Children’s stories as objects of power

  • August 24, 2018
Children’s stories as objects of power

Thandeka Cochrane talks about her research into children's literacy projects and how they can undermine local community knowledge.

Oral stories are part of epistemic justice. They build a sense of identity and history and agency. After all, if you do not know who you are and what your values are how can you fight for them?

Thandeka Cochrane

What role do the stories children hear as they grow have in building a sense of identity? Thandeka Cochrane [2015] says children’s stories are crucial to self-formation. She is interested in how literacy projects in southern Africa are undermining local community knowledge and imposing western ideas on the most vulnerable.

Her PhD in Social Anthropology investigates the interaction between oral and written children’s stories in rural Malawi.

“I am very interested in the ways in which knowledge and epistemological practice are part of the epistemic violence of development practice,” she says. “Teaching literacy through children’s stories seems good, but there is very little discussion about what is happening in the space in which the stories circulate and stories are fundamental to creating a person’s framework of knowledge. As such they are objects of power.”

Thandeka's fieldwork, for which she lived with local women in two different Malawian villages for 18 months, involved lots of interviews with local people about what they think about stories and about what is being taught through the stories. “It became very clear to me that oral stories passed down through families are moral scripts and teach children how to be a good human, how to be in a community. Parents and grandparents teach children the stories in their own languages. School lessons may be taught in another language. The oral stories create bonds and the community owns that knowledge. Yet oral stories are disappearing and knowledge hierarchies are being formed. This is cutting parents out of the didactic process.”

She contrasts this with the growth of home education in the West and the emphasis on parental involvement. She feels children’s literacy is a relatively neglected area of research.

Growing up

Thandeka’s interest in social justice began at an early age. Born in Cape Town, she grew up in Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town in a family which was very socially conscious. Her mother is a German pastor who moved to South Africa to fight apartheid and her father is South African and was a professor of theology.

Thandeka spent a year in Germany when she was nine and her mother was working in a village there. After apartheid ended she went to a German school which included South Africans on bursaries as well as German-speaking students. The bursaries were funded by the German government which wanted to support non-white education. The school classes were taught in English and German.

When she was 16 Thandeka spent a year in the US – six months in high school in Boston and six in a school in Berkeley as well as some time travelling across the US. Her father was on sabbatical doing research at the time. Thandeka says it was “a rude awakening to the rat race”. Her German school, set in “the village mentality” of Cape Town, was academically good and her future seemed assured. She found the US system much more competitive. The Boston school in contrast was an Ivy League feeder school. While she was in the US she also went on her first political protests against the Iraq war.

Thandeka says the experience opened up her eyes to the world outside Cape Town.  So when she finished school, she took a gap year to go to work in England and the US and to think about what she wanted to study at university. She knew it had to be something that would have a positive social impact. Having grown up in South Africa in a socially conscious family and seeing social injustice every day, she says it was impossible not to feel this way.

Thandeka returned to South Africa to Cape Town University where she majored in English, Politics and Social Anthropology. During her course she did an exchange at the University of Amsterdam where she enjoyed discussing political issues. She says: “In South Africa we didn’t talk about politics as it was too upsetting. I realised in Amsterdam that I could talk to my peers about things that matter.”

A friend had introduced her to the Model UN Society and Thandeka took part in the United Nations International Student Conference in Amsterdam. On her return she decided to set up something similar in South Africa and created Model UN conferences from scratch, training all the chairs. The first Model UN conference at her university was held in 2010 and is now a regular event. “People are really excited to talk about international politics and to debate real issues,” she says. Thandeka did her thesis on political philosophy and social theory, investigating the rise of modern individualism. “I’ve always hated individualism and been attracted by the philosophy of ubuntu which celebrates community and the idea that we are who we are through other people,” she says.

From Politics to Social Anthropology

After completing her undergraduate degree she applied to do an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual Theory at the University of Cambridge. The course was based in the history department and, as Thandeka had not done much history and the course seemed so exciting, she stayed at Cape Town University for an extra year doing history. During that year she got involved in an early literacy project pilot in a township. “It was an amazing experience and had a big influence on what I am doing now,” she says.

The MPhil, for which she won a Commonwealth scholarship, was very academic and theoretical and Thandeka found that quite frustrating. She focused on the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment in the Cape of Good Hope. After that experience she wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue in academia, but she decided to give it one last chance.

When she had applied to Cambridge, she had also applied to do Social Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam so she decided to try that. Her dissertation involved three months’ field research at early childhood development centres in rural Malawi. She was interested in exploring the impact of the centres, mostly run by international NGOS, on rural communities. “It seemed to be about imposing ideas about what is good for a child. The local volunteers often had different ideas, but were basically told that everything they thought was wrong,” she says. The volunteers were given a three-day training workshop with the threat that funding would be withdrawn if they did it wrong.

Thandeka recalls one of the European women involved was very keen on promoting  literacy through Grimm’s fairytales. Yet at the same time parents were being told by westerners that witchcraft and magic were problematic. “I started seeing books as part of the development machine and questioned what literacy meant when it was not about stories in people’s own language, when the stories were not about them and the pictures were of things they didn’t recognise,” says Thandeka.

Her Dutch supervisor encouraged her to apply for a PhD on the basis of her thesis, which won best thesis prize. She applied to Cambridge because she says she likes “to fix things”. “Cambridge was like an unfinished project for me,” she says. Thandeka was also drawn to the Gates Cambridge scholarship and its focus on community. Between finishing the master’s and starting the PhD she returned to South Africa for a year, working on a project to build an alternative encyclopaedia on South African history and taking part in the Rhodes Must Fall occupation.  When she returned to Cambridge she did so with a renewed political commitment and became involved in the Decolonise Cambridge movement.

Her PhD has built on her master’s work. She is now writing up, but is keen to deepen her work on oral literature in the future and to work on a project to produce books in local Malawian languages. She says: “Oral stories are part of epistemic justice. They build a sense of identity and history and agency. After all, if you do not know who you are and what your values are how can you fight for them?”

*Photo: Thandeka with Fannie Ngirwa, whom she lived with for eight months during her fieldwork.
Thandeka Cochrane

Thandeka Cochrane

  • Alumni
  • South Africa
  • 2015 PhD Social Anthropology
  • Magdalene College

Born in Cape Town to a South African father and a German mother, I have always been deeply aware of how culture affects the way in which we think and value knowledge. Throughout my undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town I was drawn to exploring the ways knowledge is deeply implicated in relations of power, where certain knowledges and ways of knowing are privileged over others and the impact this has on addressing questions of inequality and social injustice. As a Commonwealth Scholar at doing an MPhil in Intellectual History at Cambridge, I explored the ways in which Scottish Enlightenment thought impacted upon narratives around slavery and emancipation in nineteenth century South Africa. After completing my Cambridge MPhil, I decided to shift my focus from history to anthropology, with the desire to be involved in more engaged academia. For my MSc in Social Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam I conducted three months fieldwork in Malawi studying Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres in rural villages and the ways in which these centres are embedded in asymmetrical power/knowledge relations which privilege outside and ‘expert’ knowledge above that of the community. During my PhD at Cambridge I hope to further explore the ways in which unequal power/knowledge constructions are embedded in ‘development’ focused literacy projects, by examining the import of children’s fantasy and fairytale literature into rural communities and the asymmetrical relations of power within which these are embedded.

Previous Education

University of Amsterdam
University of Cambridge

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