Surviving the city
: The place of street children in Kampala’s urban environment

  • Lorraine van Blerk (née Young)

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Based on the recognition that children are important social actors, researchers within the geographical discipline are now calling for more research on children as a neglected grouping undergoing socio-spatial marginalisation. Although there is an ever growing celebration of 'multiple childhoods' and diversity in children's engagements with space, place, environment and landscape, much of this research has been conducted in a Western context. Much less work has focused on the special position of exclusion of children in developing countries.

    The notion that power relations are entangled over space as groups and individuals exercise power in different ways, suggests that some groups will be marginalised by, and consequently resist the dominant mode of social production. Street children are one such group considered to be 'out of place' in the urban environment. They are a particularly interesting facet of multiple childhoods because they are creating their own spaces within the inherently adult domain of the city. Kampala, Uganda, was selected for study because street children have only recently become prevalent there due to the combined effects of socio-economic restructuring, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and internal conflict, which directly impact on the micro-structure of the home and family.

    In order to accurately understand the place of street children in Kampala's urban environment a multi-method strategy is employed based on a participatory child-centred philosophy. A. series of oral, visual and written 'action' methods are devised and adapted in conjunction with the children themselves and triangulated with the implementation of interviews and questionnaires with members of the wider social street.

    The results demonstrate that understanding Kampala street child geographies can be viewed nationally and locally. First, by looking at the incidence of street child origins nationally, and comparing this to a series of poverty-related factors, it was noted that most children were coming from the rural areas in immediate proximity to major urban centres. Through this analysis geography is illustrated to play an important role in understanding the origins of street children.

    The remainder of the thesis concentrates on street child geographies within the more localised level of Kampala's urban space. Socio-spatially, aspects of daily life namely work, eating, washing, sleeping and leisure illustrate specific geographies developed by street children to create their own diverse survival opportunities. This is particularly illustrated through the ingenious and resourceful use of a myriad of urban spaces and places. Retraction into marginalised space is a way of continuing 'out of place' activities in undisturbed locations. By moving into untouchable, underground and rooftop spaces, the children effectively remove themselves from the ordinary functions of the city allowing them to engage 'in their own activities and develop their own sites of meaning in the city. However, reaction to being out of place also results in spatial resistance whereby the children move into spaces occupied by other street users for survival. Both these geographies are further noted here to be complimented by street child acceptance where the children renounce their subculture in order to participate in legitimate activities. Finally, the thesis widened to incorporate a temporal perspective into this examination of street child socio-spatial survival strategies. This is based on a discussion of place attachments both at the micro-level of the daily street and the macro-level of street life. This highlighted the immense diversity of street child survival as they move in and out of the street.

    This thesis demonstrates the complexity of survival strategies employed by street children throughout their time on the streets and illustrates that this is a resourceful existence, whereby children are constantly adapting to changing situations to secure a place in the urban environment. The locality of the street is highlighted as instrumental in the way individual children create a way of living for themselves. They react to their out of placeness in the city spatially, through the creation of street child niches, and socially, through the adoption and adaptation of street child subculture.
    Date of Award2000
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorHazel Barrett (Supervisor), Angela Browne (Supervisor) & Roy May (Supervisor)


    • street children
    • street poverty
    • Kampala

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