people’s lives.
Also in 2015, I spent a morning wandering through a residential neighborhood with Getachew, another young man who had participated in my earlier research. As we walked along the new cobblestone roads, he commented on how much the neighborhood had grown. At some point we turned off the cobblestone onto a dirt road to make our way to Getachew’s home, where he continued to live with his mother and siblings. As soon as we were off the cobblestone, the road turned into the thick slippery mud that I remembered from when I lived in Jimma 10 years before. Suddenly the conversation shifted. Now he was telling me there had been no change, everything is the same. We slowly picked our way along the muddy path until we reached his family’s small two-room house. Like Habtamu, Getachew had found a way to return to school, taking evening courses for a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Jimma University. He showed me the yearbook and photos from when he had completed his diploma at the technical college a couple years ago. Getachew had reentered the narrative of progressive changes in one’s life associated with education. He was quite proud of this, and he immediately announced his educational status when we first ran into each other. However, once we moved away from the asphalt and the cobblestone, into the interior neighborhoods where the majority of Jimma’s population resided, the experience of the city shifted. It became a world of stasis rather than one of change.
These men did not complain about boredom as they once did. They were working and attending school, many of them increasingly confident that they were experiencing linear change in their lives as they gradually repositioned themselves within relations of reciprocity. However, living in a context of rapid urban growth appears to have introduced new doubts about the meaning of change. Growth occurred, but access to basic necessities like water and electricity was increasingly unreliable. There was a new asphalt road and a five-story hotel just minutes from Getachew’s home, but what did that do for him? There was some initial excitement about the novelty of these developments, but the reality of the muddy path leading to Getachew’s home was left unchanged. In Jimma, growth was occurring, but many people were still waiting for change.
Jimma residents’ reactions to the roads and buildings that are associated with the state’s developmental policies demonstrate how dissatisfaction with the passage of time may emerge in different ways. Particularly in places like urban Ethiopia, where transformations of the lived environment can be rapid and residents are continually bombarded by state propaganda concerning development, evaluating the passage of time is a common activity. Urban residents critically questioned the state’s claims about sucessful development. In Jimma, this meant acknowledging growth but denying the attainment of an abstract sense of change experienced at a personal level. This did not necessarily lead to a sense of boredom, or an overabundance of time, but it did create a different sort of temporal angst. Even as the Ethiopian developmental state created opportunities for young people to reengage with narratives of maturation through the accumulation of dependents, the state’s rebuilding of the city did not generate a sense of satisfaction with the passage of time.
Elizabeth Goodstein writes,
Although boredom is associated with powerlessness and with an inability to act, its ascendancy comes in a world more thoroughly made by human beings than any before it. It is as though this experience without qualities, arising again and again as people confronted industrial innovations, made visible the contradiction between political impotence and a new and profound control over external nature.(2005: 121)
To some extent, Goodstein’s analysis describes the roots of the dissatisfaction experienced by Jimma residents who felt that urban growth had not brought the more meaningful change they desired. Young men struggled with a reality that did not conform to their expectations for the passage of time. They were waiting for state investments in infrastructure to touch their lives. Change would only exist if they were able to personally experience the benefits of urban growth. Young men increasingly felt that a satisfactory form of change may be forever out of reach, or isolated to the privileged few.
These young men, however, were not bored. Despite their frustration with an absence of change, I did not observe a broader discourse regarding problems with the passage of time. Boredom represents a very particular form of disappointment and dejection based in part on a peculiar experience of the present. Boredom requires a sense that the passage of time in the present is undifferentiated, and changes in social relationships in Ethiopia provided the key method for assessing increments in the passage of time. During the early 2000s, unemployed young men felt they had too much time, precisely because it lacked qualities of difference. When time is not differentiated, it is possible, even easy, to accumulate too much of it. As young men like Habtamu and Holyfield shifted their relationship to time in the present, experiencing the present in terms of incremental steps toward the near future, their struggles with boredom eased.
Like in nineteenth-century Europe (Goodstein 2005), boredom in urban Ethiopia was not only the sensation of having too much time but also the sense that the experience of time is not meaningful because it does not conform to expectations of progress. However, there are many different methods for measuring progress in order to determine if the present is in fact qualitatively better than the past. Urban Ethiopians specifically measured progress in terms of changes in their position within social relationships. In the case of young men’s struggles with boredom, there was no sense that “the subject both registers and rebels against the regulation of lived, subjective time by the inhuman demands of technological progress” (Goodstein 2005: 124). Goodstein links the emergence of boredom with romanticism and an intense desire for meaning that often valorized the experience of the individual. However, the notion of romantic individualism described by Goodstein for Western Europe was very far from the experience of unemployed youth. The replacement of “collective interpretations of experience” with “an ever greater focus on the individual, embodied self” (2005: 124) that Goodstein associates with modernity did not occur in Ethiopia. Unease and frustration with an abundance of unstructured time were based not on romantic visions of the self but on an inability to experience progress in the form of linear changes in relationships with others. For the young men in my study, boredom was the combination of undifferentiated time and an unfulfilled desire for a self that is constructed through social relationships. The case of bored young men in Ethiopian cities demonstrates that people often evaluate temporal change and related concepts like progress in terms of social relationships. Temporal change is embedded within specific expectations for social relationships, and when those expectations are not met boredom and other forms of angst often result.
Thanks to Bruce O’Neill, Marguerite van den Berg, and the two anonymous reviewers for their critical comments on this article.
Shuro is a flavorful chickpea sauce eaten with injera. It is inexpensive, and many families eat it at least once a day.
Because of irregularities in the voting process, opposition members refused to take the parliament seats they had won in the 2005 election. When widespread protests began to erupt, elected opposition party officials were imprisoned and their seats were eventually given to members of the ruling party.
Habtamu’s relatives in the United States paid for evening courses. Most youth did not have these resources, but the expansion of the postsecondary education system created numerous opportunities for students to attend government universities at very little cost.
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