The Theory of Personhood. Exploring African Childhoods

Elaboration 2018 12 Pages

Ethnology / Cultural Anthropology


Table of Contents

1. Defining personhood

2. Understanding the meanings of childhood in Samoa

3. Gendered childhood sexualities in Samoa

4. Personhood of children in Tanzania

5. Negotiation of girlhood and womanhood

6. Personhood of children in Swaziland

7. Growing Up In Cape Town South Africa

8. References


In this article, I discuss the theory of personhood which I explain in the first paragraph.The aim of this narrative is to illustrate different African contexts and experiences of childhood, which are hardly taken into consideration when adopting Western definitions and constructs there-of. I draw upon the works of Fortes (1969), Karp (1995), Kratz (2000) and Salo (2004), which confer the meaning of personhood and agency. Subsequently, I then draw upon Chambua&Kamugisha (1994), Mustafa (2006), Holly (2006) and Arnfred (2007) who all provide ethnographic illustrations of personhood and sexual agency. In these ethnographic examples, I highlight recurring themes. One of the recurring themes is that the notion of personhood is not a fixed notion; rather personhood is constantly negotiated, contested and redefined through everyday social interactions. Secondly, the notion of personhood and agency differs cross-culturally. Lastly, while cultural meanings of personhood and agency may appear to be readily apparent, fixed and commonly shared amongst all members of a specific community, this is not so (Salo 2004:28).

1. Defining personhood

Different persons are culturally defined and recognised by different rights, abilities and responsibilities (Kratz 2000:137). The social actions, responsibilities and choices that any society attributes to an individual reflect its socio-cultural construction of personhood. Persons are attributed readily identifiable agency, as well as responsibilities. However these attributes differ in relation to generational cohort, gender, and socio-economic status. Furthermore, these attributes do not remain fixed through time but is constantly negotiated, reproduced or contested in everyday social interaction and relationships. In addition, responsibilities and agency extend to the realm of sexuality and reproductive responsibilities.

Salo (2004) explains how the notions of persons as individual socially recognised actors free from the influence or constraint of socio-cultural relationships and contexts, are regarded as western and associated with the rise of individual economic wealth associated with capitalism. She goes on to state how Fortes’ (1969) and Karp’s (1995) conceptualizations of personhood allow for a more complex notion of agency, that is always relationally defined and negotiated, as well as constrained within these relationships.

Karp (1995) states that personhood ought to be analysed from objective and subjective facets. The objective facet of personhood is the capacities and roles with which society endows an individual whereas the subjective facet is the individual’s own lived experience. This means that although there are societal norms, values and expectations ascribed to an individual, his or her sense of world and sense of themselves are by no means invariant. Occasionally, one may see himself/herself as differentiated and detached from others, other times as one with others (Karp 1995). Here Karp (1995) further argues that emphasis on studying personhood through modes of self-consciousness also entails a praxaelogical perspective and interest not only in how people construct meaning in social life, but in how life is experienced and lived from within the mind of the person (Karp1995:17).It is therefore important to explain agency when discussing personhood.

Salo (2004) draws upon Whyte’s (1990) and Karp’s (1995) explanations of agency, as an expansion of Forte’s (1969) conceptualization of personhood. Whyte (1990) and Karp (1995) indicate that agency is the semantic and bodily means for generating and regenerating the world. Agency is complexly intertwined and determined by history, social structure, and individual choices or intent (Salo 2004:28). Karp (1995) goes on to emphasise that agency itself can never simply mean the free exercise of choice or carrying out of intentions because choice itself is structured (Salo 2004:29).Therefore norms, values, and expectations that society ascribes on individuals are not necessarily how individuals experience these attributes. This notion of personhood differs cross-culturally and is constantly negotiated, defied and contested through agency.

When it comes to the personhood of children, rightly asks how children experience, understand and resist or reshape the complex frequently contradictory cultural politics that inform their daily lives. To what extent is this identity conceived as singular and exclusive and what sorts of priorities are asserted in cases where various forms of cultural identity – regional national ethnic minority or indigenous come up against each other. There is a need to re-examine the meaning of childhood where more and more children are living in multi-cultural settings demanding that they move in and out of diverse social roles and create identities foreign to parents as displayed in the ethnographic journey in this review.

Philippe Aries challenge to naturalistic orthodoxies had major impact on social sciences. The basic assertion her was that the idea of childhood did not exist (Aries 1962:125). Aries argued that modern conception of childhood as a separate life stage emerged in Europe between 15th and 18th centuries together with the bourgeois families’ notions of the home and privacy. The critique of this dissertation may be that there is not enough ethnographic display of the meanings of childhood in the African context. Most literature is embedded with the meanings of childhood in the European context as argued by Aries, which show just how relevant my dissertation is to the body of knowledge regarding the multiples meanings of childhood in Africa (Aries 1962:126). Institutions then contributed to the notion of childhood though the notion mainly catered to upper class society. This opened up the channel of the notion of childhood not being natural but a social construct. As a result, the exploration of the child and its structural role in modern society are still underdeveloped, further highlighting the lack of thick ethnographic examples of the different meanings of childhood.

I seek to illustrate how the notion of personhood differs cross-culturally by citing various research carried out regarding the personhood of children. In the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights there was no specific reference to children. The foundation for a global standard for children’s rights was laid down in 1959 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration specified for children separate from and in addition to the rights of adults. Child welfare was identified with protection of the family with no sense of the dangers to the children that that modern family might impose. The charter did not recognise cultural differences in what constitutes the children’s best interest. This declaration was aimed at protecting and nurturing childhood as defined by adults in Western contexts. It is important to note that what this notion of culture has in common with the universal notion of culture as a special symbolic domain. Both emphasize culture as the realm of symbols, language, values and beliefs. Thus a child’s right to a cultural identity is built on liberal democratic principles of tolerance for diverse views and freedom of self-expression (Sanders & Sanders2006:34-37).These various research findings further highlight how there is no universal meaning of childhood which is why I embarked on a journey to find out the meanings of childhood specifically in Qondwa village, South Africa. For instance, personhood of children in Qondwa village would differ from the personhood of children in Samoa as researched by Margaret Mead as discussed below.

2. Understanding the meanings of childhood in Samoa

The age of marking agency for children differs across cultural and national contexts. Margaret Mead’s (1961) research focuses on the rites of passage that mark the child’s entry into adulthood in Tau, Samoa. Mead’s (1961) key method of research was participant observation where she spent much time in Samoa observing the cultural rituals and feasts especially those associated with childbirth, childhood and parenting. Her ethnography draws on these experiences as a participant observer in Samoa. Participant observation provided her with the ability to analyze childhood from a particular cultural perspective through observing and learning about the different rituals performed by adults and children that map the key cultural meanings of childhood. The time Mead spent hanging out in the diverse social settings for three years observing these rituals provided her with an opportunity to map out the textured, layered manner in which children’s personhoods were constructed and informed with specific social, economic and cultural meanings in Samoa.

She describes the meanings of childhood in contrast to adulthood in this process. Mead’s (1961) findings illustrate that in Samoa birthdays are not celebrated or regarded as important. The initial birth of the baby is considered an important social event and that is when the great and only event is celebrated for the individual. Mead’s (1961) work highlights that the notion of transition from one age to the next, and of increasing responsibility in childhood through birthdays are not universal.

Mead (1961) explains that in Samoa before a baby is born, the father’s relatives bring gifts in the form of food to the mother. These prenatal rituals serve to mark the gendered expectations of the child as a contributing member within Samoan society. The mother’s female relatives make pure white bark cloth for the baby and weave dozens of tiny mats which form the layette. Once a baby girl is born, the cord is cut off and buried under a paper mulberry tree from which cloth is made. The association of the tree’s productivity in the materiality of the cloth symbolizes the hope of the girl growing up to be industrious in the performance of household tasks. If the baby is a boy, the cord is thrown at sea so that he may be a skilled fisherman. The cord can also be planted under a plant which symbolizes him developing farming skills as he grows up into adulthood (Mead 1961:16).

There are no celebrations that are held for children from the point that the cord is buried to when the child enters puberty. A girl does not receive recognition as a visible person with agency and responsibility until she is married. Her recognition as an individual with acknowledged agency is activated through marriage. Before then, children are defined as silent, insignificant social actors, as persons-in-becoming. Adults engage with children merely to reinforce their relative social insignificance through remarks such as, ‘Keep still! Be quiet! Stop that noise!’ At this stage, they are still regarded to be invisible, muted, and non-participatory members in society except as extensions of adults’ reproductive responsibilities. Objective personhood holds it that children are not expected to be sexually active because they are incapable of biological reproduction, whereas adults would reproduce and therefore are expected to have sexual agency (Mead 1961:16-17).

3. Gendered childhood sexualities in Samoa

The adults in Samoa are described as holding dominant views of children as insignificant social actors and sexually immature persons. This does not mean that children are passive participants or unknowledgeable of their sexuality. After hanging out with ten year olds, and conducting informal interviews with community members, as well as observing how adults and children communicated on the Island Tau, Mead (1961) learnt just how educated and informed the children were about sex and sexuality. She learnt that the children had complete knowledge of the human body and its functions regardless of the adults’ belief that the children were sexually uneducated. Mead describes that there is a custom on the island where both men and women walk around naked and also bath in the sea together. Mead regards this as a general positive view of nudity in this community as ordinary and every day and so a disregard for privacy (Mead 1961:96).

Self-masturbation by boys as well as girls is considered a norm which generally began at the age of six. Boys between six and twelve years of age would self-masturbate in groups of friends. Mead suggests that at this age, masturbation may be considered innocent sexual experimentation (Mead 1961:96).Children also observe the youth who used palm groves for their sexual rendezvous. Boys masturbate in groups while adults openly shout sexual advances in front of children. Mead (1961:95) quotes one man shouting across the road to a woman: ‘Ho maiden, wait for me in your bed tonight’.

These illustrations do not show open discussion with the children about sex in terms of dialogue. However, the normative definition of children as sexually immature and as insignificant social actors allowed for the exchange of sexual innuendos and suggestive behavior between adults that children observed (Mead 1961:96). Subjective personhood which is the experienced realities of the children here holds contrary to the expectations held by the adults in the community. This illustrates how indeed personhood is not a fixed notion and is experienced from an objective and subjective facet. The adults may perceive the children as sexually uneducated however Mead’s findings illustrate how the children negotiate and shift these expectations ascribed to them.

Mead’s research method of hanging out with the adults as well as the children was an efficient method. By doing so she managed to find out personhood of children from both the objective and the subjective facet meaning her findings were not one sided. I adopted this research method in my own fieldwork where I spent time with the parents/guardians as well as the children in Qondwa village. This provided me with insight into the realities that the children lived compared to the expectations that were held for them by the adults.

One may argue the relevance of Margaret Mead due to its ‘foreign outdated input,’ however as I expressed before there is a thin spread of literature regarding childhood and childhood sexuality of which the study carried out by Mead proves to be of historical importance.

4. Personhood of children in Tanzania

Chambua & Kamugisha (1994) contribute to the thin study personhood of childhood, particularly girlhood, from a public health perspective. Public health studies that were carried out here were motivated by the concern for Tanzanian girls’ reproductive health, and for their educational careers to continue uninterrupted by marriage and early pregnancy. The studies illustrate the contestation between institutions such as the family, the community, and the formal education system in demarcating the boundaries between childhood and adulthood and the associated expectations about latent and active sexuality. As such, these illustrations serve as important sources of insight into local assumptions of gendered childhood sexualities as these are defined in contestation with that provided in state legislation (Chambua&Kamugisha 1994:25).

Chambua&Kamugisha (1994) found that in the Tanzanian towns of Kilimanjaro, Mwanza, Pemba and Tanga, girl children are married off to older men at the age of twelve which is the normative age of menarche. Menarche is regarded as the social marker of adulthood when girls are expected to become active sexual agents. This is the norm and expectations of the society in terms of young girls and marriage. Chambua & Kamugisha report that as long as girls are married, they are referred to as ‘women’ regardless of the fact that the ‘women’ in question could be twelve years of age. From this cultural perspective, a child is no longer a child once she or he has reached the normative age of menarche. The use of numeric age as a means of delineating childhood is used by the Tanzanian state and the educated sector of the population, and remains a minor marker for the rural and semi-literate sectors of the population. This already illustrates the multiple meanings of childhood, depending on the socio-economic demographics. Once children defined by numeric age are married, they are expected to bear children. These pregnancies cause many physical complications for the young mothers (Chambua&Kamugisha 1994:26).

The biological evidence indicates that a twelve year old is too fragile to bear children. However once menarche has set in, a twelve year old girl is viewed as a woman who is expected to be married off. After marriage she is expected to go through the processes of pregnancy and child birth. At a tender age, a child has not reached mental or physical maturity. Biologically a 12 year old is too fragile to bear children. However, socially this 12 year old is viewed as a woman who must go through the process of pregnancy and child birth. At a tender age, a child has not reached mental or physical maturity. The relative scarcity of adequate bio-medical facilities in most rural Tanzanian settings imply that these ‘child-mothers’ lives may be at risk when they experience complications with pregnancy and childbirth. Another challenge that the young mother faces is competition between the young growing mother and the fetus in the womb due to scarcity of food and nutrients. This results in the woman showing stunted growth, malnutrition, anemia and high blood pressure (Chambua&Kamugisha 1994:26-27).

5. Negotiation of girlhood and womanhood

Health researcher Masabo (1994) equally carried out research on health and pregnancies of girls and women in Tanzania. What is of interest is how in Masabo’s research, girls who fell pregnant out of wedlock were viewed as a disappointment, and the girls themselves sought measures such as abortion. It is rather acceptable for a child of 12 years old to fall pregnant when married for she is considered a woman. The teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 here are still considered girls and are therefore shunned on by the adults for engaging in sexual activities (Masabo 1994:150).

Masabo (1994) conducted a study in Ilala District in 1990. The aim of the research was to find out how teenage mothers in Tanzania know about sexuality and childbirth. Masabo (1994) found that sex is not discussed with children and they are expected to possess a latent sexuality until the onset of menarche for girls and for boys. In this context, children are not expected to have sexual agency (Masabo 1994:150). Forty girls between the ages of fourteen and seventeen participated in the study. All of them had gone through childbirth once. Most of the girls said that they gained knowledge on sex from their peers because their parents and relatives were not willing to discuss sex and sexuality (Masabo 1994:162). Masabo argues that society expects these children not to be sexually active, and when they do become active they are seen as problem children. However, these children are not educated about sex, sexuality, and pregnancy and fall pregnant due to a lack of guidance and due to ignorance although the study was based on an assumption that most teenagers have babies before they are fully aware of their reproductive capabilities. Masambo (1994) states that the problem is that the girls who become pregnant out of wedlock are afraid to approach their parents and relatives for help regarding childbirth and their responsibilities.

What is of further interest here is how Chambua & Kamugisha (1994) express that their research is on the childhood in Tanzania, yet they do not present data about boys. Their data focuses on girlhood and how girls experience childhood. I came across similar outcomes as I spent time engaging with my informants in Qondwa village. The word child appeared to be a synonym to the word girl, meaning boys were excluded from the notion of childhood.

6. Personhood of children in Swaziland

Kuper (1963) explains that most of the Swazi families she encountered during her ethnographic research practiced medicinal rituals as a lifestyle. Children born into families that practiced medicine were highly respected at birth and as those children grew older, they received training from adult family members on how to mature into an inyanga (medicine practitioner or traditional healer). Swazi families viewed this familial inheritance of being an inyanga as highly important. Knowledge of rituals and medicines were imparted to some children in some families as a part of inheritance (Kuper1963:4). Kuper (1963) only discusses childhood in this sense of inheritance of medicinal practices and does not provide a detailed account of childhood among the Swazi.

Anthropologist Ntuli (2006) expands on Kuper’s ethnographic account of Swazi childhood by focusing on how Swazi speaking people construct childhood and the meaning of childhood. She carried out her fieldwork in Manzini town in Swaziland through interviews and surveys with caregivers and parents in the Swazi community. Her criteria for selection depended on whether the participant had experience of the day to day care of children as well as the running of Chid Education programmes (Ntuli 2006). Her study explored practices implemented by Early Childhood Development caregivers and pre-school teachers. She investigated how a lack of appropriate policy on the Early Childhood Development programmes impacted on the delivery of services to the sector.

Ntuli’s findings illustrate that Swazi caregivers implement diverse, uncoordinated practices and that there is no uniformity in terms of professional training, classroom practice, and curriculum application. Ntuli further draws from Lewis (1999) who states that there are a number of Swazi children who experience traumatic situations due to the lack of efficient education. Lewis argues that most Swazi children lack the social problem solving skills necessary to interact or to deal with conflict (Lewis cited in Ntuli 2006:2). Ntuli (2006) argues that the caregiver provide the best care that they can in a situation where the government does not provide adequate training to caregivers. She further argues that caregivers have the opportunity to observe children and interact with them and through their observations they can make enormous contributions to the children’s education having been provided with necessary training and equipment. However, there is no systemic training for caregivers in Swaziland to deal with the emotional and psychosocial aspects of children’s development. South Africa and Namibia pose different issues when dealing with personhood of children. Research that Ntuli (2006) carried out here focused on the educational personhood of children, whereas the research by Jewkes et al (2005) focused on the personhood of children regarding sexual abuse. This illustrates how childhood is not one dimensional or as simple to categorise.

7. Growing Up In Cape Town South Africa

Rachel Bray (2010) carried out research in Fish Hook valley located on the southern part of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. Fish Hook valley which she refers to as ‘The Valley’ throughout her research, was a space created for black people in 1960 during the apartheid era by the apartheid government. She carried out her research in the Valley where she aimed to research the realities of children growing up in the Valley during the post-apartheid era. Here she focuses on the subjective personhood of children. She carries out research on multiple aspects such as the relationships that the children experience, the quality of education, and the mere diversity of their experiences on a day to day basis (Bray 2010:21).

Bray emphasises that ‘we do not focus on those who are especially vulnerable or in most need such as orphans... we seek to understand the lives of ordinary urban children facing many challenges in life’ (Bray 2010:21).I grapple with the term ordinary because it implies that children, who do not grow up in urban spaces, are not ordinary. Perhaps a definition of how the term is used here for the purposes of the research, would have enlightened the reader Bray (2010) explains that carrying out research after the apartheid era is crucial because policies that directly affected children and youth changed in the post-apartheid era. For instance, the welfare state was extended through child support grants, racial restrictions of jobs were alleviated, interracial dating was no longer forbidden, and they argue that such policies had a direct effect of the shift on the meaning of childhood (Bray 2010:22). They spent some time holding discussions with children and youth that they identified in spaces such as schools and churches. Bray states that after much discussion with girls and boys from the age 12 in the community, they found that the topic of sexuality between the adults and children was a topic that was not discussed. Should the topic have been discussed, it was discussed in a repressive manner whereby the issue of sex was regarded as a negative act that girls in particular were not expected to engage in before marriage (Bray 2010:260). Bray quotes Preston Whyte showing the notion of silence between adults and children in society:

‘Secrecy in human society is often an integral aspect of and a major mechanism for maintaining existing relations of power and patterns of respect. So is an increasing social distance between the generations as children grow up. An aspect of this may be the silences over sex and reproduction between generations... typical of many societies over the globe’ . (Whyte quoted in Bray 2010:97).

Each of these ethnographic illustrations of childhood, narrate different accounts of childhood from different cross-cultural perspectives. Similar in these ethnographic illustrations, is the fact that the topic of sex is not discussed between the younger generation and the older generation. Mead carried out her research in Samoa from 1959 to 1962, and Bray carried out her research in the Cape Peninsula in 2008 to 2010. Although there is no universal meaning of childhood, it is possible for children in cross-cultural settings and spaces to experience similar realities.

8. References

Bray, R. 2010. Growing Up In The New South Africa. Childhood And Adolescence In Post Apartheid Cape Town. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

‘South Africa’Criminal Law, Sexual Offenses and Related Matters. Amendment Act 32 of 2007. Date of commencement: 16 December 2007

Fortes, M.1973.The Concept of the person. In La Nation de Person en Afrique Noire. Edited by G. Ditererlen.Paris: Editions de Centre national de la Recherché Scientifique.Pp 283-319.

Herdt, G. 1982. Rituals of Manhood. Male initiation in Papua New Guinea. New Jersey: University of California Press.

Holt, D 1987. The Swazi. Hilda Kuper in Swaziland. Cape Town: HSRC Press

Kuper, H.1963. The Swazi.A South African Kingdom.

Mager, A. 1998. Youth organisations and Construction of Masculine identities in Ciskei and Transkei. Journal of Southern African Studies, 24(4): 653- .671

Masabo, B.1994. Chelewa. The Dilemma of teenage girls. Sweden: Nordiska Afrika Institutet.

McLaughlin, D. 2012. Old Enough To Know. Consulting children about sex and AIDS education in Africa. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Mead, M.1961. Coming of Age in Samoa. A Psychological study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: Morrow Press.

Ntuli, Z.2006. Early Childhood Care and Development: The Missing Link, a Challenge for Swaziland. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press. PHD Dissertation.

Reynolds, P. 1989. Childhood in Crossroads.Cognition and Society in South Africa. Michigan: Grand Rapids.

Reynolds, P. 2006. Refractions of Children’s Rights in Development Practice. A View from Anthropology. London: SAGE Publications.

Salo, E.2004. Respectable mothers, tough men and good daughters. Producing persons in Manenburg Township South Africa. PhD thesis. University of Cape Town


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Title: The Theory of Personhood. Exploring African Childhoods