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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Political Science professor Beverly Grier examines the relationship between childhood, children's labor and the state in Zimbabwe before and after European colonization.

Meet the researchers: Asking the right questions

Interview with Professor Beverly Grier
In a recent conversation, summarized below, Government professor Beverly Grier discussed her research on child labor in Africa both before and after European colonization, and how, as the role of children changed, so did the notion of childhood.

What drew you to the study of government, and African politics in particular?

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I spent my junior year (1970-71) studying at the University of Ghana. Until that point I had been a history major.

The early 1970s witnessed the upsurge of the anti-apartheid movement. As a result, those African countries that supported apartheid began to feel more isolated. To counter that they tried to strengthen relations with other African governments, including Ghana. But students at the university protested the association of Ghana with apartheid regimes. Witnessing these events raised my awareness of apartheid and spurred my interest in African politics. So did the Civil Rights and Black Power movements taking place about the same time in the United States.

When I returned to Michigan for my senior year of college, I started taking political science courses and applying to graduate school in political science. I eventually did my doctoral research on cocoa farmers and the state in Ghana. An interest in history has continued to be a major thread in my work and all of my subsequent research in political science has incorporated a historical perspective.

You've just completed a major research project and book examining the place of child labor in pre-colonial and colonial Zimbabwe. Why child labor and why in Zimbabwe?

When doing my doctoral research on Ghana, I found that the use of children as farm laborers kept coming up. Many of those children were the children of the farm owners, but others were pawns -- debt servants--whose families had fallen into debt. In this situation, a young girl was usually given as collateral for a loan. She would be used by the creditor as a laborer on the cocoa farm, or to transport dried cocoa beans to market.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was still a lot of clandestine slave trading going on between northern and southern Ghana. British colonial documents show that most of the captives were children who were used as a source of labor on the expanding cocoa farms. Children were actually favored as captives because it was relatively easy to disguise them as wards, child brides, etc. So I thought that if children were vital in this transition to cash crop agriculture in Ghana, perhaps they served a similar role in southern Africa where the capitalist transformation of agriculture was even more widespread and profound.

My continuing interest in the apartheid countries and settler colonies of southern Africa, of which Zimbabwe was one, is what led me to focus on that country.

What will your next research project be about?

I'm going to look at child labor and childhood in Kenya, a country with a history similar to that of Zimbabwe.

Why not continue with Zimbabwe?

Unfortunately, because of the currently strained relationship between Zimbabwe and the U.S., I'm concerned that it would take me a long time to get clearance from the Zimbabwean government to do more research. Considering the foundation work that I've done in Zimbabwe, it is a pity I can't continue with my research there.

Did you have to apply before to do research in Zimbabwe?

Yes. And when I first applied in the late 1990s, it took me about nine months to get permission from the Zimbabwean government, a process not unusual in African countries. Governments want to make sure that scholars will not exploit local resources and data, building a career for themselves but not benefiting the country of study. They are also fearful of politically sensitive research. In my case, in return for being allowed to do research in Zimbabwe, I promised to send a copy of any articles or books that resulted from my research to the Zimbabwean National Archives.

In an attempt to avoid that kind of delay again, I asked myself if there were other countries with histories similar to that of Zimbabwe where I could ask similar questions about child labor. Kenya is one such country, so I searched the Internet for the Kenya National Archives hoping that I could get some information on research clearance for my next sabbatical. In the process, I discovered that Syracuse University in New York has over 150 reels of government documents on microfilm from the Kenya National Archives. These documents were microfilmed in the mid 1960s as part of a cooperative endeavor between Syracuse University and Kenya's University of Nairobi. They cover the period from the 1890s to 1963 when Kenya became independent from the United Kingdom. Over the next couple summers, I plan to visit Syracuse University to see what's in those archives. I will also go to Kenya at some future date to look at materials there such as missionary archives, memoirs, correspondence, and unpublished documents.

For this project, I want to look at the historical origins of street kids. We tend to think of street kids as a recent phenomenon. But from my Zimbabwe research I learned that street children—specifically, boys and girls under 14 who had run away from home or who for a number of reasons were not living with their families—emerged as a problem as early as the 1920s in Zimbabwe. I've now discovered that street children were a problem in Kenya by at least the 1930s. So I want to look at the historical origins of these children, where they came from, what caused them to leave the rural areas, and how they made a living in the urban areas.

I'm also interested in state policies designed to deal with street kids. Many of these children were involved in crime as a survival strategy, and were constantly cycling through the juvenile justice system. They were considered to be a threat to law, order, and property and were viewed as a future class of "lawless vagabonds." But I think something political lay beneath these official characterizations. I'm particularly interested in young people and what roles, if any, they played in the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion against the colonial British government. My suspicion is that many young people in the urban areas were rounded up and taken to detention or concentration camps during the rebellion. Were street kids also rounded up, and, if so, what happened to them in these camps? Were any of them involved in the rebellion as couriers, messengers, that kind of thing? I think it likely that youth involvement in African politics is not a new thing in Africa. For example, during the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa, young people were really in the forefront, on the streets and protesting their school curriculum and apartheid in general.

You mentioned the problem of getting clearance to do research in Zimbabwe. Were there other obstacles you encountered in your research?

In the beginning it was tough because I was finding so little evidence that children were used in the labor force. I remember being in the library one day and saying that the children are invisible, that they were "invisible hands." I knew they were there, but I couldn't find them. That's how the title of the book came about. But the more I read the documents, the savvier I became at interpreting them. Then children began to appear everywhere, and I began to know exactly which documents to look at.

Looking back, I wish I had been able to examine oral history transcripts of Africans who had lived on mission stations. These are available at the National Archives in Zimbabwe, but I didn't know of their existence at the time. These documents were sitting just a few feet away from where I was working. A lot of research is just hit or miss. Now, when I go to Kenya, I'll know to look for tapes or oral histories of Africans telling about their childhoods.

The research process often seems to be uncertain.

Yes, and the research is constrained by the material available. Also, you have to be open to the possibility of your thesis not being correct. Sometimes it turns out that the questions you're raising are not the most important questions or the ones your material will allow you to answer.

That's what happened to me. When I began the Zimbabwe project I was really just interested in the relatively simple task of making visible the invisible hands of child workers. But after the first draft of my manuscript went out for review, comments came back to the effect that 'there's more here than the author realizes.' That stuck in the back of my mind.

In the end, instead of simply making invisible hands visible, I ended up answering questions about the construction and reconstruction of African childhood. I came to realize that, over the seventy-year period of my study, African childhood went through a number of reconstructions—a richer and more interesting topic. The book ended up focusing on the different forces-African patriarchs or fathers, white settlers, and the colonial government-that were trying to shape African childhood. I also argue in the book that the children themselves exercised agency and tried to shape their own childhoods.

It surprised me that the notion of childhood changed, and not always in ways that the settlers or the colonial state wanted it to. Just as the English upper class thought that lower class children should prepare themselves for a life of work, not a life of thinking, the colonial state in Zimbabwe thought that education for Africans, if there was to be any, should be geared to manual training. Africans were to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. It was felt that if Africans were educated they'd compete with whites for jobs. That outlook was revealed in legislative council debates.

But Africans had a thirst for education and resisted. In the end, the colonial government and settlers began, in their own minds, to see education as part of African childhood. Education became a way to socialize African street children and prevent them from becoming a class of hooligans and ruffians. It was better to place urban Africans into school rather than have them hang out on the street all day. Thus, African childhood was reformulated to preserve social and political order.

Are there opportunities for Political Science students interested in Africa to participate in research or independent projects?

Many students choose to participate in Clark's study abroad program in Namibia, which includes an internship component. Some students use that as the basis for independent study research when they return to the U.S. Also, if participants know ahead of time what they want to study, they can do research for an honors thesis while they're in Namibia. Other students undertake the internship with the intention of translating it into something written, either for academic credit or as document that can help them get a job later on in an NGO (non-governmental agency).


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