At the heart of Esther Ruth Mbabazi’s work is a desire to combat the usual tropes she has seen used in the coverage of her native Uganda and in Africa as a whole. “Many of the images out in the western media about Africa are not representing a fair amount of the reality of daily life here,” she told In Sight. Coupled with her desire to show her peers — the young ones who are growing up on a continent that, she said, remains stubbornly inhospitable to her rising generation — Mbabazi started “This Time We Are Young,” a long-term project that explores what it means to be young in Africa today.
“This project is a way of both collaborating with my peers and exploring my own reality of growing up in Africa — our hopes, our challenges, our future,” she said. “After all, we will be the ones to define the next chapter of this continent’s story.”
In South Sudan, Mbabazi sought to show how “young people manage to stay sane amidst all the insecurities found around them,” she said. “Many of these youths have been born in conflict, they have grown up amidst conflict, they have lost a lot, and it’s what life is made up of for them.”
Her images show young men learning karate, boxing or break-dancing. They show moments of happiness and normalcy, like a graduation ceremony at an aviation school or a dancer rehearsing before a performance. They portray aspiring rappers or medical students going about their day. “Life is happening as just about anywhere else in the world,” Mbabazi told In Sight. The tension of war exists, and it shapes people, she said, but it doesn’t define them.
Mbabazi has so far photographed youth in Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. She plans to expand the work to western, northern and southern Africa in the coming months, but first she wants to look at the young Africans who have emigrated to Europe. “How are they integrating in societies and cultures new to them? The relationships they’ve formed, the fun, the solitude, the success, challenges and sense of responsibility for the people back home,” she said.
With this chapter, she hopes to address the misconceptions young people in her country often have about the ones who made it to Europe. “I’ve personally had conversations with youths who believe that if one went to a European country or to North America, even if for a week, they’ll return home rich.” That’s another stereotype Mbabazi will challenge this year.
By Olivier Laurent