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  • African Children at Work: work and learning in growing up for life ed. by Gerd Spittler and Michael Bourdillon
  • Afua Twum-Danso Imoh
GERD SPITTLER and MICHAEL BOURDILLON (eds), African Children at Work: work and learning in growing up for life. Berlin: Lit Verlag (pb €39.90 – 978 3 643 90205 4). 2012, 360 pp.

Today, the debate on children’s work is no longer centred on the extreme polarizations of the past. Distinctions are now made between children’s work and child labour. Nevertheless, there remains a belief within policy and rights discourses that children who work are deprived of an education. It is these beliefs, based on assumptions about the very nature of learning, that this edited volume of thirteen chapters, based on mainly empirical research, seeks to challenge. Specifically, it asks whether going to school is the only way (or the best way) for children living in remote rural communities in parts of Africa to learn, and whether the nature of schooling, as it is delivered in some communities across Africa today, is conducive to children’s learning. These questions are addressed comprehensively in the majority of the chapters in this volume.

Schooling is widely accepted as key to the development of poor communities. However, this priority given to school-based education is challenged by a number of the chapters in this volume. For example, in her chapter on children’s schooling versus children’s work in Baatombu, northern Benin, Erdmute Alber asserts that schools are despotic environments controlled by aggressive teachers charged with delivering a curriculum that does not relate to the realities of these children. This is exacerbated by inadequate structures, which are further described in the chapter on child migrants in Ghana by Yaw Ofosu-Kusi and Phil Mizen. Thus, for many of the children who participated in their study, schooling in their village of origin was not seen as a path that led to advancement.

Instead, what emerges from this volume is the need to approach learning holistically. Specifically, it highlights that work is also a form of learning that provides children with important life skills vital for the contexts in which they live. These skills form the basis of what David Lancy calls ‘the chore curriculum’, a term he uses to demonstrate that children’s work within families involves careful thinking and close monitoring to ensure that the responsibilities allocated to children are commensurate with their abilities and enable them to become self-sufficient and effective contributors to the domestic economy. These life skills can also enable children to manage social change. In his chapter on unaccompanied migrant children in a South African border town, Stanford Mahati argues that even within the context of migration, children learn key life skills such as discipline, honesty, diligence, time management and accountability as they realize that these are critical for finding employment and achieving success away from home. As a result, skills their communities have long valued are being reinforced in their new environments – not least by children themselves.

The continuing importance of the skills long valued by local communities has significant implications. While schools (particularly primary schools) are now widespread even in remote parts of Africa, communities do not view school-based education as competing with children’s work within their families. Alber, for instance, shows how adults in Baatombu create two kinds of childhood – a working childhood and a schooling childhood. While one model may prepare a child for life in the city, the other prepares a child for peasant life and, importantly, it ensures that some children stay in the rural area and look after their parents in their old age. This demonstrates that communities show agency in the face of widespread educational changes, adapting them according to their own interests and local concerns. The agency of children is also foregrounded in this volume. For example, in his chapter on the African Movement of Working Children and Youth, Manfred Liebel offers the perspectives of children within this movement who are concerned that compulsory education will [End Page 347] exclude them from basic labour regulations and thereby push them into worse working contexts. For them, schooling per se is not the...


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