You should listen ‘softly’ to really understand children’s experience of poverty, states Eliza Mulewa Ngutuku. On 4 March 2020 Ngutuku graduated Cum Laude from the International Institute of Social Studies with her thesis 'Rhizomatic Cartographies of Children’s Lived Experience of Poverty and Vulnerability in Siaya, Kenya'. She worked together with Professor Karin Arts and Associate Professor Auma Okwany.
In February of this year, Ngutuku received the Best Thesis Award 2020 from the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities (EGSH). Currently, she is a research fellow at the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa (FLIA), at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
She talks to us about her thesis, her activism and her method of listening softly to better understand the experience of children living in poverty.
Congratulations on your award!
'Thank you. That was a good thing that happened!'
Can you explain to me what the thesis is about?
'I wanted to understand children’s experience of poverty and vulnerability, in Kenya. I conducted one-year ethnographic research in Siaya, a county characterized by some of the lowest indicators of child wellbeing in Kenya.
I stayed in the community for one year to get an in-depth understanding of the way these children experience poverty at home and at school. But also, how this experience is linked to programs that help these children. In Siaya, there are complex issues related to HIV. Often the parents or immediate child caregivers have died, so the problem is not just poverty but also a lack of adequate care and protection. Some of these children are therefore receiving support from humanitarian projects, that also influence their experience of poverty. Another factor to take into account: the government in this place is very absent.
I wanted to understand their experience, from these different and complex perspectives.
My research reveals that children’s lived experience is not linear. I stayed in the community to understand and document how these issues interact on a day-to-day basis. I also watched their experience continue to unfold, every day, in different spaces, in different ways.'
Is it mainly a sad story?
'Actually, it’s not. One of the reasons I carried out this research was because of the predominancy of ‘sad’ stories that are shared about children living in poverty and especially in Africa. My starting point was to question these typical clichéd representations. And to get the voice of the children themselves in my research, instead of relying on what other people say about them.
“My starting point was to question typical clichéd representations. And to get the voice of the children themselves in my research, instead of relying on what other people say about them.”
When we only focus on the sad stories, we forget that young people are also resilient. I wanted to show the complexity of the situation. For sure these children experience poverty. Some of them cannot go to school and cannot afford basic necessities. Some are not even living in good houses. I was interested in showing how different things connect to define their experience. For example, some of them with HIV-related problems, are supported by international programs, but sometimes these programmes can also make them more vulnerable because of the kind of support they give and some of the rules they have to obey for them to continue benefitting. And sometimes children and caregivers use different strategies to overcome these issues. Some of them are able to generate some income for their own wellbeing, but not all of them. With my thesis, I demonstrate that this experience of poverty is not simple, not one-dimensional, but it is messy. If we are only concerned with the sad stories, we fail to see these different ways in which these communities are working towards a better life and addressing issues of poverty themselves.'
What are your other findings?
'I was also able to demonstrate that we cannot categorize children living in poverty, as is often done. One of my major findings is that these categories that are used – of street children, orphans, trafficked children – they don’t work well in helping us to understand children’s complex experience. This is because diverse issues are interconnected, and such categories do not capture this complexity. The best thing is to not use categories at all as a starting point but just to be open to children’s experiences in different contexts. To really understand the issues these children are facing, we need openness and open-mindedness.'
“To really understand the issues these children are facing; we need openness and openminded-ness.”
Do you still work on this same subject at the FLIA?
'I am a self-described scholar-activist and a decolonial scholar, and this is what I am still doing at the Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The reason I wanted to do this particular study, is to emphasize the need for thinking differently about children and young people’s experience of poverty and vulnerability in Africa. How can we start listening to children differently than we do now? I am continuing with these conversations at FLIA which focusses on engagement with Africa through cutting-edge research, teaching and public events. I have been doing seminars about my research method. I’m also working together with policymakers, and with NGOs, and I continue to do research in Africa. I hope to contribute to discussions on how we can re-imagine Africa.'
And: how can we start listening to children differently than we used to?
'In my thesis, I call my method: ‘listening softly’. You can also call it: long-term listening.'
You spent a year living in Siaya. Doing research like this takes a lot of time. So, ‘listening softly’ is not an easy method, is it?
'That is a good question. I’m aware of the fact that policymakers or NGOs may not have the time to stay in the field for a year like I did. But long-term listening does not necessarily mean that you have to stay in the community. It means that you are constantly aware of the
fact that the voice of children that you have, is not complete or settled. You keep on revisiting and asking yourself what you know and how what you know might have changed, or what you might have left out. The problem with a lot of research done in the South is that researchers think they already know what is needed. And for sure, long-term listening is difficult. But I believe it is the only way we can intervene in these complex contexts. We cannot save time in the process. There really needs to be an effort, to make things better for children living in poverty.'