Review of Children in our Midst: Voices of Farmworkers' Children - Children, Youth and Environments

Children in our Midst: voices of farmworkers’ children
compiled by Irene Staunton
Weaver Press with Save the Children (UK)
2001: (pp: 160) 210 x 226 mm, with over 100 photographs and children's drawings
ISBN: 0797420320

Children, Youth and Environments
Vol. 14, No. 2 (2004) (

Reviewer: Christopher Lowry

In our efforts to understand the contested world of child labour, it is refreshing to be able to take a close look at the lives of working children in particular contexts, and to hear what the children have to say about their work. In these two new books from Zimbabwe, Earning a Life: Working Children in Zimbabwe and Children in Our Midst: Voices of Farmworkers’ Children, Weaver Press (in association with Save The Children (UK) and Redd Barna) has done an admirable job of bringing together child-centered research and even-handed analysis of the issues.

Children in Our Midst is a rich ethnographic resource, beautifully organized and designed. Over 850 children from several farmworking community schools in rural Zimbabwe participated in the research project to speak on a range of issues that affect them. Statements from the children are edited and arranged under thematic headings, with editor’s notes in the margins drawing the reader’s attention to key points in the children’s comments. The chapters, composed entirely of the children’s written or recorded statements, cover many aspects of the children’s lives, including their sense of self ('I am a child'), families, homes, work experience, school, customs and play ('Sometimes we have fun'). While the text is balanced with the voices of several optimistic and resilient kids, many of the testimonies describe a very harsh life, with difficult labour, unwanted pregnancies, the death of loved ones from AIDS, hunger and beatings for common transgressions such as stealing food. The words of the orphans are heartbreaking, such as this comment from Vengai Madya, age 14, 'I sometimes think that if my mother was alive, I would be happy and I would have clothes' (Staunton, 32).

The reflective introductory essay by SCF Zimbabwe Director, Chris McIvor, offers candid criticism of development practice that pays insufficient attention to children’s agency. He makes a strong case for children’s participation, describing the ways that charitable projects often proceed without sufficiently consulting with the beneficiaries of aid, resulting in negative impacts on communities. He raises, yet again, questions asked by advocates of participatory research for several years now, which bear repeating: 'How did we interact with the people in these villages? How many of our project staff understood the language of the communities in which we were located? Did we take time to listen to their perceptions and views?' (Staunton, xiii). If working children were more visible and respected as workers, then forestry officers might speak to groups of children who have the job of collecting firewood, and water engineers might consult with the young people who collect the household water to ask where they should site a well or what type of equipment would be best. Agricultural advisors would focus agro-ecological education efforts on children and adolescents as well as their parents. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case in East Africa, although it is more common is other contexts such as in Latin America.

This is not simply a book that publishes the opinions of working children. It is a book that challenges our Western assumptions about healthy childhood. It paints vivid pictures of what it is like to grow up on commercial farms in Zimbabwe, with work responsibilities from a very young age integrated into education and upbringing, as a legitimate aspect of the local traditions. 'The concept of childhood,' suggests McIvor, 'is not only a luxury that few other cultures can afford, but is also something that local tradition implicitly rejects' (Staunton, xvi).

In Earning a Life, Michael Bourdillon also takes up this theme. Speaking to those who would promote the Western concept of work-free childhood as universal, he suggests that 'perhaps it is time to turn the argument on its head and say openly that a ban on child labour [sic] inhibits the proper socialization of children' (Bourdillon, 7). In this useful collection of research papers, editor Bourdillon establishes a balanced, child-centred perspective, demonstrating a realistic understanding of the hazards and benefits of work for young people. While Voices of Farmworkers’ Children is aimed at a broad readership, including both development workers and general readers in Zimbabwe and outside the country, Earning a Life is a policy advocacy document more explicitly aimed at influencing NGOs and government in Zimbabwe. The book provides a valuable service in its balanced tone and firm evidence-based approach.

Bourdillon and other authors in the collection acknowledge the pioneering work of Pamela Reynolds in this field, whose books Dance Civet Cat, Traditional Healers and Childhood in Zimbabwe, and The Tonga Book of the Earth are all fine works of anthropology and celebrations of their subjects. Earning a Life presents good practice on the issue of child labour for the Zimbabwean reader. The book benefits from the influence of 25 years of international research and advocacy for children in adversity by anthropologists and social scientists such as Olga Nieuwenhuys, Jo Boyden, Bill Myers, Ben White, Nandana Reddy, Martin Woodhead and Fabio Dallape.

Although the chapter on street children from the Harare NGO Streets Ahead does not say anything new about street children, it restates perennial issues with the support of new Zimbabwean research. It serves a valuable purpose, confronting entrenched prejudices and inappropriate reactionary attitudes that persist despite the sense of déjà vu that it may provoke in many of us who are close to these issues. Their analysis of street kids’ involvement in sex work and sexual activity is superficial, and fails to make use of current research including that of Rajani and Kudrati (1996), founders of the street kids’ NGO Kuleana in Mwanza, Tanzania, which deals with this taboo area in a very open and compassionate way.

It is very good to see macroeconomic dimensions of the child labour issue addressed in this book, with explicit reference to the neoliberal policies imposed on developing countries by international financial institutions. In the chapter on child vendors, for example, Victor Muzvidziwa engages in some useful discussion of the harsh negative impact of structural adjustment programmes (SAP) on children of poor households in Zimbabwe since 1990. He quotes a mother complaining about SAP-driven user fees for health services: 'I cannot take my children to hospital because it is too expensive. I rely on prayer because at least there I do not have to pay anythin' (Bourdillon, 68).

Like McIvor, Bourdillon urges us to listen to children, insisting that they know best about their lives, and what it feels like to be in their (working) shoes, or barefoot in the fields. He suggests an insidious reason why, despite the power of their testimony, children’s voices continue to be marginalized. It is simple: 'A child who challenges our assumptions is as troublesome child' (Bourdillon, 21). It is hoped that these books will generate some productive debate and political action on behalf of these troublesome, courageous children in Zimbabwe.

Rajani, Rakesh and Mustafa Kudrati (1996). 'The Varieties of Sexual Experience of Street Children of Mwanza, Tanzania', in S. Zeidenstein and K. Moore (eds). Learning about Sexuality: A Practical Beginning. New York: Population Council.

(Christopher Lowry is a consultant in child rights, ecology and education who has worked as a program director and media producer with agencies such as Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (Canada) and Street Kids International (co-founder). He recently completed a research paper on child rights and agriculture for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)).

© The author/publisher