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Reviewed by:
  • Pillars of the Nation: child citizens and Ugandan national development
  • Andrew I. Epstein
Kristen E. Cheney, Pillars of the Nation: child citizens and Ugandan national development. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press (pb $21 – 0226102483). 2007, 320 pp.

This book confronts the rhetoric and realities of childhood in contemporary Uganda. A rich ethnographic portrait, it should be of welcomed not only by those interested in Uganda, but also by readers engaging with its broader themes of education, identity, culture, democratization and globalization. Cheney ties together these areas by examining ‘childhood’ as a discourse from multiple perspectives: its universalization in international human rights regimes, its deployment in the service of Ugandan post-colonial nation building, and its use as a local imaginary of future prosperity, cultural cohesion and generational continuity. What lies beneath these discourses is the day-to-day lives of children who struggle to meet the dreams of their elders while forced to make their own way in a rapidly changing social and economic landscape.

Drawing on the life histories of children in many parts of Uganda, Cheney reminds us that, despite these challenges, young people assert their own agency in creative ways. To make this point, the book is organized into two parts totalling seven chapters. An introductory section places Cheney’s central characters, a diverse group of young Ugandans from different regions and classes, in historical context by reviewing Ugandan colonial and post-colonial [End Page 518] history. She provides a vertical perspective on contemporary childhood in Uganda through an examination of international human rights discourses, the mechanics of national cultural and economic development, and local conceptions of childhood. Cheney demonstrates how international rights discourses, like the right to an education, are translated by youth into social practice which often confounds international definitions of vulnerable children.

The chapters in Part 1 together paint a detailed portrait of children’s understandings of themselves as Ugandan citizens. Continuing her examination of life histories, Cheney shows us some of the formative events in young people’s lives that shape their perceptions of what citizenship in contemporary Uganda means. Educational attainment plays a central role, and this is attributed in large part to the Ugandan government’s commitment to universal primary education, part of the UN Millennium Development Goals. While the importance of educational attainment is generally agreed upon in Uganda, actually accessing and then completing an education remains difficult, much as in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Cheney subsequently shows how a limited education system plays a key role in class formation as well as how children come to develop ‘schooled identities’, whereby the wearing of school uniforms and carrying textbooks as identifiers of an educated individual have equal importance to learning itself. Children are upheld by the newly revised constitution as ‘pillars of the nation’. Yet despite national rhetoric to the contrary, children are all but invisible when it comes to political participation – upheld as the future, yet denied any formal opportunity to have a voice in shaping it.

Part 2 presents what Cheney calls ‘sites’ of childhood discourses, including the dichotomy of ‘the city’ and ‘the village’, national music, dance, and drama festivals, and northern Uganda’s large population of child soldiers. In each site, she applies the principles of ideal childhood discourses developed in Part 1 and describes in rich detail how children skilfully negotiate them. For instance, she details a shift in urban children’s conceptions of village life from backwardness, a common theme in many African ethnographies of rural–urban migration, to an ‘integral imaginary space of both children’s identity origination and their fulfilment of development trajectories’ (p. 146). Later, she compares normative childhood categories with the experience of child soldiers and argues that these universalized categories espoused by international humanitarian aid organizations and focused on this population ‘serve to further alienate repatriated child soldiers from citizenship and civic participation in their communities’ (p. 144). Indeed, the invisibility of children themselves, and the strategies they employ to navigate the contradictory messages of adults, are evident in the lives of the children Cheney portrays.

Cheney skilfully navigates the very delicate and challenging waters of doing research with children, relying heavily on life...


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pp. 518-520
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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