Militantly well

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Henrik E. Vigh. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.006


Militantly well

Henrik E. VIGH, University of Copenhagen

Building on ethnographic fieldwork among militant, urban youth in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, this article illuminates how young men in the city actively engage in conflict in order to improve their lives and prospects. The article shows how mobilizing is seen as a move toward a reduction of hardship and the possibility of fulfilling one’s social potential. Rather than looking at what people see themselves as having to fight against—the last decades of war in Bissau being remarkably void of ideological standpoints and collective visions of dangerous Others (Vigh 2009)—the article looks at the visions of better futures that transcend conflict engagement and wartime suffering for young militiamen. It clarifies the positive prospects that are expected to lie beyond the known horrors of war. Though conflict and warfare may provide strange points of departure for talking about well-being, imaginaries of happiness stand out from a background of hardship and are talked about in both a quite concrete way, as a lack of insecurity, as well as in an abstract way, as realization of social being. However, for most of the people I talk to, happiness remains elusive and evades their desperate attempts to grasp it. It appears, as such, simultaneously to be what life is most profoundly about, as well as the dimension of it that constantly seems to avoid capture.

Keywords: mobilization, emplacement, well-being, Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, youth

Chaos Pilot

Raul was lethargic. For the eleven months I had known him he had done little but sit slumped on a chair or the low wall in front of Tio’s house. When I would meet up with him, we would hang out as part of a peer group of young urban men in an inner city suburb of Bissau. Yet while the other members of the group at times had things to do and places to go, Raul restricted his movements to repositioning his body within the few square meters of shade offered by the building and the tree in front of it. Moving only to eat or relieve himself, he became over the months a sort of slothful assemblage, almost inseparably connected to the crumbling structure on which he draped his body.

Truth be told, he could not have done much even if he wanted to. Stuck in a postwar city where economic decline was growing more and more pronounced, [94]and in a state where the political situation had moved toward an increasingly crippling deadlock, his options were limited. As a consequence, he had succumbed to a state of hibernation, passing slow days in the hope that some kind of positive change would eventually appear on the horizon. At times we would spend almost the entire day together, without saying much, sharing an occasional meal and commenting on the odd event on the street in front of us. We coexisted in a state of boredom that almost suspended the passage of time.

Raul was, like my field assistant, Vitor, who introduced me to him, a former militiaman in the Aguenta militia. When I first came to Bissau in 2000, I sought out the Aguentas in order to look at the demobilization and reintegration of exsoldiers. I quickly found a field assistant who was himself a former member of the militia, and he led me to a group of them who would gather in a peer group in the barrio (neighborhood) in question. During the war in Guinea-Bissau (from 1998 to 1999) the government side of the conflict, led by the late President “Nino” Vieira, mobilized a militia to support its military struggle. Dubbed the Aguentas (i.e., supporters), the militia was primarily mobilized from Bissau, the country’s capital—one of the few parts of the country still under government control at the time (Vigh 2006). Though they were haphazardly mobilized, the Aguentas shared a number of characteristics at the time of their constitution. Though ethnically and religiously diverse they were primarily Papel and Catholic-Animist, viz. the 5th largest ethnic group and the largest religious community in the country. Neither religion nor ethnicity seemed, however, to be influential in their constitution or everyday interaction. As urban youth, many were born of mixed marriages and their self-identification centered on being urbanite rather than rural, modern rather than traditional.

As the war progressed, Raul and his fellow Aguentas found themselves on the losing side of the conflict. The Aguentas were eventually defeated and disbanded in late 1999, and left to go back to their bairros, to lick their wounds and suffer the embarrassment of returning home as demobilized and ostracized losers. When his side was defeated, Raul lost the network that he had hoped would help him in life after the war, which resulted in a lack of livelihoods and possibilities. Losing the war did not lead to persecution or revenge attacks on the Aguentas in Bissau. But it did result in a disenfranchisement of such magnitude that it appeared to obscure any move into a better social position and future. Raul was lethargic but to a large degree this was because postwar circumstances had closed off his possibilities in life.

This was, however, to change as fighting broke out again on November 23, 2000. The shooting flared up in the afternoon, and as night fell, the skirmish escalated into full-blown battle between different military factions (see Vigh [2006] for a detailed political description of the event). Though Bissau had only recently emerged from a prolonged period of warfare, the tension had been building for months, lingering as a constant and uncanny companion to the proclaimed peace. I was in the city center when the first shots were fired and made it back home as it intensified. The walk home was uneasy and surreal. Within hours groups of women were already on their way out of town, walking silently along the road, carrying their children on their backs and their belongings on their heads. In contrast, the bar down the road was rowdy with a handful of people drinking intensely in what seemed like [95]an act of defiance. Farther up the road, Raul and the group had as usual gathered in the street outside Tio’s house, the sound of their discussion traveled down the road leaving fragments of the conversation hanging in the air. As I reached them Raul looked at me and stated, “es ke no ta kunsi” (“this is what we know”), painting a picture of the outburst of fighting as expected and habitual. In contrast to the unsettled nature of the situation, he was calm and collected. Having survived the war a few years earlier—first as a young man in a city at war and a later as a militiaman on the front lines—he did actually know war better than many others.

Raul’s attitude made him stand out in the small crowd. While most people in the group were negatively affected—some depressed and others enraged—Raul appeared attentive but at ease. Over the next couple of days the fighting moved through Bissau and into the countryside. As it escalated some people hid while others sought to flee the city; in contrast, Raul became revitalized and navigated the uncertain situation as if it were his environment of choice. Moving back and forth between fraction and military formations, he used the conflict to reengage and his skills to liaise and connect. I would see him move swiftly up the street, stop to assess the passability of the road ahead, and continue in a confident flow. As he returned home he would spend a bit of time talking, pass on information about what was happening, and move on again. In the volatile situation, which otherwise halted the movement of the city as most people lost their bearings, Raul seemed to gain his— like a chaos pilot1 whose capacity lies in maneuvering tumultuous circumstances and acquiring insights in situations that are otherwise conducive to confusion.

The conflict ended in the total rout of the military faction led by the former Army Chief of Staff, ex-Brigadier General Asumané Mané, leaving Bissau to return to its normal state of agitated stagnancy. In the unreliable calm I managed to ask Raul about the recent development and his view of it. He answered:

There are those who do not want peace, who want war. When war comes they are okay (saffa), you understand? If there is confusion they are the ones who see their path (caminho).

What did you do?

When there is war, there are those who will become frightened (elis ki panta). In wartime a lot of people will just be afraid . . . to the point where they hide. That is what war is like, everyone just looks after his own head, you know!? But for those who know war there is a type of path (typo di caminho), you see?

Though he was referring to people higher up in the system who, as he saw it, would use conflict to rearrange the landscapes of power, he seemed to fit the description better than most. The conflict allowed him to see um typo di caminho (“a type of path”), as he phrased it, which breathed new life into his truncated existence. He maneuvered the situation as “edgework,” not as the voluntary risk-taking of those who have other options (Lyng 2005; Lyng and Matthews 2007) but as the action of [96]those who are so marginal that their potential for engagement is limited to the fissures and crack of the dominant order—or the imposition of alternative ones. You must be in motion, movimenta, he would say, and for the radically excluded, conflictual disruption indeed provides a space of participation (Richards 1996; Vigh 2006, 2009), making engagement and mobilization a potential, albeit desperate, move toward a better state of being.

Happiness and hardship

I first met Raul sixteen years ago. At the time I was not interested in conflict but in its aftermath, yet as it has consistently refused to acquire the suffix “post” in the country, with one coup or attempted coup following another, I have been able to ethnographically follow the militiamen ever since, allowing me to see not just the way that they have been demobilized but the multiple and recurrent nature of their mobilization and demobilization. The longitudinal aspect of the work has allowed me to illuminate the ways that they navigate militant2 networks and conflictual events. Taking my cue from Raul’s story, what I will do in this article is explore conflict and mobilization in relation to ideas of emplacement and the struggle for happiness. In doing so, I will show how the conflict engagement of the Aguentas may shed light on the ways that warfare can open up otherwise closed social environments for the young men that participate in it, and enable movement toward better lives and positive futures. In other words, instead of researching such moves into militant formations by illuminating what people see themselves as having to fight against—the last decades of war in Bissau being remarkably devoid of ideological standpoints and collective visions of dangerous others (Vigh 2009)—the article looks at the visions of well-being that transcend the experience and knowledge of oncoming wartime suffering.

I have written about the Aguenta militia elsewhere and sought to make sense of their conflict engagement by focusing on the concept of “social navigation” (Vigh [2003] 2006, 2006, 2010) and by situating them in contexts of “crises and chronicity” (2008). In contrast, the current article looks specifically at their mobilization through the concept of “emplacement” and relates this to ideas of happiness and well-being in Bissau. Though visions of happiness figure as powerful motivators for the young men I talk to, it remains, as we shall see, illusive and elusive as an experiential state. It figures as an existential goal that avoids capture, making the pursuit of it stand forth as its primary instantiation. In this manner the article takes its inspirations from Michael Jackson “in understanding well-being, not as a settled state but as a field of struggle” (2011: ix). It asks, thus, what happiness might look like seen from a situation of conflict and scarcity, where it may be imagined to be located, and how it may be attained (cf. Jiménez 2008: 181)? Doing so allows me to clarify how mobilizing into a militia in the midst of war may be seen as a way to [97]gain well-being by moving toward positions of social worth and value3; a process of emplacement that shows how imaginaries of being well motivate action as both short-term and long-term orientations (cf. Thin 2008: 151).4

I realize that the Aguenta militia may be seen by some to provide a peculiar point of departure for addressing well-being. As a youth militia in one of the world’s poorest and most unstable societies, the logical angle of approach might appear to be a focus on suffering and despair (cf. Robbins 2013).5 The militia was a haphazardly formed fighting force. Poorly trained and unimpressive in terms of numbers, equipment, and abilities, they fared poorly in warfare and are spoken of in Bissau as carne di bazooka, (“bazooka meat”) or cannon fodder (Vigh [2003] 2006, 2009, 2011). Yet, while life in the militia may stand in direct contrast to our common understandings of well-being, such hardship and suffering is, as we shall see, shadowed by dreams and ideas of happiness and made endurable as a perceived movement toward better lives and more valued positions of being. Happiness and hardship are in this respect dialectically related as one instantiates an imaginary of the other. Just as the experience of happiness can conjure a fear of its termination, so hardship may be brightened by hopefulness, and suffering by imaginaries of well-being (Jackson 2011).

In Bissau, happiness emerges perhaps less frequently and more fleetingly as its coming into being is quickly surpassed by the reality of everyday social, political, and economic life. Yet though the phenomenon may be experienced as an ephemeral experience rather than a lasting state, happiness is not necessarily ontologically different in Bissau in comparison to elsewhere. The points of departure may be more meager and the aspirations more modest but the concept is similar in use. Just as we in English may differentiate between different shades of happiness and well-being along temporal and contextual parameters, from the situational and fleeting sensation of pleasure to the underlying experience of contentment, [98]the intense affective state of joy, and the more lasting condition of well-being, so to, in Bissau, is the concept internally differentiated from pleasure, sabi (literally, “sweet”), to bem estar (“well-being”), fica contente (“being content”), and alegria (“happiness” or “joy”). However, despite the differentiated nature of happiness its many shades share a similar trait, namely that it is commonly experienced as a hope and aspiration. It is a condition we strive to move toward, which orientates action and stands as a beacon of our being. The concept seems to have most life while it is being pursued as “people use it to designate what they don’t have yet, what they are longing for, that which they have just lost and would like again” (Lear 2000: 23).

Displaced without moving

Focusing on happiness and well-being in relation to the mobilization of the Aguentas in general, and Raul’s story more specifically, may in this perspective partly inform us of the motives behind their conflict engagement. Despite the common-sense distance between warfare and happiness a closer look may illuminate how such motivations are socially anchored, and how the well-being people strive toward is informed by relational concerns and obligations. In the Bissauan case this means framing happiness and well-being within a state of prolonged decline and political instability (Vigh 2008; see also McGovern 2011). Guinea-Bissau has been caught in a process of economic and political deterioration for the better part of its existence as an independent country, to the point where political instability and insecurity is perceived as chronic, and where people experience their lives as increasingly difficult to live in agreeable or meaningful ways. However, the consequences of crises and decline affect diverse social groups in different ways, closing down various avenues of possibility and creating specific situated concerns.

One result of the above-mentioned process of decline is that an extraordinarily large part of the younger male population—the unconnected and disenfranchised—have become trapped in a position of persistent economic and political marginality (Vigh [2003] 2006, 2008; see also Cole 2004; Jensen 2008; Pratten 2007; Mainz 2008) where it is increasingly difficult for them to meet gendered and generational norms and obligation. As I have described elsewhere (Vigh 2006, 2015) they are expected to move toward feeding into family networks rather than merely feeding off them, yet as many are incapable of surviving without the help of families that they ideally ought to be supporting, they are caught between the expectations and obligations placed upon them and their meager possibilities of meeting these, leaving them unable to position themselves positively in the relational landscape that their lives are anchored in. It is impossible for them to set up a household, marry, and provide for parents, female relatives, wives, and girlfriends, and their social failings keep them trapped in the category of youth—as untimely dependents—relegating them to the position of, literally, social retards, lacking in worth and attraction (Vigh [2003] 2006).

The result is an experience of enforced presentism (Guyer 2007) as a sociospatial predicament of entrapment “of having nowhere to go” and no way of furthering or consolidating one’s life in an acceptable or recognized manner. That is, of existential immobility (Hage 2003: 20; cf. Hage 2005; see also Jansen 2014). They [99]have, we may say, become displaced without moving. As the political and economic conditions have deteriorated around them it has become increasingly impossible for the young men I work with to gain the social position and possibilities expected of them, leaving them detached and distanced from who they “ought” to be.

This experience of social displacement creates a struggle for emplacement, not as a question of physical localization (Englund 2002: 263; Jansen & Löfving 2009) but as a striving toward being positively situated in a relational landscape. It results in a longing to attain valued presence in respect to the life-conditions of one’s important others. The desire to inhabit a position of relational worth means that emplacement comes to stand as an image of happiness, as conviviality—a satisfying rather than sullen sociality (cf. Overing and Passes 2000: xiv).


Displacement and emplacement are, in this perspective, questions of sociality rather than locality. Although they constitute multifaceted and open-ended processes, which stretch from the political to the existential (cf. Huttunen 2010; Glick Schiller 2012: 527), they refer to the experienced relational and positional quality of our lives.

Emplacement provides a prism that incorporates . . . subjective sentiments, on the one hand, and the structural forces that both contribute to defining the sociocultural criteria of these sentiments (e.g., through cultural idioms about the good life) and the constraints to achieving such ends (e.g., local social hierarchies, broader socioeconomic structures, etc.), on the other. (Bjarnesen 2013: 40)

As we shall see, for the young men I talk to emplacement is articulated as a desire to move toward a position of social worth from where it is possible to become reciprocally pivotal rather than marginal (Vigh 2015). It is, as such, not an end point of movement but the attainment of a (minor) patrimonial position from where one can distribute resources and futures. Forced to wait for better times, they search for inclusion in economic and political life,6 and warfare and heightened conflict may provide just that. In this respect Raul and my other informants react to war not just by assessing the dangers of it but also by scrutinizing it for possible subsistence, security, empowerment, mobility, and emplacement (cf. Lubkeman 2008). In a society like Guinea-Bissau, the move from crisis to conflict or warfare becomes a vital conjuncture—an intersection of change and opportunity that opens up otherwise frozen socio-political landscapes, enabling young men to navigate networks and events toward better states of being (cf. Johnson-Hanks 2002).[100]

When I first started my fieldwork with the Aguentas I initially asked rather simplistically why they had joined the militia in the first place. At the time the question was not such an unusual one. The Aguentas had just lost the war and been demobilized, and as they returned home to their neighborhoods from the barracks in town, or the places where they had been keeping their heads down in the aftermath of the war, people would ask “ke ke bu bai busca la” (“what were you looking for there”)? The young soldiers would often reply pragmatically. M’bai busca nha vida, (“I went looking for a life”), they would say, or alternatively m’bai busca nha futuro (“I went looking for a future”) or m’bai busca nha caminho (“I went looking for a path”). The replies direct our attention to the fact that a decent existence, future, or positive life trajectories were not seen as present in the period prior to their mobilization. Nelson, another young Aguenta from Bissau, had willingly mobilized in 1998 in order “to look for a life,”7 as he termed it. Joining the militia had been an attempt to align himself with a homi garandi, a big man, in order to gain entry into a political network and thus secure access to flows of power and resources; an attempt forge the connections and liaisons that would allow him to survive physically and socially. His mobilization was motivated neither by greed or grievance (Berdal and Malone 2000), but merely by the search for a better future than what was imaginable from the impoverished status quo surrounding the position of being a young, urban male in Guinea-Bissau. From Nelson’s point of view, envisioning himself as a soldier and as postwar victorious was the only positive prospect in sight.

However, probing ideas of “paths,” and “futures” a bit further, and asking into what they actually saw themselves as moving toward, it becomes clear that military life was not just described as a means to attaining social standing but was also articulated (somewhat ironically) as a position of relative safety. Mobilizing could be a way of moving toward emplacement, encompassing the experience of empowerment, as a struggle toward the positive social positioning and embeddedness that might enable one to engage and attain recognition and respect (Bourgois 1996). But it equally offers security, as a very first foundational step toward being well at all. The relative lack or loss of social networks and connections renders young men unprotected in a volatile and impoverished social environment, creating a longing for positions where danger is not a constant and perils less prevalent. In a country without institutionalized authority to protect one’s safety; without a working legal system, police force, or impartial judiciary, disenfranchised young men inhabit a position of precarity—a vulnerability beyond poverty (Butler 2012).8 In this manner, mobilization may come to be treasured as a way of gaining entry into a social or patrimonial network, providing not just access to flows of resources and possibilities but security through mutual dependence and obligations of protection.

What I will do in the remainder of this article is move, empirically and analytically, from empowerment to emplacement. Where the former defines the more immediate experience of gaining a sense of security and the attainment of social [101]standing, the latter describes an imagined movement into a position of positive social embeddedness. Both are related to the struggle for well-being and happiness yet characterized by different temporal stages of the phenomena.


For the unprotected, Bissau is generally an uncertain place to come of age. The experience of being an unconnected urban youth in the city is not just defined by the poverty and lack of mobility but by insecurity and danger. While this accounts for most of the poorer inhabitants of the city, the lack of protection was particularly prominent for many urban youths during the war when the majority of the Aguentas were mobilized. Luiz, for example, was stuck close to the frontline of the fighting as he tried to protect his family’s few belongings. It was, at the time, a common tactic for families, who had the misfortune of having the war encroach upon their neighborhoods, to ask their young men to remain to look after their houses while the rest of the family fled. Escaping the war, most families could take only their most needed or treasured possessions with them and in order to protect the rest from being looted, and their houses from being occupied by soldiers, young men were often singled out to stay behind. As we were talking about how and why he entered the Aguentas, Luiz explained:

They fled, but I stayed in Bissau in order to take care of the house. I had to stay, but I had nothing, no food, not a thing. . . . When the fighting started again [after a small ceasefire] a man came from the government to call us up [to join the Aguentas] . . . so I thought that if I went to the Aguentas, I would be able to go [at the same times as I] could protect our house.

Luiz stressed later in the interview that joining the militia would both deliver and allow him to provide in material terms. M’na bin tene tamben (“but I would also get [something]”), he said, as the militia would supply food enough for people to survive, and many were given half a bag of rice as payment for mobilizing. However, it also offered the muscle necessary to feel safe in a vulnerable situation. In other words, though mobilizing means drawing near to violence in terms of actual battles and fighting, it also offers security and protection in the intermediate periods between hostilities, making the move toward the militant formations a safety issue (Vigh 2011). It can be understood as an attempt to exchange generalized lowintensity uncertainty with momentary high-intensity insecurity, paradoxically providing respite from the chronic lack of safety that defined and defines everyday life for many young, urban men in the city.

The act of gaining security was, however, a first step in a further movement. M’bai pa m’pudi fica bem (“I went so that I could be well”), Orlando simply answered as we were talking about his decision to enter the Aguentas. Mobilization was for Orlando a future-bound act aimed at achieving a better life. When I asked what would make him feel “well,” he answered:

Food, women, a car, migration, well-being, you understand? You have stability, security, earn a living. . . . Living conditions! . . . That’s what fires up the light in your belly.[102]

Sinti ki luz na barriga (“fire up that light in your belly”), is Orlando’s way of phrasing hope, as an embodied feeling of optimism and elevation. The quotation is interesting as it shows that mobilization was motivated by ideas of well-being as a nodal point that connects disparate meanings by centering other notions around it (Lacan [1960] 2004). From the concrete substance of food to the abstract dream of migration, Orlando sees mobilization as a chance to improve the situation at hand and gain security (denoted as stabilidade and securidade)—the lack of uncertainty and insecurity being seen as the primary characteristics of being well.

Yet becoming a member of the Aguenta militia does not just provide safety when not actively engaged in combat, it also generates a positive social position in relation to family, friends, and romantic relations. The most obvious connection between mobilization, happiness, and well-being is, in this perspective, that it offers provisions in a landscape of scarcity. When demobilized, and thus not part of the militia, many young men in the city have to rely on their network of kin in order to feed themselves. You have to “beg for flour,” pedi semoula, they say, describing the belittling aspect of constantly having to ask for food. While the Aguentas did not receive much in terms of money or goods, joining the militia meant no longer having to worry about everyday survival. The point may seem banal, yet joining not only secures one’s physical being but equally effectuates a change in one’s social position. Gaining access to regular provisions moves one out of the category of being a poor man toward being a potential provider. Joining the militia reversed then these men’s habitual social position and possibilities. From being insecure, marginal, and abject, without power or possibility, they were granted centrality (however momentary and expendable), security, and possibility. In a similar manner, demobilization is conversely experienced as social detachment, not just from the militant formation one was part of but from the secondary social position and possibilities that it offered.

Destitute and undesirable

Mobilization affords, in other words, a move into other and more positive social positions, something that is clear in, for example, the intimate relationships that my interlocutors seek to forge and engage in. When Nino Vieira, the former president who had initially mobilized the Aguentas, was killed in 2009 and the Aguentas lost yet another conflict, many of my interlocutors found themselves, once again, without a patron or the security and backing of a patrimonial political network. They were, ten years after they had first been mobilized, back where they started, unprotected and unconnected. I re-met Latino shortly after the skirmish that caused the death of President Nino. He was sitting on a doorstep in a dark beco (alleyway) in Bairro Reina, a deprived neighborhood in Bissau. When I asked him how he was, he laconically replied, “here I am,” locating himself as a mere physical presence.

I struggled to get a conversation going, ritually inquiring after the well-being of his various family members. Having asked after what seemed like the majority of his extended family, I started running out of kinship terms and asked about his girlfriend instead. He looked up briefly and answered that he had nothing to offer women. His measly social and economic possibilities meant that he was struggling [103]to survive, and as sex and relationships contain a clear transactional dimension in Bissau, Latino was frank about his unattractiveness as a partner. His awareness of his predicament echoed a common complaint among my interlocutors. Women often expect to receive money from boyfriends, as well as a gift (money or goods) after sex. As a result, many of the young men I talk to bemoan the grasping demands that attractive girls make, and the fact that they themselves have so little to offer in transactional terms. In other words, when not mobilized, their poverty and lack of positive futures make my interlocutors unappealing partners, demoting them to the lower echelons of desirability in romantic and sexual terms. While demobilized, the Aguentas thus share a common complaint as they contrast their current lack of appeal with their time in the Aguentas, idealized as a period when women flocked around them. They hark back to their attractiveness to women while in the Aguentas, the promiscuity made possible by being a militiaman, and frequently engage in hyperexplicit descriptions and performances of their coital exploits—bodily movements and sound effects included.

As I was primarily interested in politics, I found the endless and excessive stories about fucking trivial. I would fold away my notebook when they started and patiently wait for the topic to sway back to something more noteworthy before opening it again. Yet the massive presence of sexual discourse and descriptions might actually be ethnographically interesting in its own right. Their descriptions were mostly told in the past or future tense, as articulations of a time when the narrators had been or would once again become attractive partners. The sex talk, in other words, was a reminiscence of a time when they had social status and worth, which was seen as directly measurable in the ease of access to women. The performative nature of their “sexploits,” the explicitness and extreme extent of the stories, were enactments of social worth, referring back to being “somebody” socially substantial rather than immaterial, positioning them as masculine rather than socially emasculated (cf. Dolan 2009, Vigh 2015).

The reminiscence thus relates to situations of receiving social recognition, of being seen as a person of worth with the ability to act and attract. M’kumelis tudo (“I ate them all”), Iko said about a group of girls in his neighborhood that he had slept with during his time as an Aguenta. To eat is a metaphor for fucking, and in contrast to his demobilized position, the statement narratively redefined him not as someone to whom things are “done” but as someone with the capacity to “do” (Feldman 1991:101; Jackson 2005: 73). The somewhat boring sex talk resolved into rather interesting enactments of figments of past and potential status and a bestowal of social standing, attractiveness, and sex.

The story of the Aguentas can very well be told as a tale of suffering. Yet confining their mobilization to a narrative of anguish and distress would conceal the fact that what motivates and moves people to mobilize. Suffering and hardship are clearly important aspects of the social and political environment that their lives are set in, but spending time with groups of demobilized Aguentas, most often hanging out in Bissau’s inner suburbs, what is foregrounded in the stories they tell are feelings of camaraderie and empowerment—not as an ability to exert power over people but as an enabling condition of engagement. Issues of violence and war are, in fact, mentioned very little. At times, conversations will touch upon the hardship of actual warfare and the fear and chaos of the battlefield; however, during my fifteen years of on-and-off [104]fieldwork with Aguentas there has been very little talk about trauma or suffering. They generally do not dwell on the intricate details of violence or the anguish of warfare (cf. Robbins 2013: 455). When they actually mention suffering it is most often in stoic ways, and when addressing combat, violence, and wounds—both those they had suffered and those they had inflicted—they limit themselves to factual accounts of what happened, to whom, and what the consequences were for the present and future. They are, as Jackson shows in his work on Sierra Leone, focused on social futures rather than “psychic wounds” (2004: 72), on potentials rather than traumatic pasts. I do not want to downplay the devastating experiences of warfare, nor rule out the possibility that posttraumatic stress may be an adequate diagnosis, yet for the young men that joined it, the militia is not seen merely as a formation of suffering but as an opening in an otherwise closed and stagnated social environment.


Mobilization may as such offer both a possibility to move into a better position in the here and now as well as to move out of poverty and marginality and into a space of future well-being and happiness, moving us from the hedonic to the eudaimonic—that is, from the relief of gaining security and value toward the satisfaction found in meeting cultural norms and social expectations, and, hence, realizing one’s potential (Keyes, Shmotkin, and Ryff: 2002). It can, in this respect, be related to a struggle to gain a sense of social fulfillment. This move between well-being in the immediate future and the more distant was made clear to me by Vitór as he was explaining his reasons for mobilizing into the Aguentas:

Things might get better if I went there [enrolled], well you know, things like . . . things like the military they give you money. Others were [here in Bissau] until they stopped school . . . they said: “Well the day my studies end, and I finish school, I don’t have anything to do, you see? If I stay here [in the Aguentas] maybe when the war ends I might have a chance to get money to go abroad and study or to go to military academy or things like that. . .” Others say: “[When] the war ends, I’ll have no [living] conditions,” or “If I leave it will be worse,” because they fled during the war, they fled and things went badly, they didn’t have money to buy anything, they didn’t have rice, they didn’t have a thing. So they had to return to Bissau, to stay here, and maybe get a hold of these things. Others came for that reason and because of food and things like this, you see. . . ?

The quote stretches, once again, from the near future to an imaginary of a more long-term goal of “going abroad,” going to “military academy,” et cetera, in order to improve one’s existence. As regards the latter aspirations, being a militiaman is not seen as a goal in itself but as a means to acquiring social mobility and a better life after the war.

As shown earlier, mobilization is in this manner seen as a navigable connection and a way to embark upon a potential trajectory. It becomes a means by which people can seek to gain the momentum they imagine will enable a move toward a better social position by acquiring the ability to sustain intimate others and gain [105]worth through the distribution of goods and capital within affective circuits (Vigh 2015). “You know,” Dario lectured me,

here if you do not give to your family you are bad (mau). If you are a man, even if you only have a little, you must give if someone asks. If you want to be a man, you must find money to put [something] in the mouths of your family, if you do not give you are worthless.

Though articulated as obligation, the ability to provide is experienced as a desire. It is a longing for a position where people are able to fulfill the expectations placed upon them, a desire to be recognized in terms of what you offer others. We seek to “come into our own with others,” Jackson states, suggesting, “hope is predicated on the experience of being integral to the lives of others” (2011: 92). Hope and happiness are, from this perspective, not merely inner states but closely related to the satisfaction that emerges from one’s emplacement, that is, through a positive engagement with one’s social environment (Moore 2013: 36). Yet the ability to participate as someone who counts is not equally distributed but experienced in terms of centrality and marginality. “Anxiety and audacity, fear and courage, despair and hope are born together. But the proportion in which they are mixed depends on the resources in one’s possession” (Bauman 2002: 122), making the movement toward happiness, in the sense of positive emplacement, a greater journey for some than others. As Amadu explained to me, trying to describe his feeling of inadequacy and his hope for a better life,

We do not have 100 percent. We only have 50 . . . 50 percent . . . [but] if you are a man then only 50 percent is worthless. To be a man you must be 100 percent. Even if you suffer, you suffer on the inside. You cannot show it. You must be 100 percent. Manliness is secret (machuandade i secreto). You do not cry, but if you are 50 [percent] that is no good.

How do you become 100%?

If you help your family. If you have a job, you have means (meio). Like this you are 100 percent. Clearly.

The expectation placed upon you as a young man in Bissau is, I have suggested, one of increasingly coming to provide for and look after your kin. As you progress through life, your sphere of provision is expected to increase, turning you into a “big man” whose merit is relative to the number of people for whom you provide. What Amadu describes is a situation where the parameters of manliness are becoming increasingly unattainable because of the many years of crisis that have marred Guinea-Bissau, leaving him in a state of diminished manhood; as, in his words, half the man that he ought to be.

When I ask young men in Bissau about their imagined futures, and what they envisage themselves becoming, their answers often start with a default “um align” (“somebody”), a concept that, in all its vagueness, is defined merely by being a valued and recognized part of a relational landscape. When further clarifying what “being somebody” actually entails, the term is often qualified as being “good” or “respected.” The point may be straightforward, but it not only indicates an aspiration that guides my informants’ action but equally directs our attention to their [106]current experience of being the opposite: insubstantial and caught in a situation of existential occlusion. In this respect, demobilization entails being reverted into a figure of social incompletion, just as remobilization provides a possibility of fulfillment, creating a willingness to reengage. As Samba explained, seeking to describe the inspiration that ex-President Nino Vieira installed in the urban youth who mobilized into the Aguentas, “it is a thing of influence (fluencia). He had this influence [that gave the] possibility of having hope.”9


“Look at me I am still sitting here.
When you leave and come back again I will still be sitting here.
Nothing changes. The only difference is that I am no longer young.
Now I am just poor.”

—Nelson, 2011

Nelson did not move on in life by joining the Aguenta militia. Though he was repeatedly mobilized, demobilized, and remobilized over a period of ten years,10 he ended up defeated and demoralized sitting in the same run-down area of Bissau with the same group of friends, waiting once again for better times and brighter futures. With an aptitude for joining the losing side of any battle, he never experienced victory. Instead of moving toward a better life he found himself drifting from the social position of “youth,” a position that at least offers the possibility of mobility, into a default position of poverty; a social position of generalized immobility as um algin coitado (“a poor man”). Though struggling to gain momentum in life he managed, in other words, only to glide into a generic space of scarcity and to become further caught in a marginal position within a turbulent and volatile political scenario.

This article has sought to illuminate happiness and well-being from within a space of hardship and conflict. Looking at the Aguentas through a prism of emplacement has clarified how mobilization is related to gaining security, provision, and prospects, directed toward a feeling of safety and the relief of being connected and protected. Yet it also shows how, in situations of conflict, the pursuit of happiness may paradoxically produce actions that bring people into a space of suffering. In this respect, happiness can have an ironic presence when sought in conditions that are not generally conducive to it. Not only may the struggle to attain it bring one into harm’s way; as Nelson’s story indicates happiness may also remain a phantom state of being despite peoples desperate struggles to attain it. It is illusive and elusive, potentially present but presently absent as an experiential state that avoids capture (Gotfredsen 2013).

Yet perhaps happiness actually has most life while it is being pursued. As an existential goal it reveals itself in imaginaries and instantiations that are transitory and contingent. It moves as people move along, shifting elsewhere when approached, [107]making us chase it regardless of the situation we find ourselves in (Jackson 2011: ix). The Aguentas may provide an unusual point of departure for describing and discussing happiness and well-being. Yet they offer a good description of how we struggle to attain it and how it may inform our acts and motives in even the most difficult of circumstances. This becomes terribly clear as urban youth seek to navigate war as a vital conjuncture, a constellation of events that opens up otherwise frozen socio-political landscapes. As we have seen, happiness in such situations becomes a bearing, simultaneously a directionality as well as an awareness of one’s position or embeddedness relative to one’s surroundings.


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Penser le bonheur au milieu du combat

Résumé : Cet article s’appuie sur un terrain ethnographique auprès de jeunes urbains de Bissau en Guinée-Bissau pour montrer comment ces jeunes gens de la ville s’engagement activement dans des conflits pour améliorer leurs vies et leurs perspectives. Cet article montre que la mobilisation est perçue comme une cause pouvant réduire les difficultés de la vie et augmenter le potentiel social d’un militant. Plutôt que de se centrer sur ce que les personnes pensent avoir à combattre [110]les dernières décennies de guerre à Bissau sont remarquablement vides de points de vue idéologiques et de visions collectives d’un Autre dangereux (Vigh 2009) cet article s’intéresse aux visions d’un futur meilleur qui transcendent l’engagement dans le conflit et les souffrances des temps de guerre des jeunes miliciens. Il clarifie les issues positives qui sont supposées émerger au-delà des horreurs connues de la guerre. Même si la guerre et les conflits semblent être un étrange point de départ pour parler du bien-être, l’imaginaire du bonheur se dégage clairement sur le fond des difficultés, et est évoqué à la fois de manière concrète, sous la forme d’une absence d’insécurité, et de manière abstraite, comme la réalisation des êtres sociaux. Cependant, pour la plupart des gens à qui j’ai parlé, le bonheur reste furtif et échappe à leurs tentatives désespérées de l’approcher. Il semble donc être tout à la fois une clé de voûte et la dimension de la vie qui échappe constamment aux tentatives de capture.


Henrik VIGH is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. He has researched issues of youth and conflict in both Europe and Africa and has written extensively on issues of social crisis, conflict, and mobilization. He is the author of Navigating terrains of war: Youth and soldiering in Guinea-Bissau. His current research investigates the intersection between war and crime focusing on the transnational movement of cocaine through militant networks in West Africa.


Henrik Vigh
Department of Anthropology
University of Copenhagen
Øster Farimagsgade 5, Opgang E, 1353
Copenhagen K, Denmark


1. The concept of “chaos pilot” has a tradition in Denmark as both an education and an aspiration. Emerging from the culturally and politically alternative parts of 1980s political movements, it became institutionalized as a school for entrepreneurship and design in 1991.

2. “Militant” is used in the traditional meaning of the word signifying “engaged in warfare, warring . . . disposed towards war” (www.oed.com).

3. This is, of course, not as unusual as it may seem. Much mobilization in, for example, the United States and the United Kingdom can be seen as driven by the same dynamics, as the military offers social mobility to those who often struggle to attain it.

4. The concept stands in contrast to “forced” mobilization. I recognize that “voluntary,” when caught between a rock and a hard place, may not be a choice per se.

5. This division between the anthropology of suffering and the anthropology of “the good” has come to the fore within the discipline over the last couple of years. Joel Robbins’ article “Beyond the suffering subject,” (2013) forcefully argues that the last twenty years of our discipline has been characterized by a focus on such issues, and that we need to redirect anthropology toward a focus on the good. Suffering, Robbins holds, became influential as it offered anthropology an experiential state, which unites humanity and makes the other imaginable as self, as it is seen to define the minimal commonality underlying the human condition. Robbins’ article is both acute and timely, and the few works on the anthropology of suffering that he lists as examples appear to fit the critique. The problem is that they are exceptions to the rule, and that the major part of the literature dealing with such experiential states does not. On the contrary, they deal with, and may more reasonably be highlighted for their focus on hope, coping, and compassion even if set in situations of distress or suffering. They work, thus, with exactly the dimensions of human life that Robbins criticizes them of overlooking.

6. As the logic of patrimonialism is reciprocal rather than transactional people sketch possible trajectories into the future by letting themselves be “exploited” in the present in the hope that it may generate a prospective reciprocal obligation. Thus, despite the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear, following the period of prolonged decline, that the return rate of the tactics of patrimonial alliance is poor (Durham 2000: 113), it is still treasured as the only possible way of escaping the position of marginality and exclusion that characterize the social position of urban youth in the city.

7. M’bai busca nha vida.

8. The concept of precarity is interesting in this context as it literally means “obtained by prayer,” indicating the level of agentive limitation and power at play.

9. Possibilidade pa tene esperanca—muito allegria pa.

10. The last time in spring 2009.