Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 21, December 1997 


SABDET seminar on the theme for ZIBF 98 - children

Terence Ranger

Terence Ranger is former Rhodes Professor of Race Relations, University of Oxford, Emeritus Fellow of St Antony's College,Oxford, and a trustee of SABDET

For the first time the 1998 Zimbabwe International Book Fair and Indaba in will be preceded by a two-day academic seminar, 30-31 July 1998, on `Children in Africa', to mark the year's theme. The seminar is organised by Professor Ngwabi Bhebe and Dr Alois Mlambo of the University of Zimbabwe. (For information please write to them at History, University of Zimbabwe, MP167, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe.) In order both to publicise this and to explore some of the themes which will arise, the Southern African Book Development Education Trust (SABDET) held a workshop at St Antony's College, Oxford, in November.

There is a tension in current research on children in Africa between the abundant documentation which reveals them as victims - of war, of Aids, of educational and medical collapse - and a different perspective which sees children as survivors and even as agents. In a 1994 paper, for instance, Sara Gibbs argued that in rural Mozambique people focus on the `strength of children and the vulnerability of adults'. She quotes a common metaphor: `A child is like a banana tree...once you plant one they will reproduce themselves, after five or six years they will grow alone, independent of their parents...If there is a forest fire and you go away, when you come back you can find a lot of trees burnt but the banana trees are often alive. Their parents are dead but they will survive, alone.' And in the post-war rituals of healing, people in Mozambique depend on the capacity of children to make new beginnings.

There is an obvious danger in moving too far from a pessimistic to an optimistic picture of African children. but broadly the SABDET day brought out the creativity and adaptability of children rather than their trauma and despair. Mario Aguilar of St Andrews showed how through play and through school drama Boorana children in Kenyan refugee camps renewed and sustained their world; Tim Allen, showing a wide range of the children's drawings which he collected in Uganda as an indispensable part of his fieldwork, was able to show child insights which an adult researcher might otherwise not have picked up.

Father Pat Shanahan, who has been working in the streets of Accra for long enough to have `street grand-children', emphasised that there is a `street culture' which needs as much respect from researchers as the now archaic village cultures. He also emphasised that the choice of street children had to be respected.

Kathleen McCreary, dramatist, described how she worked with Zimbabwean adolescents in a reformatory by drawing them into the situation of street children in Brazil. Acting up, acting out - the Kenyans present told us that Nairobi street children put on extempore shows for their audience - was really the theme of the day.

Fatuma Chege, a Kenyan educationalist of long experience, described how Kenyan schoolgirls had been able to dramatise their humiliation on the matatu buses which take them to school and to act it out on the stage. At the end of the day Mark Chingono dared to suggest that if `development' was attentive to the demands of youth, it should aim not only for sustenance but also for `happiness'.

Given all this it was appropriate that the day opened with a presentation by someone who had responded to child need and who had raised money rather than issues. This was Elizabeth Clifton, who spent much of her year out between school and university in Zimbabwe, where she taught in schools and came to support the Vila Maninga Project of children's villages in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Her presentation gave rise to a lively discussion on how best to organise such a village - Vila Maninga groups child huts around a central foster family - and whether either `traditional' or contemporary age-set communities might offer any guidance.

Appropriately to an event looking forward to the Book Fair, various ideas about publication emerged. One hopes, for instance, that Tim Allen's collections of child drawings can be published as a book; a collected set of texts of child dramas - Boorana, Kenyan, Zimbabwean - would be fascinating. Father Shanahan spoke of the need to provide food for street literacy; what was needed was some modern equivalent of penny dreadfuls. The day ended with several of the participants determined to get to Harare for the July 1998 seminar, for the Indaba and for the Book Fair. [end] [BPN, no 21, 1997, p 7.]

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