Three things from Uganda that will help poor Nigerian parents raise healthy, brilliant kids


Children play in the field at Birambo ECD centre, Kabale, Uganda

Poverty is not a barrier to raising high-fliers, writes Chikezie Omeje after returning from a reporting trip to Uganda where he observed how poor and rural dwellers are taking bold initiatives to create a better future for their children.

Scientific evidence shows that children who go through quality pre-primary school are less likely to drop out of school, perform better in learning and earn more income as adults than children who never pass through pre-school.

Unfortunately, children of poor parents are most likely to be malnourished, drop out of school or perform poorly in school than children of the rich.

What determines a child’s future is often the quality of care, learning, and protection the child receives in the early years of life.

What this means is that investment in the early childhood development by parents, communities and governments is being recognised as the best form of investment in a child’s life. Early childhood, from zero to eight years, is a crucial period in a child’s life when the brain is developing rapidly. What happens to children in terms of nutrition and education during the early years will determine the extent to which they will be able to realise their full potential in life.

With the launch of integrated the early childhood development policy and the establishment of Early Childhood Development (ECD) secretariat last year, Uganda, a low-income country of about 41 million people in East Africa, is taking significant steps to invest adequately in ECD. The knowledge of ECD is gaining currency in the country, not just in the cities but also in rural communities.

The most interesting things about ECD in Uganda are not being done by government but by rural communities in Western Uganda, inhabited mostly by smallholder farmers.


Maureen Korigendo carrying her son at the ECD support group meeting at Muko in Kabale

When 22-year-old Maureen Korigendo got pregnant two years to her graduation from secondary school, she went into hiding. She holed up in her aunt’s house until she delivered a low birth-weight baby. She never went for antenatal because she was ashamed. She was not eating properly during her pregnancy and she did not receive support because she had brought shame to her vulnerable family of five siblings and a mother for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Her low birth-weight child would die if she continued hiding from people. She had no knowledge of parenting and she had been away from her family throughout the duration of the pregnancy. Korigendo was eventually introduced to Bwindi Bacara Turinde Amagara (meaning, we, the Bwindi women, save our lives) — a support group of women who teach themselves childcare and protection practices.

Korigendo learnt how to take care of her son, Edwin, who is now two and half years old. With the support of the group, she was reunited with her family. After six months of exclusive breastfeeding, she was taught how to blend locally-available foods to feed her child.

“Without this group, my son could not have survived,” Korigendo says in her local dialect through an interpreter.

She ties her son with a wrapper behind her back, as she watches two older women demonstrate how to prepare baby’s food. Other group members sit on the mats with their children, outside a home on a vantage point of a mountain overlooking a valley at Butale in Muko sub-county of Kabale. The cooks put together mashed sweet potato, sorghum, and eggs in a small pot sitting on stones with fire wood burning under.

There are 22 of these groups in the sub-county learning health, nutrition, water and sanitation, and early stimulation for their children. Each group meets once a month or fortnightly. Members also save money through the group to buy goats, hens or towards other projects.

Amos Tugumisirize, a trained ECD educator, goes to the groups on their meeting days to monitor their children’s growth with a malnutrition test strip and teach them best feeding practices. He has a folded banner which he unfolds and flips to show the women different images of best childcare and protection.

The support group has made Korigendo a better mother, raising a healthy and well-nourished child. She has overcome the stigma of being a single parent. Through land lease, she farms Irish potato and sorghum. She hopes to train her son up to the university level so that he will take care of her at old age.


A child at Birambo ECD centre, Kabale, points and mentions each letter of alphabet

ECD experts say that a child is supposed to start pre-primary school (nursery) at the age of three. Unfortunately, Uganda does not have government-funded nursery schools. The official school age in Uganda is six years from primary school. Only the private sector is providing pre-primary education and it is mostly in the urban areas.

However, with the support of Unicef and faith-based organisations, rural communities are now setting up integrated ECD centres. At Birambo integrated ECD centre at Maziba sub-county in the mountain region of Kabale by the border with Rwanda, 89 children have already enrolled.

Birambo is a community on mountains where the inhabitants are poor, smallholder farmers producing mainly plantain, banana, potato, sorghum, cabbage and pineapple. A dusty road between valleys, mountainsides and mountain tops leads to the community after passing several villages. The road climbs up or down a steep slope with a collection of many turns.  A sudden and careless swivel of steering by a driver will plunge the vehicle more than 300 feet into a valley. The inhabitants build houses on high vantage point and farm on the mountainsides and valleys.

Despite the rugged terrain and being far-flung to an urban area where their children can go to private nursery schools, the farmers are not relenting in giving their children early start in education. Their motivation is that their children performed poorly in an external examination into secondary school and the reason was mainly that they did not pass through preschool like many children who did well in the urban areas. They want their children to catch up with those in urban areas that have access to sophisticated ECD centres.

In the rural ECD centres, the children are learning the basics of literacy, numeracy, hygiene, problem-solving, communication and social skills, among others to prepare them for primary school.


Children display their toys at Birambo ECD centre, Kabale, Uganda

In the early years, children learn better through plays. Experts in ECD say that play is the natural way by which children learn. Therefore, standard ECD centres must have tools and toys for play-based learning, as well as a spacious environment for plays.

Being financed and managed by poor rural farmers, Birambo ECD centre cannot afford modern tools and toys for the children in the school. The centre is managed by the community management committee made up of the parents. The caregivers are paid $35 a month while the children pay $10 as tuition fee for a term of three months.

We created our own learning tools, says Busingye Medius, head caregiver of Birambo ECD centre.

In each class, at a corner facing the black board, is a collection of different tools and toys made by the pupils and their parents.  From banana and plantain fibre, they make round balls, baby dolls, and jumping ropes. From sorghum stem, they make counting sticks and also have a collection of bottle tops which the children use in counting. All around the classes, images of animal, birds and objects are drawn with pencil on cardboard papers and cartoons. In one of the classes, a child picks a stick, pointing and mentioning each alphabet scribbled on cardboard paper.

Outside the class, the children play with the ball by kicking and throwing. Others jump ropes and sing. A greater number of children rush to the other side of the field to the swing sets constructed with logs as pipes, wooden swing hangers and seats with ropes. These activities help the children to develop their motor and social skills.



    At the entrance of the toilet lies five litres gallon of water suspended 26 inches above the ground with sticks which the children push the bottom to provide a running water for hand washing after using the toilet.

    All the learning tools and play grounds are made by members of the community and children are helped by their parents and older siblings to create their own toys thereby giving them the same learning opportunities to develop their physical, cognitive, emotional and social skills as children in elitist schools.

    Amos Tugumisirize shows nursing mothers images of good childcare at Butale in Muko, Kabale district

    From Kampala, the Ugandan capital, to districts and sub-counties, ECD has formed in the consciousness of policymakers and government officials. There are ECD focal persons and committees in each district to ensure the implementation of the national policy on ECD while the ECD secretariat in the ministry of gender, labour and social development coordinates a multi-sectoral approach to ECD implementation.

    Uganda recognises that investing adequately in ECD is critical for the realisation of its vision to become a middle-income country by 2040. Nigeria can learn from that, too.

    Chikezie can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @KezieOmeje

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