“So, what’s your PhD about?” has been the question I have dreaded most over the past four years. However, in my viva on Friday I will have to say something vaguely coherent about the contribution I believe my PhD has made, and to summarise my research. This then is my final PhD blog, with my attempt at an ‘elevator pitch’ of my PhD. Enjoy!
In rapidly modernising settings such as rural Tanzania, parents face difficult decisions about their children’s work and schooling. While education is highly valued and associated with wealth and success, the reality of local schools is crowded classrooms, harsh discipline and challenging exams. The local economy is shifting away from farming, but there are few ‘formal employment’ opportunities as yet, meaning even for those who obtain a secondary school certificate, there are few options after leaving education. And many families still rely on their children’s work, either on the farm, or helping with household chores such as fetching water and collecting firewood.
As part of my PhD, I conducted fieldwork in a rural village and more market-integrated town in north-western town in north-western Tanzania. My amazing fieldwork team interviewed more than 1,200 children, asking about their schooling, and how they spent their time. We got a detailed picture of children’s activities – from going to school and doing their homework, to herding cattle and weeding crops; from making ice lollies to sell, to being a DJ; and from playing football to braiding their sister’s hair.
In this setting, we found that the opportunity costs of school were lower than anticipated. Only for village boys did work seem to substantially reduce the likelihood of being in school, probably due to the incompatibility of cattle herding with school attendance. Girls on the other hand appear to work a ‘double shift’, sacrificing leisure time in order to do both household chores and attend school. Older girls also appear to substitute for younger children in their household, doing more chores, having less leisure time, and being less likely to go to school. Fostering is quite common in the area, with around a quarter of children living with grandparents or more distant relatives. This pattern may be a way for farming households to recruit help, but the work done by foster kids doesn’t seem to impact their schooling.
Theories about why there has been a decline in family size worldwide, with parents having fewer children, have emphasised the costs of children’s education, with the idea being that in order to invest enough in their children’s education, parents must have fewer children overall. Children’s reduced ability to contribute to their households also makes them more costly, whether through a change in livelihoods to work that children are less able to help with, or through a trade-off with school. In this setting, we don’t find evidence for a very strong trade-off between school and work; instead there appears to be a declining demand for boys’ farm work, and girls manage to combine work and school. Given that the direct costs of schooling are relatively low (no fees for primary school etc.), children may not therefore be so costly. And in a context where there aren’t pensions or state welfare, and people are traditionally reliant on extended networks of family, it may still be beneficial to be part of a large family. This may be one reason why the decline in family size in sub-Saharan Africa has not been as rapid as elsewhere in the world, and instead seems to be plateauing.
Meanwhile, the global focus has been on girls’ education, which has led to big increases in girls’ enrolment, to the same level as boys in many countries. Our finding that girls are doing a ‘double shift’ suggest that the focus could now shift more towards challenging gender stereotypes around domestic work, and to ensuring that girls get enough free time to relax and pursue their own interests.
Finally, education appears to be very highly valued, and is seen as the ideal for most children. Interventions could focus on removing some of the barriers to children accessing a quality education – including investing in school infrastructure, banning corporal punishment, and teaching secondary school in Swahili rather than English to ensure all children can participate. More broadly, a shift away from a ‘bums on seats’ view of education towards a model that is more explicitly about a quality education that gives children locally relevant knowledge and skills, is a change that could benefit children in all countries around the world.
When I first visited a primary school in Tanzania, I was struck by the familiar mathematical formulae painted on the walls outside. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised – circles, cylinders and triangles have the same area whether they are in Welamasonga or Wythenshawe – but it brought home to me just how global an enterprise formal education is.
These rights and targets are generally justified on the basis of the economic and social benefits, both for individuals and for a society. This position has been reinforced by studies correlating education with increased adult earnings, a fact that has been used to justify the financing of education by private individuals rather than the state (for example the introduction of university tuition fees in England). Around the world, these anticipated economic returns to education incentivise increasingly high levels of investment in education, from families in Tanzania struggling to send their children to secondary school, to families in the UK striving to send their children to a Russell Group university. However, these economic returns may have been exaggerated, meaning that investment in education has more to do with its social value, rather than any tangible economic payoff.
During this study, I was surprised by the high value placed on education. In Tanzania, only about 40% of students pass their Form 4 certificate (roughly equivalent to GCSEs), and there are very few salaried jobs that require exam qualifications – it is much more common for people to farm, or to have a small business like a shop or market stall. I had therefore thought that education might be seen as irrelevant. Yet my general impression was that the great majority of families wanted their children to attend and succeed at school, and that while people did complain about the practicalities of financing and supporting their children’s schooling, achieving secondary education was the local ideal. Focus groups indicated that parents’ motivation for schooling was linked to their desire for a better life for their children, and for their children to support them later in life through a good job. Several adolescents stated that their motivation to pursue education was to gain respect and help their community, as well as getting access to jobs other than farming.
Studies linking schooling to adult wages may overestimate the returns to education by ignoring the ‘clustering’ of traits which cause children to stay longer in school; they might attend higher quality schools, have greater innate ability, or come from families which have the social or financial capital to enable them to get a good job. During focus groups in this study, participants commented that even those who attained a secondary education would need family contacts to secure a job, or financial capital to start a business.
This overlooks the fact that the causality may run both ways – some aspects of ‘modern’ society are necessary in order for the economic promise of education to be realised, while in the absence of state-provided health and social care, large families remain beneficial. Yet this flawed idea has been incredibly powerful in driving development agendas, and in changing people’s attitudes and behaviour in developing countries. Across sub-Saharan Africa, education is now intrinsically linked with socioeconomic development, and is the key element in a normal, ‘good’ childhood.
This is where the ‘peacock’s tail’ comes in. Evolutionary models assume that parents invest in their children in order to maximise their chance of being successful adults – with the ultimate aim that they will find partners and have children who themselves go on to be successful. Why then do parents invest in education in contexts where it may not translate into economic and social success? It has been argued that this is a ‘runaway’ response to the increasingly high levels of investment perceived to be necessary to make a child competitive.
In runaway sexual selection, preferences for certain traits can become exaggerated as individuals compete to demonstrate their genetic quality through a costly signal, for example the peacock’s tail. While the tail itself does not enhance health, survival, or reproduction, if tails act as an honest ‘costly signal’ of underlying genetic quality, it is beneficial for peahens to always choose the male with the best tail, driving runaway selection for increasingly large and flamboyant tails.
What does this mean for the crusade to get all children into classrooms? Perhaps the children in Welamasonga shouldn’t bother learning about pi-r-squared at all? This seems like an unfortunately cynical line to take – children around the world should have equal opportunities to learn and thrive, and should be encouraged to ‘think big’. Instead, perhaps the focus could shift from ‘education in school’ to just ‘education’. Rather than imposing a very standardised and inflexible model of learning on children in diverse settings, education can adapt to the realities of everyday life, for example by allowing children to work in the morning and attend classes in the afternoon. In Ghana, children in a ‘complementary basic education’ programme achieved more in nine months than their peers in school manage in three or four years. Focusing on ensuring that all children attain a basic level of literacy and numeracy, and that they learn skills that will be relevant to local livelihoods, is surely the best way to ensure that ‘education’ is more than just a peacock’s tail.
The Ga people in Ghana believe that parents spoil and pamper their children, and that children should be sent to live with other families in order to be properly brought up. Among Xhosa families in South Africa, the first child is frequently brought up by their maternal grandmother so that a young mother can observe and gain experience in childrearing. In Sierra Leone, Mende parents might send their children to live with wealthier or more influential families to make important political links. In fact, in many societies in sub-Saharan Africa children’s upbringing is the responsibility of their wider family and community, and children may frequently live away from their parents in foster families, generally with close relatives. For example, in Tanzania, 25% of children live apart from their mother, and 40% apart from their father, before the age of 10. These arrangements are often flexible, with children moving back and forth between households, and may be made for a variety of reasons; because of divorce, to help an elderly grandparent with chores or farm work, to live with a favourite relative, to relieve the burden on a struggling family, or to be closer to school.
In north-western Tanzania, traditionally fostering was very common, and children’s living arrangements were flexible; children could choose where to live, or relatives might request to foster children in order to have help with farm work or chores. However, the HIV epidemic has led to an increase in the number of orphans, potentially stretching these traditional arrangements. This is therefore an interesting context in which to look at the effects of fostering on children’s education and work.
Around a quarter of children in our sample from two villages in Mwanza region were fostered; among these children, the majority are not orphans, and two-thirds live with close relatives (mainly grandparents). We hypothesised that fostered children might be disadvantaged in their education, and that they would have to work harder than children living with their parents in order to ‘earn their keep’. Additionally, we thought that among fostered children, orphans would be particularly disadvantaged because they do not have their parents available to step in and protect them or provide additional support.
In fact, we see very little difference in education between children living with their parents, and children living with close relatives. Fostered children are a bit more likely to be behind in school, which might reflect a disruption to their studies connected to being fostered. However, those fostered by more distant relatives are less likely to be enrolled, and less likely to go to secondary school. This might suggest that foster families don’t invest as much in foster children’s education. The association might also be in the opposite direction, in that children might be fostered because they don’t want to go to school; anecdotally we heard of teenagers running away from home because they had argued with their parents about attending school. We didn’t find any indication that orphans were particularly worse off than other foster children.
In terms of children’s work, we find that fostered children are more likely to report doing farm work, suggesting that they might have been fostered in order to help out with farming. But looking at time allocation on weekdays, when work would potentially conflict with schooling, we find that those living with close relatives are no different to those living with parents. Children living with distant relatives do a little more work than non-fostered children, but the main difference is actually that they have a lot more leisure time, and spend less time in school. This suggests that being made to work is unlikely to be the reason behind their lower school enrolment.
In this area we find that fostering is common, and that when children live with close relatives, predominantly their grandparents, their education does not seem to suffer, though they may do more farm work at weekends. Flexible living arrangements and circulation of children between families has traditionally been important in this region, with great reliance on extended family networks to help distribute the costs of raising children, and to help meet the labour demands associated with small-scale farming. These networks also seem very effective in buffering orphans from the effects of parental loss, with no indication that orphans are particularly worse off than other fostered children. This contrasts with the portrayal of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa in the international media as inherently vulnerable and lacking resources and support. While it is important to identify and support children who genuinely lack care and support, this broadbrushed approach fails to recognise the social capital that many orphans have in the form of strong family networks and community responsibility for fostering children – both in the sense of providing a roof over their head, but also in the sense of encouraging their development and education.
You can read the full research paper, published in the journal Demographic Research, here.
Hampshire, K. R., Porter, G., Agblorti, S., Munthali, A., & Abane, A. (2015). Context matters: Fostering, orphanhood and schooling in sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Biosocial Science, 47, 141–164. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021932014000169
Montgomery, H. (2009). An introduction to childhood: Anthropological perspectives on children’s lives. Wiley-Blackwell.
Before all the oldest children get indignant about all the ways in which they have it hard too, the effects of birth order on education are actually very mixed when looking across societies. Many studies in less developed societies have actually found that later-born children are more likely to be enrolled in school, and that older children, particularly girls, are less likely to be in school, and do more work. This is thought to be because within a set of siblings or co-resident children, the older ones will be more skilled and efficient at carrying out work tasks around the house or on the farm. Parents therefore allocate work to older children, which frees younger children’s time to attend school. Therefore in societies where children’s work is still valuable to their families, these birth order effects may conflict with and override parental preferences for earlier-born children.
We wanted to test the influence of children living in the same household on the division of work by age and gender, and on children’s education. In the area where we collected data in north-western Tanzania, children’s work – cleaning, cooking, tending crops and livestock, running errands, fetching water and wood – is still important to their households. There are also a lot of children who don’t live in ‘nuclear family’ arrangements, but live with half- or step-siblings, cousins, and young aunts and uncles, so rather than looking just at siblings, we looked at all the children within one household. We expected that children who were older within the household would be more likely to be allocated work, and less likely to go to school.
We actually found opposite effects for girls and boys. Girls who were older in the household were less likely to be enrolled, had less leisure time, and spent more time doing household chores than girls who were younger. This therefore does suggest that older girls are doing more work, freeing younger girls’ time for schooling. Among boys however, it was younger boys who were less likely to be in school. Overall, there wasn’t much difference in the amount of time spent working between older and younger boys. However, among households with cattle, younger boys did spend more time herding, suggesting that in these households, older boys may benefit from having younger boys present to do herding work.
Traditionally, older sons were favoured among the Sukuma; they inherited more land, and were expected to take responsibility for the family if their father died. This may be because of the traditional Sukuma marriage system, in which parents must pay ‘bridewealth’ to the family of their son’s wife. This is the opposite of a dowry system (common throughout India and China), in which parents must make a payment to the family of their daughter’s husband. As the marriage of a son is expensive, Sukuma parents may have to choose between their sons, or stagger their marriages, in order to afford payments. As an earlier-born son can marry earlier and therefore start producing grandchildren earlier, parents may therefore benefit more from prioritising his marriage over that of his younger brothers. This may then lead to cultural preferences for earlier-born sons which now manifest in greater educational investment. Birth order biases may be less evident for daughters because they are not competing for marriage payments with each other. Instead, older girls appear to be preferentially allocated household work, perhaps because they are more efficient, and can also better supervise younger siblings. This may better explain age patterns of education for girls.
We also thought that parents would prefer children who are not enrolled in school to do more work, in order to free schoolchildren’s time for studying or resting after being at school. However, for this we didn’t see as much of an effect, though living with more school girls did increase the time out-of-school girls spent doing chores, suggesting they may take on some extra work. We did not see a similar effect for boys. In this area, parents value the role of children’s work in teaching them important skills, and as part of children’s responsibility and role within their family. It may therefore be that parents want all children to some work, even if they are also attending school.
Finally, as work is very gendered in this area, with girls mainly doing household chores, and boys mainly doing farm work, we thought that children living with more opposite-gender children would do less ‘gender-inappropriate’ work. For boys, we did find that living with more girls reduced the amount of time they spent doing household chores. However, we didn’t find evidence that girls living with more boys do less farm work. This might be because boys and girls do different types of farm work, and so can’t really substitute for one another.
In this setting, where children still contribute quite a lot to the household economy in terms of chores and farm work, patterns of work do seem to influence patterns of education within households, particularly for girls. Older girls, out-of-school girls, and girls living with boys appear to substitute for other children and carry out household chores, and for older girls, this may impact their leisure time and schooling. For boys, traditional norms about family age hierarchies appear to better explain education patterns. A lack of substitution effects may also reflect the lower amount of work done by boys more generally in this area.
In countries like the UK, where children don’t do much work, birth order effects may favour earlier-born children because resources (including parents’ time) are diluted as more children are added to the family. However, in contexts where children do work, children within one household may affect each other’s schooling and time allocation in more nuanced ways. There are countless studies of children’s education in developing countries, and many of these studies examine age and gender biases within households. However, very few studies investigate children’s work, particularly household chores. We argue that this risks overlooking an important dimension of household decision-making, and that examining children’s work can help us to better understand variation in education in these settings.
You can read the full research paper, published in the journal Demography, here.
During my fieldwork, I met with some of the local leaders in the town and village where I was working, to get their permission to carry out my research, and to ask them some questions about education and children’s work in the local area. One thing I asked was whether they thought it was better for children to live in a big family, with lots of other children, or in a small family. In the village, the leaders immediately replied that bigger families were better for children, because work could be shared out so that no one had to do too much, meaning everyone has time to attend school. Just half an hour down the road, the town leaders all agreed that big families were bad; parents couldn’t afford to have lots of children and still send them all to school, and so it was much better to only have a few children.
To me, these responses seemed like a microcosm of the demographic transition. The demographic transition is the worldwide decline in fertility that has occurred over the past couple of centuries, beginning in Europe and North America, continuing in Asia and Latin America, and rapidly gaining pace now in much of sub-Saharan Africa. There are numerous theories about why people started to reduce their family size, including family planning programmes and declines in death rates, but one common theory is that the costs of children have increased, meaning that parents must reduce the number of children they have in order to ensure they can provide enough for each child, leading to fertility decline.
Education is a key part of these increasing costs, and an important consideration for many families across the world is whether they can afford to educate all their children. As modernization increases access to job markets, the skills and qualifications gained in school are increasingly important in becoming a successful adult. But school is costly, with parents having to pay fees, buy uniforms and books and so forth. A less obvious cost of school is also the loss of children’s work. In farming societies children are often very helpful to their family, doing farm work, household chores, and caring for younger siblings. When children attend school, they cannot help as much. These costs are argued to be outweighed by the potential benefits in children’s futures, meaning parents are willing to bear the costs of school.
This study set out to look at how modernization influences children’s work and schooling, in an area of Tanzania that is changing very rapidly. We collected data on children’s time allocation from a rural village, where the majority of families farm and keep cattle, and from a nearby town, where some families farm, but small businesses and trading are also important, and where there are more opportunities for earning a cash income. We used this village / town comparison as a proxy of modernization. We expected that children would work less, and be more likely to go to school, in town, and also expected to see a trade-off between work and school attendance.
While we did see that attending school reduces the amount of productive work children do, school attendance actually had the biggest impact on children’s leisure time. When attending school, children have much less leisure time, and many combine school with a few hours of household chores before and after school. This implies that school attendance doesn’t actually incur such a high cost in terms of children’s work. In many countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, including Tanzania, fertility decline has stalled, despite increasing education and improved access to family planning. This suggests that it may therefore be easier for parents to combine having a large family with having a well-schooled family, particularly given that primary school fees have been scrapped across the continent. The lack of state-provided health and social care in Tanzania means that parents rely on their children for support during old age, making a large family beneficial.
We also don’t really know what the value of this lost leisure time may be to children. In the protestant work culture of Western countries, leisure time and play are largely undervalued, frivolous activities. Children’s play time is willingly sacrificed for more ‘useful’, educational activities – tuition, or learning the piano, or Spanish classes. In reality, unstructured play time is crucial to children’s social and emotional development, allowing them to practise creativity and initiative, to build problem-solving skills, and to develop important social relationships. Depriving children of these opportunities, as modern society increasingly does, could be having important implications for their emotional resilience and physical well-being. These implications are potentially even greater in Tanzania. Tanzanian schools are notoriously bad at teaching children useful skills; exam pass rates are incredibly low (around 40% for the Tanzanian equivalent of GCSEs), and many children leave primary school still unable to read and write. Time spent in school is not necessarily time spent learning. Despite the best intentions of development campaigns promising that education will make dreams come true, the harsh reality is that most Tanzanian children will not become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. School may offer them few meaningful opportunities, whilst also limiting their ability to gain alternative skills and experience, a cost of education that has so far been overlooked.
This overall pattern of school trading-off with leisure time varies in its degree according to gender, age, and location. Below is an infographic showing the average hours of work (household chores + farm work) done by children of primary school age at the top, and secondary school age at the bottom. Each pair of children shows the difference in work between a child who did not attend school, and a child who did attend school.
For village boys (in green), there is a big trade-off between work and school, with those who attend school doing much less work, particularly at younger ages. This is because cattle herding is done mainly by younger boys, and cannot easily be combined with attending school. Overall, village boys are the least likely to be enrolled in school, suggesting that the loss of their work is costly to their families.
Town boys (in pink) show the least trade-off between work and school. There is hardly any difference between those attending school and those not at younger ages, and the difference is about 3 hours among older children. In the town, children do little farm work, and school attendance can be combined with doing chores. There is therefore little effect of school attendance on town boys’ work time at younger ages. A similar pattern is seen for town girls at younger ages, with little trade-off between work and school. However, at older ages, the difference between non-attenders and attenders is approximately double that for boys, with girls not attending school doing about 6 hours more work than schoolgirls. This same pattern is seen in the village as well, though the overall amount of work done by boys and girls is still greater than in the town.
Among children attending school, girls work more than boys across ages and locations. Combining school with domestic chores means girls sacrifice their leisure time, having less time than boys for playing, relaxing and socializing. This may have consequences for their academic achievement, for example they may be more tired and less able to concentrate at school, or may have less time to read and study at home.
Older girls not attending school spend 8 or 9 hours working; processing and preparing food, cleaning, washing clothes, and fetching water and wood. By contrast, older boys have much more time for leisure. This gender inequality in work limits girls’ ability to pursue other opportunities, such as entrepreneurship or further training, as well as impacting on their well-being, allowing them little time for relaxation. Girls may also look to marriage as a means to escape the drudgery of family chores, preferring instead to have their own home and children. On the flip-side, boys’ leisure time may also have its downside. Our focus groups with parents and adolescents frequently mentioned boys being influenced by their peers to drink alcohol, smoke weed, and pursue casual relationships.
In this area, gender equality in education has been achieved and even surpassed, with village girls more likely than boys to attend school. While this achievement is undoubtedly important, traditional gender work roles persist, leading to inequalities of opportunity. The ‘double shift’ of work and school borne by girls is echoed around the world, with women achieving equality in the public sphere of education and employment, but continuing to shoulder the main burden of responsibility within the private sphere of housework and childcare. Without challenging gender stereotypes, we cannot hope to create true equality of opportunity for boys and girls. The fact that these inequalities are exacerbated in the town shows that we cannot rely on ‘development’ and ‘modernization’ to lead automatically to greater equality.
Over the past few decades, the focus of development policy has been on reducing the direct costs of school, and getting children enrolled in school, with particular focus on getting girls enrolled. However, in pursuing these goals, the true purpose of education has been lost. Millions of children are now in school around the world, but how much are they learning? The focus now needs to shift much more towards the quality of education; recognizing the importance of play and leisure time for children’s development; and challenging gender norms around work to ensure that opportunities really are equal for girls and boys.
Driving from the airport into town last Saturday night, the taxi driver pointed out some of the changes that have occurred in Mwanza since I left last year. The airport road itself is being widened into two lanes, though the dala-dalas still swerve unpredictably onto the hard shoulder. The enormous Chinese-built ‘Rock City Mall’ is fully open, accompanied by a shiny new footbridge adorned with blue and green LEDs – “ni samaki” (it’s a fish) my driver told me (apparently the resemblance is more obvious from above). Then in my old neighbourhood, the enormous crater where the road collapsed into the stream has been filled and freshly tarmacked. And there’s now pedestrian lights on the traffic lights in the centre of town (one of Mwanza’s top tourist sights), though the logic of the light system continues to evade me.
Otherwise Mwanza is much as I remember it. Ramshackle houses clinging to the rocky hills tumbling down towards the serene surface of the lake, tiny maduka with handpainted signs lining the streets in front of gleaming new office buildings, chaotic dusty roads leading up to peaceful tree-lined slopes. Over the past few days I have been almost overwhelmed by memories. I have followed familiar paths, caught up with old friends, and remembered many of the things I loved most about Mwanza. The colourful bustle of the Sunday market, piles of produce gleaming in the sunshine – fat purple aubergines; small, perfumed mangoes; tomatoes, green peppers and oranges stacked in neat pyramids; bunches of tiny yellow bananas like the chubby hands of some cartoon monster; enormous mounds of striped watermelons; dried fish in desiccated piles; the juju stalls with their mysterious bundles of dried leaves and bottles of glutinous brown liquid. The welcome warmth of sunshine and clear blue skies after weeks of flat grey October London. And meeting members of my fieldwork team and exchanging complicated handshakes and greetings reminded me of the fun of successful days in the field. One of my fieldworkers reminded me of the nicknames we had for each other, conjuring memories of giggling in the back of the car with the radio blaring bongo flava tunes, modelling for Pascazia’s impromptu photoshoots, drinking cold soda on scorching days, and sheltering in goat sheds after being soaked through by sudden rainstorms.
These moments were all the more poignant for me because they contrast so starkly with how adrift I felt when I first started working in Mwanza. I was a fish out of water, a gobsmacked samaki floundering outside my natural habitat. I felt constantly on the back-foot, always fearing I had made some terrible faux pas, or caused major offence, or even just that the schoolchildren’s giggles were directed at me (this last one was probably true). In the office, at lunchtime, in the car, and in the field, I desperately tried to follow the thread of the rapid-fire Swahili swirling around me, constantly confused about the details of plans, and trying to gauge the tone of conversations in which sideways glances and muttered mzungu made me increasingly paranoid.
I also found it difficult to adjust to the Tanzanian work culture. While I have no illusions about the exhausting competition of life in London, with the constant pressure to be working or doing something productive, the change of pace was frustrating. At one of our first visits to the ward office where we were waiting for the village leaders to arrive, my fieldworker rolled her eyes at me; “No hurry in Africa”, she said, a slogan people would often to me over the coming months. We spent many frustrating days waiting outside offices for the right person to arrive, who inevitably would send us on to someone else, or demand that we produced a different letter of permission, or claim that the stamp we had wasn’t good enough, or simply patronise me for a while. I became painfully aware of my own impatience and rudeness escalating, while the Tanzanians brushed it off, “haya” they would sigh, “tuende” (“OK whatever, let’s go”). On particularly bad days, on which we would pick up and drop off several mysterious passengers, stop for chai and chapattis, find that our facilitator had gone AWOL, visit several households to discover everyone had gone to a funeral, and do a tour of the market in search of the best-priced rice or charcoal, only for my fieldworkers to declare that it must be lunchtime and we should probably just eat and go back to town, my internal monologue would reach peak Protestant work ethic. Inefficiency! Time wasting! Deadlines!
In time I began to recognise the value in having more patience and understanding, the reciprocal give-and-take that exists beyond contracts and payslips. I hope that I learned to be a little more patient, not to take things so personally, and not to jump to conclusions. I certainly began to appreciate Tanzanian pragmatism and humour in the face of challenges, from Pascazia helping to extract thorny branches from our tyres, to the focus group facilitators reacting to the filthy interview room (I had been assured it had been cleaned beforehand) by rolling up their sleeves and going to find a mop and bucket.
One thing I never really adjusted to was the awkwardness of being a conspicuously privileged person working in a conspicuously underprivileged setting. Many aspects of life reinforced the privilege of my life in London. Remembering not to drink the tap water and to charge all your power banks before the weekly Sunday power cut wasn’t too difficult to adjust to, and in fact I got to enjoy the novelty of showering by candlelight. But being sick and not feeling able to trust the medical advice I was given, together with the somewhat dismissive treatment I received, was probably one of my lowest points, and made me more grateful than ever for the NHS. Here, private clinics both prescribe and dispense medication, meaning it’s in the doctor’s interest to prescribe you the most expensive treatment (in my case, quinine injections into my bum for a week – not much fun).
But perhaps the biggest privilege I missed was the anonymity of London, the ability to go where I liked and when I liked. Not being able to walk even just round the corner after dark, nor wander into town without attracting comments, from the old lady scolding me that my skirt was too short, to the men asking for my number, to the children chanting “Mzungu! Mzungu! Give me my money!”. While I acknowledge the very privilege of complaining of this, that didn’t necessarily make it easier to cope on a day-to-day basis. The line between naivety and cynicism is difficult to tread and I failed on many occasions. A few misjudged interactions when I first arrived left me taking elaborate detours to avoid a guy who used to lie in wait for me at work, at home, and outside shops I had gone into. I worry that I then went too far the other way, beginning to ignore even polite greetings and questions out of fear that a response would be misconstrued.
During my research, I also had to balance annoyance at requests for money with the awareness that people were generously giving up their time for no tangible benefit to themselves. On this most recent visit, I had to bite my tongue as the village leaders told me that I should give them more money for attending the meeting, and that I should build new classrooms for the schools – they were sure I had the money. Part of me does feel that they are justified – my PhD funding could easily have built several classrooms which would arguably have benefited this particular community much more than answering all my questions. This was probably the part I found hardest about fieldwork – justifying the intrusion into people’s lives and the money spent, for the sake of research that may or may not have an impact in the long-term. Luckily the meeting in the more rural village was much more amicable, and the leaders seemed genuinely interested in what we had found.
Imperceptibly, over time my fish-out-of-water faded and I began to feel at home in Mwanza. Living in a different country, the smallest victories in everyday life can make you feel great – successfully negotiating a fair price with the piki drivers, identifying the best avocado for eating today and which should be left for tomorrow, finally working out which duka will have Vodacom vocha in units greater than 1000 shillings (around 30p). In London I miss Mwanza, and in Mwanza I miss London. For now, I am returning to my own pond, but if the chance to leap out of my comfort zone arises again, I would have no hesitation. Tutaonana baadaye, Mwanza.
bongo flava = Tanzanian hip-hop. While I was there, this was alternated on the radio with Justin Bieber and Shaggy’s ‘It wasn’t me’.
chai = tea
chapatti = chapatti – East African chapattis are rolled and brushed with oil so are flakier and greasier than an Indian chapatti. Delicious for breakfast with a cup of tooth-achingly sweet ginger tea.
dala-dala = minibus taxi
duka / maduka = shop / shops
juju = magic, witchcraft
mzungu = white person, foreigner
piki = motorbike taxi
samaki = fish
tutaonana baadaye = see you later
vocha = mobile phone credit – remember the days when you had to scratch off the silver strip and punch in the long number to top up? Yep, that.
A couple of weeks ago I returned to my academic roots, visiting my supervisor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California in Santa Barbara. In between wine tasting, excellent seafood and running along palm-fringed beaches I did manage to fit in some work, part of which was attending the department’s journal club. This term they’re reading classic ethnographies, and the week I was there we were discussing Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, an ethnography which I have read extracts from but never properly discussed. However, she is one of the few anthropologists to have focused specifically on children and young adults, and Coming of Age in Samoa raised some interesting questions for me.
..complete with palm trees..
..and skateboard lanes
Mead was 23 when she went to Samoa to investigate adolescence in a society very different to that of America. She wanted to establish whether some of the features associated with being an American teenager – emotional turmoil, mood swings, general angst and anxiety – are a product of biology or of culture. We have a tendency to view life stages as universal and underpinned by biological processes, from cutting our first teeth, to the physical changes of puberty such as menstruation, to male pattern baldness and the hot flushes of menopause. We may try to fight the inexorable process of ageing but there is no doubt that these changes are inevitable. Or are they? Anthropologist Margaret Lock’s work on menopause in Japan and North America showed that the notion of a ‘universal menopause’ is false, with Japanese women not experiencing hot flushes and other symptoms experienced by American women. Local cultural perceptions of life stages can shape people’s experience, even of supposedly biological phenomena.
Mead’s study provides another example of these ‘local biologies’, portraying Samoan adolescence as a carefree time, free from the hormonal angst and emotional trauma often associated with being a teenager in Western societies; “…adolescence represented no period of crisis or stress… The girls’ minds were perplexed by no conflicts, troubled by no philosophical queries, beset by no remote ambitions.” Mead attributes this to “the general casualness of the whole society” at that time, which supported a carefree outlook on life and general emotional stability. Part of this was the relative lack of choice available to Samoan teenagers compared to American teens, both in terms of self-expression, and more generally in occupations and beliefs. In Western societies the emphasis on individuality forces us to make choices continually about our own identity and how to communicate it to others. While in many ways this ability to choose how we live our lives is a positive thing, the fear of making the wrong choice can lead to ‘choice paralysis’, and the feeling of being judged by the choices you make may foster the feeling of not quite ‘fitting in’ – a common experience for many Western adolescents and one which can lead to negative mental health outcomes. And choice itself can be limiting, as people are forced to choose between discrete categories which may not reflect their own preferences. For example, people in Western societies are still categorised as homosexual or heterosexual, and while the moral connotations of these categories are thankfully waning, being forced to ‘fit into’ one of these boxes can be confusing. Mead observes that Samoans neither celebrated nor condemned difference. A wide range of behaviour was accepted as normal, with most adolescents having at least some homosexual experiences.
For Samoan children, as in most traditional societies, a childhood spent in large family groups with little privacy meant they were exposed from a young age to birth, illness, death, and sex, as a normal and natural part of life. Mead contrasts this with Western children who are shielded from the negative or challenging aspects of adult life. While it is undoubtedly good that we experience fewer deaths of loved ones, and less illness, the extension of this protection into other areas of life, such as sex and relationships, means that children are not equipped to navigate these areas when they encounter them. For example, sex education at young ages is often deemed ‘unnatural’ or ‘harmful‘ despite the evidence that it is beneficial in helping children develop healthy relationships later in life.
This dichotomy between adults and children extends into work and play. Mead describes the various tasks which Samoan children carried out from a young age, all very obviously useful and related to adult activities. By contrast, children in Western societies are not involved in the world of adult work at all. School is a contradiction in that it is deemed to be the most important aspect of children’s lives, yet what it teaches has little functional relevance to adult work. Even at home children generally have few responsibilities and spend little time in the same activities as their parents. In Samoa however, “the distinctions between work as something one has to do but dislikes, and play as something one wants to do; of work as the main business of adults, play as the main concern of children, are conspicuously absent”. Mead draws the conclusion that this helps children’s self-esteem, because their activities are not seen as inherently less valuable than adults’, while for adults, there is no assumption that leisure time must be earned, and so no guilt associated with time spent not working.
In the UK we are facing a crisis of childhood and adolescent mental illness. Can we therefore learn something from Mead’s writings on Samoa about how to make this period of life easier and more emotionally stable? Mead herself comments that taking lessons from Samoan society is difficult because “the conditions which vex our adolescents are the flesh and bone of our society”. Many of the differences are those that have arisen in the transition from small-scale village-based societies to large-scale industrial ones. Economic development has brought many benefits in terms of healthier, longer lives, better infrastructure and more material wealth. The majority of people would be reluctant to return to more traditional ways of life. However, the comparison is useful in highlighting some of the areas in which economic development has not necessarily been all forward progress. The experience of children in Samoa and other small-scale societies demonstrates that showing children the realities of adult life, both positive and negative, prepares them for the challenges they might later encounter. Fostering a strong sense of community and acceptance could be key to building an identity that can guide children through the turbulence of adolescence. Finally, having meaningful tasks and responsibilities outside of formal education may be an important way of bolstering children’s self-esteem and forging emotional security.
In a Tanzanian rice field, families take a break from the harvest to chat and share a joke. The joke today is the mzungu researcher who stands awkwardly, gently sweating under the midday sun, asking if she can interview their children. Their father is bemused but welcoming. He’s curious about the tablet we’re using for the interviews. They don’t teach us about that here, he says, computers are for rich people. Life here is hard, a lot of hard work in the fields or herding cattle. What’s farming like in the UK? I bet a lot of people have tractors or horses, but here we plough by hand. We have horses, I tell him, but people mainly ride them for fun rather than using them for farming. This tickles him. Why on earth would you ride a horse when you could drive in a car?
There were countless moments like this during my fieldwork, me trying to make sense of Tanzanian society, and people trying to make sense of me and my research. My project collected data on how children and young people aged 7 to 19 divide their time between school, work, and leisure. International policies aim to promote schooling and abolish formal work for children, and generally assume a trade-off between the two activities. However, this dichotomous approach has been criticised on two grounds and my research aims to address some of these problems.
Firstly, policies are based on an ethnocentric understanding of childhood, in which children’s place is assumed to be in school, and their work has little importance. This makes sense in contemporary Western societies, where formal education is necessary for economic and social success, and children’s work is of limited value. However, it ignores the realities of life in developing societies such as Tanzania, where school is risky. Long journeys between home and school, harsh discipline, and a lack of secure jobs make education a high stakes game, with many families unable or unwilling to play. For families still reliant on subsistence agriculture, children’s work is valuable and even vital to household economic security. Additionally, children themselves value working as a way to help their families and gain important skills, as demonstrated by the African Movement of Working Children and Youth’s request that the ‘right to work’ be recognised by UNICEF in their Convention on the Rights of the Child. This more positive view of children’s work receives little attention in policy or the media however.
The second criticism is that a discourse focusing on the negatives of children’s work leads to unhelpful definitions and data. The majority of working children do household chores and work on family farms, yet there is little data on how these activities interact with school attendance. According to International Labour Organisation definitions, over a quarter of the children I interviewed are child labourers. However, this statistic would make little sense to those who participated in my study. Most of these children are also attending school, and it is seen as children’s responsibility to help their families. Working on the farm or doing chores is an important part of growing up and gaining respect within the community, and gives children complementary skills to those they gain in school.
My research derives from studies within evolutionary anthropology and demography, which have highlighted the benefits of children’s work. By collecting data on children’s time allocation to all activities, I aim to present a more nuanced consideration of the relationship between work, school and leisure. This more critical approach matters because making sense of developing societies according to our own standards is unfair, and stigmatises families who must make difficult decisions. It is also important to challenge assumptions, which can prove to be incorrect. I found that girls actually spend more time in school than boys, yet also contribute more productive work to their households. Girls seem to manage this by sacrificing leisure time. This echoes the ‘double shift’ faced by many women in Western societies, who face expectations that they will both work and shoulder the burden of household chores. Achieving equality in education and the workplace is important, but a shift in focus towards challenging gender stereotypes may be needed to achieve gender equality at home as well.
Re-evaluating what constitutes a ‘good’ childhood could also be useful in making sense of issues in our own societies. We are facing a crisis of childhood obesity and children’s mental health, yet continue to require developing countries to aim for Western-style childhoods. A childhood with more responsibility and worth beyond academic achievement, as well as more physical activity, could help to bolster children’s self-esteem and health. Recognising that we can learn from other societies, rather than seeking to impose our own ideals of childhood, could be beneficial for everyone.
Spending time with people as they go about their daily activities – participant observation – has been a defining characteristic of anthropology since its origin in the early twentieth century, and classic ethnographies often include a description of the ‘daily round’. The experience of time may vary substantially between cultures, a case in point being the phrase ‘No hurry in Africa’, a philosophy that contrasts strongly with the ‘time is money’ outlook of London, where a few seconds delay in getting on the Tube can earn you the hatred of complete strangers. Nevertheless, in all societies time is a limited resource, and people must choose how to spend it, according to what activities they perceive to be necessary or important. Measuring time allocation can therefore be a more objective way of studying the relative importance of different activities, and for comparing individuals. For example, two people may both have gym membership, but looking at how much time they spend at the gym will probably tell us much more about their fitness.
The collection of time use data has also recently been emphasised as a way to highlight the importance of unpaid work, such as childcare and domestic work, done disproportionately by women and children. Such work is often ‘invisible’ and undervalued in economic policy, yet it may have a big impact on the lives of those who carry it out. Both Unicef and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) use time (and age) cut-offs in their definitions of child labour, recognising that a lot of children’s work is informal and unpaid. For example, a 13-year-old is considered to be a child labourer if they spend more than 2 hours a day in economic activity.
Each column corresponds to a different hour of the day. In Swahili, the first hour (saa) of the day is at sunrise, so saa 1 is 7am. The diagram above begins at saa 12, or 6am. (Confusingly, most clocks remain set to ‘Western’ time – so the clock will say 3pm, but people still read it as saa 9. I never quite got the hang of it and had to constantly double check meeting times.) Then each row is for a different activity, and the interviewer shaded in the box corresponding to the time of day that activity was done. So above, you can see that the first thing this child did was to wash (kuoga), and that they did this for 30 minutes at 7am. Then they went to school (kwenda shule) from 7:30am to 1pm, when they returned home to eat (kula). After the diagram has been shaded in, the interviewer took a photo and then wiped the laminated sheet. (It turns out that the best way to clean whiteboard markers properly is using nail polish remover, which didn’t make me very popular with the other people in my office, who for a while thought I was just giving myself a manicure every evening.)
The child interviews were definitely the most logistically challenging part of data collection. During the day, most children were away from the household at school, or were out in the fields working. We tried a variety of ways to track them down – working on Saturdays, running round households at lunchtime when children return home to eat, interviewing kids en masse at school, driving round rice fields and the market. Our driver drove like a madman to catch up with one boy, Baraka, who was riding his bike down to the village centre, but he didn’t want to be interviewed. (This gave me the opportunity for my one and only Swahili joke – there’s a common phrase “Haraka haraka, haina baraka” – “Hurry hurry has no blessing” – so I commented that we had hurried and still hadn’t got Baraka. I think I was the only one who found it funny.)
Primary school students waiting to be interviewed
Children also varied in their ability and willingness to participate. Some of the younger children were very shy, or couldn’t remember the exact times of what they had done the previous day. Generally, doing the interview in the local language, Sukuma, helped, and sometimes an older sibling could be enlisted to give mealtimes or the time they woke up, in order to prompt the younger child’s memory. We also realised that many children associated the Tazama car with getting immunisations, and so were scared we were going to give them an injection. Once we reassured them there were no needles involved, most were willing to talk to us. Inevitably, a few didn’t want to take part (like Baraka above), particularly boys in the rural village – on a couple of occasions we arrived at a house just in time to see a small boy kicking up a cloud of dust as he raced away across the fields.
Generally though the child interviews were a lot of fun, and gave a good sense of the routine of daily life in the villages. I picked up a lot of new Swahili vocab during the interviews, my favourite word being kupukuchua, which I don’t think has a direct translation but is the process of removing the kernels from corncobs. Another favourite word was kupumzika, to rest, a very common activity for the children and our field team too!
Now I’m back in the UK I’ve started analysing the time allocation data and it’s exciting to see patterns and results starting to emerge. Watch this space!
Last Monday was Nane Nane, the Tanzanian public holiday dedicated to farmers. Nane Nane means “Eight Eight” in Swahili, and is so named because it falls on August 8th (There’s also a Saba Saba Day (“Seven Seven”) held on July 7th). Across Tanzania, big agricultural fairs are held to allow for the exchange of knowledge, and the display of agricultural produce, techniques, and supplies. We passed the fairground on the way to the villages, and saw more and more tents go up as the week went on. On the Saturday, a few friends and I decided we would head over and see what all the fuss was about.
We got on a dala–dala (minibus taxi) in town, squeezing in at the front on top of the engine, which made for a very warm journey. After rattling around town and some outlying suburbs, we finally made it to the fair. At the roadside were hundreds of people with their stalls laid out, selling everything from plastic flip flops, brightly-coloured vitenge fabric, and second-hand clothes, to kitchen-ware (including fancy gadgets to slice your vegetables into pretty shapes), footballs, and cuddly toys. Heading further into the fairground, the path was lined with people selling all kinds of snacks, including mishkaki (meat kebabs), ubuyu (baobab seeds), karanga (peanuts), keki (cake), barafu (ice lollies), samosas, maandazi (doughnuts), and bagia (chickpea fritters). We opted for ice creams from one of the guys with a bicycle ice cream van, who had obviously seen us coming a mile off, quickly switching his sales chat into English as we approached.
There were also lots of games and competitions going on. Coca-Cola and all the major phone networks had big areas bordered with banners and railings, with loud music blaring over the speakers, dancing, and football competitions. Then there was a local version of roulette, tilted at a rakish angle on the uneven ground, and hoopla, with bottles of soda and beer spread out across a tarpaulin. In the distance we spied a large crowd gathering, and headed over to check out what it could be. The excitement turned out to be caused by a herd of camels, two of whom were saddled and giving rides. There were a lot of camel-selfies being taken, though any time the camels began to advance, everyone immediately ran away as fast as they could.
On the agricultural side, there were large fields of different crops planted, and stalls with glossy vegetables on show, so people could assess which seeds they wanted to invest in, as well as chicken coops, fish ponds, and grain storage solutions. There was also a lot of machinery being exhibited, from shiny green John Deere tractors, to an alarming machine that looked like a horizontal washing machine with spikes, apparently used to pluck chickens. VETA (Vocational Education Training Authority) also had a stand, which I was very interested in, as it had been mentioned quite a bit during the course of my research, as an alternative to secondary education or university. They run a number of different courses, training tailors, plumbers, mechanical engineers, drivers, and electricians. We pass the driving school on our way out to the field – driving lessons here involve 6 or 7 students piling into a car to watch as one of them drives. At the stand I was shown an electric winch, a vegetable desiccator (apparently it increases the vitamin content, though I wasn’t convinced of the nutritional value of the dried spinach I was shown), as well as examples of dresses and shirts made by the tailoring students.
We then headed into what Hilary referred to as the ‘value added product’ section – local honey, spice blends, jam, soap, kitenge clothing, and beaded jewellery. During the week a friend had told us about a group of women she was working with, who run a wine-making business, and we’d sampled some of their excellent hibiscus (rosella) wine. We managed to track down one of the ladies and got to try out the pineapple and mango wine as well, all leaving the stall with considerably heavier bags! It’s certainly one of the most innovative business ventures I’ve seen here – most small businesses and shops sell very similar items.
As it got later in the day both the volume of the crowds and the music intensified, and we decided it was time to leave. It was everyone for themselves as we piled onto a dala that a hundred other people were also trying to board. However, we all made it on, and even all managed to get seats – a minor victory to end the day with.