Promoting dignity in research involving children: An Afrocentric perspective.

Kathomi Gatwiri

I am an African, and I love telling stories.

One of my favourite stories to tell about dignity and recognition is about my first graduation day. It was customary then, that on one’s graduation day, people from your village gather at your university to celebrate your success. They celebrate and embody your success vicariously. Mothers and aunties ululate you; your fathers and uncles hail you, drink and try to claim all your success for themselves. If your family is a bit extra like mine, they lay lesos (African-printed fabrics) on the ground for you to walk on. On my graduation day, about 65 of my parents – people who had participated in raising me in the village when I was a young child – showed up in a hired bus. They brought sweet potatoes, yams, arrowroots, plantain and, of course, fermented porridge. They sang me traditional songs of jubilation and celebrated my achievement, our achievement. ‘Kaana ni kega gatuma thioro kithioro…iiii kaana ni kega kamenywere…’!! Oh, our child is great, she made us cross valleys to celebrate…oh our child is great, may we always protect her…!! They sang loudly on the university grounds! It was a sight to behold.

This was my first conscious lesson on the power of a village and remains a core memory for me to date. Being cared for and parented by a village fostered a belief that there will always be an adult to help me manoeuvre the spikes of life. Multiple parents also acted as mirrors through which I could see myself. The beauty of having multiple mirrors is that, if one is broken, a child can look and see themselves through other intact mirrors. This acknowledges that It is not always possible that our biological parents can and will be our best mirrors, and in situations where that is the case, a child can look elsewhere and still see an intact reflection.

The point of my story is two-fold. Firstly, while there is truth in the idea that a child’s worth starts at home, ‘home’ and ‘family’ vary widely for different children. Secondly, it is important to remember that recognition and belongingness for children foster dignity, which is taught by everybody and affirmed by every institution, including through research.

Honouring children’s dignity is at the centre of the ERIC approach: an acknowledgement that research plays a huge role in how we conceptualise and understand the sociology of childhood. Since the outset, ERIC has been described as being motivated by a shared international concern that children’s dignity is upheld and their rights and wellbeing are respected in all research, regardless of context.

Ubuntu practices of dignity and ‘seeing’ the child: An Afrocentric perspective

As established earlier, seeing and recognising the child through various institutions can foster the development of core dignity, resulting in an increased sense of ‘enoughness’, self-identity, self-esteem, and self-love. Therefore, if we can re-imagine a space and place where we begin seeing children as worthy of recognition, celebration and protection, we can actively seek and promote diverse knowledges that enhance our research theorisations and, consequently, practice architecture. Although my own work on dignity has been in the context of race and racialisation (Gatwiri & Mapedzahama, 2022), more broadly dignity can be conceptualised in two distinct ways:

First, in personal terms. Personal dignity operates at the level of the individual and is perhaps best understood as a sense of perspective on self-worth. To have personal dignity is to appreciate oneself sufficiently that one would withstand pressures to lower one’s self-esteem…Dignity can also be understood to operate at the level of community. At the communal level, inclusion is the essence of dignity. To treat another with dignity is to consider another presumptively worthy of full integration into community membership. Dignity, in this sense, is universal and undifferentiated respect for social value.
(Bracey 2006, p.19-20)

The experience of being “seen through a humanised lens and being afforded basic respect in private and public relationships” helps people to achieve dignity in their interpersonal and structural relationships (Gatwiri & Moran, 2022, p.4). For children, belonging to a ‘village’ (whether physical or a village-like network), where adults are actively committed to experiences of Ubuntu intensifies dignity. Philosophically and ideologically, Ubuntu is an African view of humanity, centred on the premise: I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am. This is a way of affirming our experiences of being in the world and being human. Ubuntu suggests that we are made human by humanising others; that is, as Chigangaidze and Chinyenze (2022, p.280) argue, “a person is a person through other persons”. They suggest further that Ubuntu practices are centralised around three key facets; humanness, personhood and morality; meaning that being a person is to be connected to community, culture, and self.

As a framework, Ubuntu can be used to re-imagine ethical research practices with children in a way that prioritises their sense of being seen, felt and connected with. Because Ubuntu requires that we see children as full human beings, we are required to enter a decolonial process that necessitates us to consider particular cultural, historical and political meanings attached to children. Asked simply, which children are allowed the dignity of being wise enough to teach us? Which children’s knowledge is seen as worthy, important, researchable, influential and/or objective? Which children are afforded the gift of Ubuntu, that is, to be a person and to be made a person? In Who Gets a Childhood (2010), William Bush interrogates similar questions to explore the power dynamics that determine whose childhood is seen as a fundamental category that can visually represent childhood and offer a worthy intellectual contribution to research and practice architecture. In Australia, Bryan Mukandi, an Afro-philosopher and theorist, prompts us to grapple with the dominant articulations of ‘child’ and how non-Eurocentric insights can expand our understandings of childhood. Whilst most of the world’s children are Black and Brown, the dominant figurations of childhood are conceptualised through white-centric paradigms assumed to represent the universal experience of childhood.

What can we learn from Afro-centric ways for dignifying children in research?
Ethical research, with, for and about children, should not position adults as saviours. Instead, children’s capacity to co-generate and co-produce knowledge through research, if they wish to, is a recognition that they are capable collaborators in research that involves them. As such, decolonising ideas about children and childhood requires a move away from moralising and romanticising adult experiences as the epitome of the human experience. Ubuntu does not perceive childhood as ‘a transition’ to something better, meaning adulthood. Rather, childhood and adulthood are equal experiences in being human, being a person. Ubuntu also involves abandoning the idea that children lack agency or are passive, powerless, and helpless. Adopting Afrocentricity in our research with children is an opportunity to shift from the over-reliance on Western and Eurocentric paradigms “which in many cases, are not relevant to, or supportive of, [non-western] values, beliefs, culture, rights and ways of knowing” (Gatwiri, 2019, p.64).

In summary, taking Ubuntu as a frame of reference to inform ethical research with children might include:
Presence – This is about being here with the child; listening and holding space for all children’s perspectives with deep care. The “Ubuntu way of [being] fosters trust, reconciliation and dignity in relationships” (Gatwiri, 2019, p.67). We cannot enter a place of dignity if we are not invested in the process of our own dignity. Put simply, to honour the stories of all children, we must hold them in their total personhood.

Mindfulness – This principle recognises that the self is rooted in multiple experiences and sustained through a connection with multiple others. This lets us view children as equally important in building the community and fostering social change (Nussbaum, 2003). The Ubuntu way suggests that ethical research with and about children sees them as consciousness-raising beings, who are aware of the world in ways and meanings sometimes hidden from adults.

Shared humanity – This principle acknowledges that humanity levels us equally and our humanity is inherently tied and shared with others (Nussbaum, 2003). In Ubuntu, therefore, children are seen as active contributors and agents of change and communal healing. Research with children, especially Black children, needs to consider how they contribute, participate and become agents of change, challenging the notion that children of the Global Majority are passive victims of their cultural experiences.

We need to remember that even as we engage with Ubuntu as a framework for doing research with children, it cannot be reduced to “ a tool of practice or procedure” because Ubuntu “is a way of life, it is a depth of being human and a fountain from which attributes that foster love, consciousness, respect, freedom and humanity flow” (Gatwiri, 2019, p.67).

Author’s bio

In 2017, Dr Kathomi Gatwiri became one of the youngest Kenyan women to be awarded a PhD in the field of Social Work & Cultural Studies. She is an award-winning researcher, and Associate Professor of Social Work at Southern Cross University’s Faculty of Health. She is a recipient of the highly prestigious Australian Research Council DECRA grant currently being undertaken at the Centre for Children & Young People. She is the current president of the Peak body, Australian Women’ and Gender Studies Association (AWGSA), and the founder and director of Healing Together, a consulting and psychotherapeutic service that seeks to bridge the cultural and racial gap through provision of psychotherapy, supervision and consulting services to racially and culturally minoritised people in Australia and Aotearoa.

Bracey, C. A. (2006). Getting Back to Basics: Some Thoughts on Dignity, Materialism, and a Culture of Racial Equality. Chicano-Latino L. Rev., 26, 15.
Bush, W. S. (2010). Who Gets a Childhood?: Race and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-century. Texas: University of Georgia Press.
Chigangaidze, R. K., & Chinyenze, P. (2022). What it means to say, ‘a person is a person through other persons’: Ubuntu through humanistic-existential lenses of transactional analysis. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 41(3), 280-295. doi:10.1080/15426432.2022.2039341
Gatwiri, K. (2019). Afrocentric Social Work. In S. Tascon & J. Ife (Eds.), Disrupting Whiteness in Social Work. New York: Routledge.
Gatwiri, K., & Mapedzahama, V. (2022). Pedagogy or ‘trauma porn’?: Racial literacy as a prerequisite for teaching racially dignifying content in the Australian social work context. Journal for Multicultural Education, Published online ahead of print. doi:10.1108
Gatwiri, K., & Moran, C. (2022). Reclaiming racial dignity: An ethnographic study of how African youth in Australia use social media to visibilise anti‐Black racism. Australian Journal of Social Issues, Published online ahead of print.
Nussbaum, B. (2003). African Culture and Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African in America. Perspectives, 17(1).