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  • Not Just a Victim: the child as catalyst and witness of contemporary Africa
  • Elizabeth Cooper
Sandra Evers, Catrien Notermans and Erik Van Ommering (eds), Not Just a Victim: the child as catalyst and witness of contemporary Africa. Leiden and Boston MA: Brill (pb €42 – 978 9 00420 400 3). 2011, 276 pp.

Not Just a Victim is an edited collection of ten qualitative studies that focus on the lives and perspectives of children in different settings across Africa. The editors inform us that the book’s aim is to redress the historic marginalization of African children in social and anthropological studies by conceptualizing children as ‘agents who creatively deal with the possibilities and constraints of social life’. Yet it has already been argued elsewhere that ‘the study of African children and young people in difficult circumstances has moved away from a “victimized” understanding to a much more “agentive” understanding’.1 Such a paradigm shift seems evidenced in the impressive library that has amassed over the last decade of mainly anthropological studies that explicitly make the agency of young people in Africa their problématique. Indeed, the introduction to Not Just a Victim will be familiar content to researchers already interested in children’s lives, as the key points have been delineated in other publications, and often more thoroughly. Curiously, however, the introduction and its limited bibliography omit mention of many recent works that have engaged empirically and theoretically with the agency of children and young people in Africa. This weakens the usefulness of the introduction for the relatively uninitiated reader of child-focused research, as well as the credibility of the book’s justification among more conversant readers. A stronger element of the introductory essay is the discussion of several methodological concerns that are pertinent to anyone interested in the design and practice of child-focused research.

The individual chapters are based on separate, small-scale, qualitative studies that investigate very different experiences across, and beyond, Africa. Different issues explored include: the experiences of orphaned children and young people in South Africa (van Dijk), Namibia (van der Brug) and Kenya (Skovdal); children’s transitions between homes and streets in Cape Verde (Bordonaro); perceptions of kinship and family history among Chagossian children in Mauritius (Evers); Ethiopian children’s experiences of work and schooling (Abebe), and perspectives of well-being and lifecourse transitions (Tafere); child protection interventions in Democratic Republic of Congo (Seymour); children’s return migration from the Netherlands to Morocco (de Bree, Storms and Bartels); and pre- and post-migration learning experiences of refugee children in England (Smith).

The two interests that cut across this collection are the conceptualization of children’s agency and the consideration of child-oriented research methods. In several contributions, the question of agency is examined critically in the [End Page 659] light of how children’s choices may be limited. For instance, Diana van Dijk notes how age-based inequalities, including generation-based norms of conduct, can constrain the strategies of young orphaned people in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. By emphasizing their youthfulness and even suffering, some young people were better able to secure material and social support from family members, whereas those who resisted their seniors fared worse by these measures. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Bordonaro employs other theorists’ notions of ‘tactical agency’2 and ‘thin agency’3 in appraising how the limited viability of alternatives underpins young people’s decisions to move between homes and streets in Mindelo, Cape Verde. The analytical separation between agency and structure is more explicitly problematized in Tatek Abebe’s chapter concerning rural Ethiopian children’s experiences of work and schooling. Abebe’s study of children’s participation in the collective livelihood strategies of their households illuminates how agency and interdependence may be conceptualized as composite, as well as how children’s strategies are situated in local political economies of labour and livelihoods. Such contributions augment the empirical basis for conceptualizing agency among children and young people, and thereby provide some material for further theoretical contemplation.

Informing the design and practice of child-centred research is the other intended contribution of this collection. The authors’ descriptions of their methodological and ethical considerations and practices highlight the many different...


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