Emslie Horniman Award: Genevieve Sekumbo

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Award Holder: Genevieve Sekumbo
University: Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID)
Title of Research: Anticipating a Future with Natural Gas: The aspirations, imagined futures and experiences of young people in the emerging energy frontier in Mtwara, Tanzania

Research Summary

The 2010 discoveries of offshore natural gas in Tanzania invited a series of imagined futures at a national level and for communities closest to the extraction sites. For these communities and the region at large, the promissory expectations  were largely framed within the dominant discourse of improved livelihoods for the marginal region. At the height of this, youth in the region were particularly urged to position themselves and seize the opportunities that came with these developments. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs from gas companies such as Equinor, Shell and British Gas operating in the region all included a ‘youth’ component to their programs and activities. Respective government agencies, as well as non-governmental institutions followed suit by collaborating with gas companies on programs and activities that aimed to enhance youth participation in the industry and other ancillary sectors. These preparations for a ‘future with gas’, has had varying effects on the communities involved. Structural changes and shifts in everyday realities are evident through changes in land ownership, resettlements of population, increased urbanization, change in local markets, shifts in employment types, regional and international migration, to name a few.

The development of the gas industry, however, has been anything but linear. Since the discovery of significant gas reserves in 2010, the region has experienced moments which can be described as the “Gas-boom” phase, which was  the beginning of the extractive processes and involved heavy investments in the region in the form of infrastructure and other ancillary sectors needed to support the industry; “The Pause” phase that began in 2015  which entailed the suspension of further exploratory and extractive activities following a change to the regulatory frameworks and a fall in global oil prices. In reaction to these uncertainties, International Oil Companies (IOC’s) slowed downed their investments, made fewer bids in the offshore bidding rounds compared to previous years, slowly removed their staff from operations, and indefinitely postponed the construction of the liquified natural gas (LNG) plant. More recently in 2021, conversations and negotiations over the construction of the LNG plant were revived under a new political administration subsequently reigniting a second “boom phase”.

Against the myriad of activities in the ten years following the discoveries, this research seeks to understand what it means for youth to secure livelihood options within the context of an emerging but precarious gas industry in Mtwara, a growing peri-urban town. Through an exploration of youth aspirations and subsequent strategies for securing livelihoods in these contexts, the study seeks to explore the nexus between the expansion of the gas industry and young people’s strategies towards economic independence- a key but precarious marker in their individual and social transitions to adulthood.

Project Rationale and Research Objectives Before Fieldwork

Through an exploration of youth aspirations, imagined futures, and their moral meanings behind them, this research aims to understand the impact of gas extraction and processes and how it impacts youth within their own life trajectories. More specifically, it aims to understand the more latent and elicited reactions that extraction frontiers have on communities and their everyday experiences. Through an ethnography of youth seeking or entering the labour market, the study sought to illuminate how youth adults are impacted by changes in their environments and how they negotiate with these changes in their own life trajectories as it pertains to finding stability, economic independence, and social recognition. As such, the study starts by considering youthhood as a negotiated and transitory phase – a fluid space between more stable categories of childhood and adulthood ((Barata 2013; Finn and Oldfield 2015; Weiss 2002), whereby the processes of moving from dependence to independence are attained by becoming economically independent (Sanderson 2019; Worth 2009). In exploring what being a ‘young adult’ means, I also aimed to explore when youth become entangled and mobilised within the conversations of development by different actors within Mtwara’s context by asking how companies and government broadly constitute the notion of youth and what are their visions of youth?

With concerns over the youth -bulge and the youth crises remain topical within Africa, understanding how respective stakeholders envision the notion of youth is relevant as it informs policy directives depending on whether visions of youth are problematised as a challenge or purported as a solution to the future. Within Tanzania and in context with the gas industry, young adults are championed in political aspirations while also framed within narratives of crises, poverty and precarity of livelihood. At the time of my fieldwork, the latter conversations became more prominent and intertwined with fears of youth radicalisation, and recruitment, by Islamist military armed groups. Such concerns are becoming more and more pronounced along Tanzania’s coast with the rise of insurgencies that have occurred across the border in northern Mozambique since 2017 and that have now crossed over to boarding villages in Mtwara.  One can easily read into these events within the dominant discourse of identity politics (Ahearne and Childs 2018; Le Billon 2001), greed and grievance (Collier, Hoeffler, and Rohner 2009; Maconachie 2014; Obi 2010)- all common themes, and rightfully so, on youth and conflicts in extraction zones. However, this study sought to demonstrate how young adults are intrinsically entangled as well as engendered into these narratives of development brought forth by the gas industry. This point of departure for the study was piqued not only by the youth component utilised by respective actors at the height of the gas boom but also by the subsequent protests that occurred in December 2012 and January 2013 over the construction of the gas pipeline from Mtwara to the commercial capital of Dar es Salaam (Balile 2013). Media reports of the protests classified the  protests as youth-led and alarming given that the region had never experienced any reported from of political uprisings post-independence, and is stereotypically described as docile (Ahearne 2016).

Doing Fieldwork (challenges and (re)evaluations)

The core of my fieldwork was situated within what can now retrospectively be described as the tail end of the “pause” phase of the industry’s development. Conducting fieldwork during the ‘pause’ phase had its challenges as it required me to study multiple temporalities within the course of fieldwork. By taking into consideration the 10-year lapse between the “gas boom” and “the gas pause” my questions, ethnographic sites and my anticipated interlocuters subsequently changed. For example, youth that experienced the “gas boom” were ten years into their individual and livelihood trajectories compared to youth that were currently entering the labour market. The 10-year time-lapse inadvertently created two youth groups, ‘gas-boom generation’ and ‘pause-phase generation’ whose lived experience within the industry’s trajectory was different.

Furthermore, while I anticipated to understand young peoples present lives and future with gas, in other words understanding the presence of gas in the present time, my fieldwork during the “pause phase” required not only a retrospective investigation but an important consideration of how to study inactivity or something yet to come. This realisation also required a re-examination in the charge of the words and concepts used in my research- words such as expectations, youth, imagined futures, boom, gas industry, all of which elicit and imbue notions of action. Juxtaposed by the reality of being in the field during ‘the pause phase’, studying what seemed like the mundane not only went again the envisioned ethnographic sensibility but also went against works on extractive economies that I relied on during fieldwork.  I was therefore forced to explore how the idle moments of the industry explain larger processes as well as contribute to the strategies, tactics (Simone 2004) and social networks (Ralph 2008), created by youth as they navigate change in the ‘pause phase’.

In addition to coming to terms with this disjuncture, I started fieldwork during an election period- a time of heightened sensitivity on the topic of gas and youth.  Unaware at that time as to why the two themes in conjunction were considered sensitive, the delay in obtaining my research permit from the national and local government authorities displayed a highly politicised layer to my research. As I came to understand the imbued political charge of my research questions, I had to find ways of depoliticising my research and my positionality to get authorisation to conduct fieldwork as well as enable me to work with government officials and their constituents. This meant averting from overtly talking or mentioning ‘gas’ while speaking to new interlocutors which consequentially meant relegating ‘gas’ as a contextual backdrop while focusing on the work-life trajectories of youth.

Furthermore, the heightened sense of suspicion and tension at the start of fieldwork was exacerbated by an election period marred with heightened surveillance and social media restrictions across Tanzania.  During this time many social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp were slowed down or completely inaccessible in all parts of the country without the use of virtual private networks (VPN). Individual messages, specific individuals and civil society were also censored during this time.  The inaccessibility of reliable communication during the election period exacerbated insecurity in the region as during this same period, a village in Mtwara bordering Mozambique was attacked by Islamic extremists operating from northern Mozambique. This was the first attack acknowledged by the Tanzanian authorities although subsequent ad hoc attacks, killings and abductions followed during the course of fieldwork, many of which remain unreported by media. The lack of reporting by local authorities and media meant that for the majority of fieldwork I had to rely on hearsay from my male interlocutors who were privy to such information given their ability to occupy certain public spaces in ways that I was normatively unable to.

Furthermore, my initial engagement with youth revealed another layer of the sensitivity and anxiety towards the topic of gas that stemmed from the trauma that the region experienced over violent protests that occurred in 2012/2013 over the disagreement between government and residents over the construction of a pipeline. Although the protests occurred over a decade ago, people in the region remain cautious about whom they spoke to about the protests over the fears of affiliation to the rioters. My interactions with people were therefore marked with extreme caution and suspicion towards me as a lot of them believe that I was part of the intelligence apparatus that reportedly continue to question, arrest and torture people over the suspected involvement in the protests.

Lastly, conducting fieldwork at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront questions over how and what it means to pursue ethnographic enquiry while still maintaining the personal health and safety concerns for myself and interlocuters. While ethical principles of ‘do no harm’ and informed consent are ones that I was equipped with since I knew I was working with young, marginalised communities, the pandemic unveiled unchartered territory of biomedical concerns and risks that required bodily distance which required a re-evaluation of my main methodological tool of participant observation. While for other researchers migrating to online ethnography offered an alternative to some degree, this was not a viable option given the sensitivity of my research topic and the need to establish trust, affinity and rapport that could only be established by maintaining some aspect of normative ethnography. Furthermore, although my physical mobility to my field site was not hindered by national lockdowns or institutional rules and regulations, negotiating engagement with my interlocutors while adhering to the health and safety guidelines remained a challenge given the low uptake and scepticism towards the real threat of the pandemic in Tanzania.

Reworked Methodology

The combination of a highly surveilled election period, insurgencies, anxieties born out of the protests, and the pandemic meant that my fieldwork required a reskilling of sorts that expanded on the methodological tools of bodily distanced ethnographic enquiry. I therefore approached my project in the following four phases.

I began my ethnographic study with students at a Vocational school in Mtwara. This first phase was my entry point to the field and what can be described as a ‘youth-site’, and also a core space where oil and gas companies invested substantially in their CSR programs. During this time, I attended class with the senior students, and observed their interactions with one another and teachers to explore how they were thinking about jobs now that they were close to graduating. Since educational institutions mandated mask-wearing, I was able to conduct participant observation with the students while upholding the pandemic health and safety measures. This time also helped me build a rapport and trust with students whom I later held in-depth interviews with on questions relating to the gas industry, their aspirations as well as an exploration in the different types of livelihoods they sought and ended up doing. This was my second phase. My third phase entailed ‘following’ several students whom I had a strong rapport with that were close to graduating. Through text messages, phone calls and brief meet ups I ‘followed’ a few graduates in their search for jobs to understand the strategies and tactics they mobilised in search of livelihoods. ‘Following’ the recent graduates allowed a bodily distance ethnography during the various waves of the pandemic.  In tandem with this, for the fourth phase, I interviewed youth currently in the labour market to explore their livelihood experiences since 2012 when the region experienced its “gas boom”. Using the life and work history approach I sought to draw out young people’s practices, strategies, and the resources (economic, social, and cultural capital) that youth mobilized during the ‘boom’ and ‘pause’ phases of the industry’s trajectories.  

Anthropological Contribution

The broad aim of this ethnographic study remains to bring two streams of anthropological scholarship – the anthropology of off-shore extractive economies and the anthropology of youth transitions- into dialogue by contextualizing the precarious expansion of the gas industry and its impact on working-age youth aspirations and trajectories towards securing livelihood options. My research aims to not only make visible the gas industry through the built environment required for the extractive processes, but the ideas it brings to people about the future, the promises of development, and jobs, particularly for youth in the region. In bridging these two themes, the questions explored during fieldwork attempt to understand what hides beneath the narrative of development through extractive economies that we are not only conditioned to believe in but are often set to be reimagined as developmental. Preliminary revelations demonstrate that youth are increasingly roped into the extractivist capitalist project as not only producers of the future, but through them subjects of what will constitute a ‘good life’. Entangled in the illusive positivity of the future, youthhood in extractive zones unveils a form of precarity that constantly rests on the hope for a better tomorrow, while the material precarity is underscored by withdrawal and the sense of a foreshortened future.



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