Through Children's Eyes

October 15, 2010
Sarah McCans

Sarah McCans grew up in Montreal and earned an undergraduate degree in human geography at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and a Master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Guelph. Her first job after university involved computer-aided drafting of projects such as big-box store parking lots. “And I thought: I’m really not making the world a better place,” she says.

In 2006, McCans received a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) youth internship, managed by the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP), to work on an urban agriculture project in Kampala, Uganda. She later applied for a research internship with IDRC’s Urban Poverty and Environment program, which took her back to Kampala in September 2007.

Below, she describes the innovative project she undertook, working with children in three districts of the Ugandan capital as they communicated their experience of environmental issues through drawings.

During my 2006 Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) / CIP internship in Kampala, my longstanding interest in children’s environments shifted from a broad focus on play and early childhood development to a focus on urban poverty and environmental health issues facing children. As I worked in the community, observed daily life, and learned more about local issues, I came to appreciate the impact that basic urban environmental quality — particularly water, sanitation, waste management, and housing — has on children’s well-being and development

 Child's drawing of region
IDRC / McCans
A child's rendering of Kasubi, the parish least
affected by serious environmental problems.

Children and youth are disproportionately affected by the environmental problems that afflict informal settlements in the global South, but they are rarely given a voice in the urban planning and management processes that affect their lives. As a result, children’s needs are often ignored or misconstrued, and interventions risk being ill-designed and poorly implemented.

The purpose of my field research was to illustrate the value of including children in the participatory research. My goal was not only to learn more about children’s experiences, but also to show what children have to contribute when given a chance, and how much they understand the issues facing their communities.

In Kampala, I worked with three groups of children between the ages of 9 and 12, in three different parishes in the Focus Cities project community. I wanted to give them an opportunity to share how they experience the environmental issues in their communities. Children will tell you very directly what’s going on. They’re not politically motivated and don’t censor themselves.

The three parishes reflected a socio-economic range, as well as a range in severity of the environmental challenges in the city. Kampala is situated on a series of hills. The poorest people tend to live in the valley bottoms, which are often wetlands. Higher up the hills, the socio-economic bracket is higher, and the housing and environmental conditions are markedly different.

In the region around Kampala in southern Uganda, there are two rainy seasons. But in 2007, it just seemed to rain all the time. In the low-lying areas where the low-income populations often live, the soil became saturated and severe flooding occurred repeatedly. Bwaise parish, located at the bottom of a valley, is always hardest hit. Children and adults wade through contaminated water full of raw sewage. Residents suffer from skin lesions, and there are frequent cholera outbreaks. Children are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are not yet fully developed.

Makerere-II parish doesn’t suffer the same degree of flooding as Bwaise, but it’s in close proximity, so people are aware of the issues in Bwaise. The third parish, Kasubi, is not affected by the flooding at all.

Child's drawing of flooded region
IDRC / McCans
Bwaise Parish, where flooding is a regular occurrence,
is depicted in a child's drawing.

Each group I worked with consisted of 10 children — five girls and five boys. They all did two sets of drawings — one illustrating environmental problems near their homes, and another set about issues affecting the local community. More than 60 drawings were produced in all.

The drawings are very compelling. They’re rich in information, and a story accompanies each one. After each drawing session, we sat in a circle on the ground and each child would present their drawing and share their story. This was very important because the children’s intended message can be easily lost when the drawings are interpreted through adult eyes, in addition to a cultural lens.

With the exception of Kasubi, the parish least affected by serious environmental problems, the themes were remarkably similar: sanitation, water quality, health issues, flooding, and loss of personal possessions and homes because of the flooding. The biggest concern for the children in Kasubi was hygiene in the local market and the fact that produce was being sold near latrines and open toilets. That was interesting, because adults had never raised this concern in the community meetings.

In the other parishes, many drawings feature a flooded home or area around a home. They often show the same elements: sewage coming out of the toilet, a dead body, a child drowning.

What came through in all the drawings was how well the children understood the connections between human activity and the environmental and health issues occurring in the community. When the floods come in the rainy season, the latrines become blocked and sewage flows into the floodwater — then that comes into the houses and also contaminates drinking water. The children drew this sequence of events, along with the clearly stated outcome: “We get sick.”

That surprised the adults, because they didn’t think children understood those connections. But they do, through a combination of living this on a daily basis and receiving hygiene and health education in schools from an early age.

Children lay on porch colouring
Children in Kasubi Parish participate in the study.

As adults, planners often make assumptions about what children need and want. My experience in Kampala underscored the importance of consulting kids directly. Involving children ought to be a given in participatory development, but they are often left on the sidelines, much as women were 25 or 30 years ago.

Related content

VIDEO: Through Children's Eyes — An Audio Slideshow - Watch and listen to an audio slideshow describing Sarah McCans' work in Kampala

Sarah McCans’ project in Kampala was part of IDRC’s Focus Cities Research Initiative. Through its Urban Poverty and Environment program, IDRC is supporting collaboration between local government authorities, research institutions, and community organizations on innovative projects that link poverty alleviation, environmental management, and natural resource use for food, water, and income security in eight cities around the world.