Between Shadow and Solace
: The Spiritual Lives of Street Children in Bukavu, The Democratic Republic of Congo

  • Eva Krah

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis explores the role of spirituality in the everyday lives of street children and youth (aged 14-20) in Bukavu, The Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite growing scholarly attention to street children’s everyday lives and lived experiences, the topic of spirituality has remained underexplored. This study’s focus on spirituality - religion and witchcraft - is inspired by the findings of longitudinal, comparative research across Africa (van Blerk, Shand, and Shanahan 2017), revealing the prominence of spirituality in street children’s everyday lives (Krah et al. 2016). To access and interpret children’s inner (spiritual) lives, this study has complemented ethnographic fieldwork with creative, participatory methods including pictorial interviews, theatre and drawings, designed to facilitate reflexivity and dialogue.

    To theoretically assess street children’s spiritual beliefs and practices, this thesis draws on Bourdieusian practice theory, whilst moving beyond it by recognizing reflexivity, intentionality and subjectivity.

    Research findings indicate spirituality is employed in the context of children’s quest for everyday survival on the streets. In particular, this study analyses a ‘spiritual practice of survival’, which should be seen as twofold: the spiritual practice of material survival and the spiritual practice of moral survival. For understanding this dual spiritual practice of survival, the importance of the sociocultural environment - ‘the field’ - for shaping opportunities and limitations for conduct is crucial.

    In conclusion, this thesis exposes and explains the centrality of spirituality for children’s survival on the streets, enabling children to experience power and create meaning. Ultimately, a focus on lived spirituality allows the unravelling of vulnerable children’s agency and the assessment of the interplay between agency and structure. With these insights this study contributes theoretically to ongoing debates in the Sociology of Childhood as well as in the wider fields of Human Geography and Social Anthropology about structure and agency in constrained settings. Taking a person-centred approach, it defines agency as the subjective ‘experience and pursuit of possibilities’, recognizing the existential complexity of (vulnerable) children, taking full account of intentionality, aspirations and the pursuit of life projects that are constituted in time and place.
    Date of Award2018
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorLorraine van Blerk (Supervisor) & Fiona Smith (Supervisor)

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