Skip to main content

Pillars of the Nation

Child Citizens and Ugandan National Development

How can children simultaneously be the most important and least powerful people in a nation? In her innovative ethnography of Ugandan children—the pillars of tomorrow’s Uganda, according to the national youth anthem—Kristen E. Cheney answers this question by exploring the daily contradictions children face as they try to find their places amid the country’s rapidly changing social conditions.

Drawing on the detailed life histories of several children, Cheney shows that children and childhood are being redefined by the desires of a young country struggling to position itself in the international community. She moves between urban schools, music festivals, and war zones to reveal how Ugandans are constructing childhood as an empowering identity for the development of the nation. Moreover, through her analysis of children’s rights ideology, national government strategy, and children’s everyday concerns, Cheney also shows how these young citizens are vitally linked to the global political economy as they navigate the pitfalls and possibilities for a brighter tomorrow.

288 pages | 14 halftones, 2 maps, 1 figure, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2007

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Education: Comparative Education

History: African History

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


“With Pillars of the Nation, Kristen Cheney has admirably succeeded in providing a culturally informed ethnographic study of the predicament of children in contemporary Uganda. Here, she shows how Ugandan children in diverse and often problematic situations seek to establish through their own agency a meaningful life not always in agreement with cultural codes, national social agendas, and ideologies enforced by international agencies and programs to assist them. This is an impressive and original work.”

Philip Kilbride, Bryn Mawr College

“In this lively and powerful ethnography, Kristen Cheney highlights the incongruities and contradictions between the globalized norms of childhood embodied in the children’s rights discourse, the progressive ideals of nationalist doctrine, and children’s lived experiences of growing up in a diversity of circumstances in Uganda. Taking issue with the view of children as passive recipients of adult socialization, Cheney builds a forceful case for viewing young people as highly competent social agents who actively negotiate their own political identities. Conceptualizing children and childhood from a political economy perspective, this volume makes a significant contribution to the field of childhood studies.”

Jo Boyden, Director of the Young Lives Project, Department of International Development, University of Oxford

"A valuable addition to a scant literature."


"An important book that deserves wide readership. It is particularly appropriate for an undergraduate course on ethnography as well as a graduiate course specifically focusing on childhood and citizenship. It was an enjoyable and engaging book to read."

Mwenda Ntaranqwi | American Ethnologist

"A riveting and nuanced ethnography of Ugandan schoolchildren’s understanding of childhood, nationhood and children’s place within the nation. . . . Cheney illustrates eloquently the rift between international and Ugandan discourses on children’s rights and children’s actual sense of powerlessness shaped by adult notions of childhood."

Dorte Thorsen | Social Anthropology

"Pillars of the Nation provides a valuable description of childhood in a contemporary African context while also challenging readers to recognize that the success of broad prescriptions for the well-being of children . . . ultimately depend heavily upon local realities. . . . Pillars of the Nation will be of interest to anyone concerned with a sophisticated and contextualized analysis of childhood in contemporary Africa, and to anyone interested in children’s rights anywhere in the world."

Andrew M. Guest | Childhood

"Pillars of the Nation is much more than a case study of childhood in an African setting. The book engages key sociological themes of nationalism, social change, and generational conflict--all through the lens of childhood. Cheney makes a strong case that children play an active role in constructing their social worlds and that their actions have important repercussions for adults as well."

Robert Wyrod | American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

: The Role of Ugandan Child Citizens in the Struggle for National Development

Chapter 1: Global Rights Discourses, National Developments, and Local Childhoods  

Part One: Crucial Components of Child Citizenship

Chapter 2: “Education for All”: The Dilemma of Children’s Educational Attainment, National Development, and Class Mobility
Chapter 3: “Speaking the English of a Ugandan Person”: The Intersections of Children’s Identity Formation
Chapter 4: Children’s Political Socialization: Engagement and Disempowerment

Part Two: Actualizations

Chapter 5: “Village Life Is Better Than Town Life”: Identity, Migration, and Development in the Lives of Ugandan Child Citizens
Chapter 6: “Our Children Have Only Known War”: The Predicament of Children and Childhood in Northern Uganda
Chapter 7: “Did the Constitution Produce My Children!?” Cultural Production and Contestation in Uganda’s National Primary School Music Festivals


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press