How does an oral historian, working in Mozambique, respond to the lockdowns and travel restrictions of recent years? Johanna Wetzel is a PhD student researching the history of youth — ser jovem or juventude — in Maputo, with particular reference to the importance attached to youth and the young by first-generation leaders of an independent Mozambique.
Unable to travel, Johanna turned to online resources and training for oral historians, funded by an award from the Royal Historical Society. The Society’s grants programme provides support for 200 early career historians each year, with applications welcome at any time.
I am a social historian of contemporary Mozambique, currently researching my doctorate in International Development at the University of Oxford. While on fieldwork for my Masters thesis in Maputo in 2018, I noticed that my young interlocutors seemed to embrace the label of ‘youth’ (Portuguese: ser jovem or juventude) in ways that are at first sight counter-intuitive: elsewhere on the continent, the label ‘youth’ demarcates a low social status that young people seek to escape. As they struggle to achieve markers of adulthood, such as marriage, home ownership and financial independence, they often find themselves stuck in ‘waithood’. Contrary to this view, my young interviewees in Maputo embraced ‘youth’ labels enthusiastically and associated them with a positive identity:
To be a youth in Mozambique means to run after your dreams tirelessly and without giving up, and to be a focused individual, an individual who seeks knowledge through education. (Interview: Ana Chongo, 2021)
For me, youths are all those who make a difference. […] There are people who even [though they are] in this age group [of youth], do not behave as such: They are not concerned with the development of the country, with their own development. We can also find people above the age of 35 who do everything to see progress. (Interview: Valdo Congolo, 2021)
These quotes point to the importance of understanding the history of ‘youth’ – a social and political construct – which in Mozambique is closely linked to the history of state-building in the wake of independence from Portuguese rule.
Towards a history of youth in Mozambique: the PhD project
My PhD research project, tentatively titled ’Quando era jovem / When I was young’ – An Intergenerational Oral History of Youth in Mozambique, explores how state discourses about a juventude (the ‘youth’) have shaped the lives, politics and identities of young people since Mozambique declared its independence in 1975.
Under its first president Samora Machel (1933-1986), the Mozambican state engaged in a fervent campaign of social and moral reordering that aimed to see a ‘New Socialist Society’ rising from the ashes of Portuguese colonialism. During the decade of Machel’s presidential rule (1975-86) the state constructed and projected a juventude as a political category closely tied to its revolutionary agenda. A juventude was cast as a formerly oppressed class under ‘colonial-feudal’ gerontocratic social orders with a ‘decisive role in the national liberation struggle.’  The 1975 constitution held that on youth ‘lies a fundamental responsibility in the construction of the New Society.’ In a widely disseminated speech, President Machel declared that:
It is the new blood, which rejects all that represents the old ideas, the old, retrograde, traditional feudal habits, and exalts all that represents the New Man. 
The ruling party’s embrace of Marxism-Leninism in 1977 further heightened the language and range of policy instruments employed to bring together a powerful yet heterogeneous social constituency under the umbrella term ‘juventude’ and to channel its energies. This entailed, among other things, the creation of the Organização da Juventude Moçambicana, a Soviet-style youth organisation intended to ‘organize the youth so that it can take pride of place alongside the working classes in the fight to establish the material and ideological basis for a socialist society.’  Its teaching materials promised to ‘awake[n] the consciousness of new generations […] to prepare them for the responsibility of carrying on the revolution.’  While the Mozambican state abandoned Marxist terminology after Machel’s death, following a mysterious plane crash, these institutional and discursive structures continue to persist in today’s Mozambique, and continue to shape youth identities among my research interlocutors.
My interest therefore expands beyond the past to an understanding of ‘juventude’ in the present. How is the meaning of youth constructed in Mozambique today? What is the social afterlife of Machel’s words among the generations who never heard them directly, but only through parents’ and grandparents’ stories, or as revived by hip hop artist Azagaia when he asks, in a provocative reference to Machel’s independence speech: ‘somos ou não somos a ‘seiva dessa nação’?’ (‘Are we [the youth] or are we not the “lifeblood of this nation”?’)
In order to explore these questions, I consult documentary and archival sources, but my main emphasis is on recovering memory through intergenerational oral histories. Speaking to Mozambicans who came of age between 1975 and 1985, and those who consider themselves youths today, I conduct interviews that focus on changes and continuities in the meaning of ‘juventude’ against the backdrop of the state’s vivid efforts to shape, represent, and control youth.
Pandemic hurdles: How the RHS research expenses grant scheme supported my PhD
Collecting intergenerational oral histories in times of travel restrictions and pandemic lockdowns was a challenge. However, thanks to the Society’s Research Expenses grant programme, I was able to fund remote data collection despite the pandemic.
In a first round of data collection, I recruited six young men and women based in Maputo and provided training in applied oral history methodology. Drawing on a digital online course that was developed at Princeton University — Global History Dialogues (GHD) course — participants underwent weekly training sessions for 13 weeks and subsequently designed their own research questions within the broader scope of my PhD topic. The participants then conducted interviews with older generations about their memories of youth between 1975 and 1985.
The training programme funded through the Society’s grant also contributed to counterbalancing global inequalities in access to history education. Through the GHD, participants acquired skills in historical research methods, experience in conducting academic research and educational credentials. One of the participants, Michael, reflected that this experience gave him confidence in his academic abilities:
Having participated in this project was a dream come true for me. I learned that I am able to conduct research and produce very rewarding results. (email correspondence, Michael Juma, 2021)
Furthermore, participants used the interviews to work on their own research questions, exploring more closely the history of youth through changes and continuities in access to housing, social and political engagement by youths, and the role of education. The participants presented their results at an international student conference and finally published them on the GHD blog. As Ana reflects, this contributes to decolonizing access to the academic conversation about youth:
By training student-researchers in oral history and other methods of historical research, new voices become narrators of history and expand conceptions of what history is and who its authors are. It seeks to get young people to have a say in constructing narratives [about them]. (final paper, Ana Chongo, 2021)
Working remotely and digitally with research participants in Maputo undoubtedly posed many challenges. At the same time, the disruptions caused by the pandemic also enabled me to test the boundaries of how social and oral historians can engage more directly members of the communities we research. This is so at all stages of knowledge production: not just data gathering, but also analysis, writing, and the presentation of research.
By thinking and researching the history of youth in dialogue with young people, I hope to begin not just a long and fruitful research relationship with the participants, but also to rethink and develop methodological practice for myself and other historians.
 Samora Machel, Samora Machel, an African Revolutionary: Selected Speeches and Writings (Zed Books, 1985), 184.
 Machel, 182.
 Samora Machel, “Intervenção do Presidente Samora Machel ao ser condecorado com a medalha de ouro Artur Becker, pelo primeiro secretário do conselho central da Juventude Livre Alemã,” Notícias, 06.12.1980, https://www.mozambiquehistory.net/, accessed on 23.06.2021.
 ‘Mozambican Constitution’, 1975, https://www.mozambiquehistory.net/justice/constitution/19750000_constituicao_e_lei_nacionalidade.pdf.
About the author
Johanna M Wetzel is a DPhil candidate at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. Her research interests include African history, the social and political history of youth, 20th century state-socialist ideology, and oral history methodologies. She is currently conducting fieldwork for her dissertation and teaches at the University of Potsdam. Johanna holds an MPhil in Development Studies (University of Oxford) and a BA in International Relations (University of Groningen, NL).
Johanna’s dissertation research — tentatively titled ‘“Quando Era Jovem… / When I was young…”: An Intergenerational Oral History of Youth in Maputo, Mozambique (1975-2020)’ — explores how state discourses about a juventude (the ‘youth’) have shaped the lives, politics, and identities of young people since Mozambique declared its independence in 1975.
Johanna draws on archival research, as well as oral history interviews with multiple generations of youths in Maputo. Her project explores remote and intergenerational interviewing techniques that aim to expand reciprocal practices in oral history research. Her research is funded by Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, the Gerda-Henkel-Stiftung, the Royal Historical Society and Wolfson College, Oxford.
About the Society’s grants programme for early career historians
Each year the RHS makes c.200 awards to early career historians to support their research. Grants include support for conference organisation and conference travel, research expenses and — via our ECR Fellowships Grants of up to £2000 each — discrete projects undertaken by recent post-doc researchers.
The Society also offers the annual Martin Lynn Scholarship, for study of the history of West Africa, and its Centenary and Marshall Fellowships to support current History PhD students in completing their doctorates.
Grant applications are invited at any time, with the next closing date 1 September 2022. Calls for the 2022-23 Centenary and Marshall Fellowships, held jointly with the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, are now open with a deadline of 19 May 2022.
Elsewhere on the RHS blog you can read more about recent research undertaken by another grant recipient, Dr Hannah Yip, following the award of an ECR Fellowship Grant in 2021: ‘Justifying the Arts in Early Modern England’.