By: Derrick Kyatuka, Communications Officer, Uganda Refugee Response
Well-prepared with learning and play materials, smartly dressed in their orange aprons well matched with orange face masks, the para-social (caregivers) are headed for the community to meet children.
Walking with resolve on the dusty marram road, the burning desire to pass on knowledge to children is evident on their faces. They sacrifice a lot to attend to the children. They forego their errands. They don’t have alternative means of transport apart from walking, often long distances under the scorching sun. To them, reaching out to children is a passion.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause a sense of dread among parents as schools largely remain closed in Uganda, including play centres for children in refugee settlements. This is why the seven para-social workers, trained by World Vision with funding from UNICEF in Bidibidi settlement –a home to over 220,000 refugees from South Sudan– have embraced a new way of teaching and reaching out to children with psychosocial support.
Although the Government promised to deliver reading materials to children across the country during the lockdown, there is still limited access to these materials, especially for children in the rural areas and refugee settlements. This has affected the momentum and greatly slowed down learning. Many children are likely to forget what they were taught before schools closed, and others might completely drop out of school.
After a 20-minute walk, the caregivers arrive at the first home where children are eagerly waiting under a tree. Children wearing upbeat expressions excitedly welcome them as they try to grab and peep into the boxes with the play items.
As soon as they arrive, the caregivers shout out a greeting, which is responded to in union by a group of excited children. They then immediately introduce a song that the children blissfully sing in high-pitched voices, clapping and dancing.
As the second song fades, Mary Stima, one of the caregivers, now realises that she has the attention of every child. They impatiently look at her for the next course of action. She swiftly clusters them in small groups of 10-15 according to their class levels before the lessons begin.
The children are already familiar with this mode of teaching. They have been learning this way for the past four months. In their small groups, some begin to gather small stones and make letters of the alphabet and numbers on the ground without any assistance. Others are engaged in drawing and shading, skipping ropes, rolling tyres, and jigsaw puzzles.
“Before this intervention, there was a lot of boredom among the children,” says Mary. “Some had forgotten what they had learnt at the Child Friendly Space (CFS) but they are now picking up. This mode of teaching is creating a big difference in the lives of children.”
Reaching out to children in the lockdown has helped to keep them interested in school and developed their creativity through making of local play materials.
“We teach children how to make play materials locally because it is cost effective but also it builds the creativity of both parents and their children.” says Mary. “They are making their own wonderful toys that they share amongst themselves. We continue to facilitate play and learning in the lockdown.”
Margret (15) is a satisfied beneficiary of home-based learning. In the two months she has been part of the programme, she has learnt how to make skipping ropes and playing balls locally. She says she has not missed playing at the CFS too much since she can access it from home.
“I meet my friends and we learn and play together,” says Margret. “The caregivers also teach us about how to improve hygiene and sanitation and keep reminding us how to protect ourselves against COVID-19. I am happy about learning from home.”
Wani (14) is equally happy that his parents give him time to attend the lessons. He says he has learnt to obey his parents and listen to their advice.
“We are advised on how to cooperate with our parents,” says Wani. “In meetings, parents are also taught how to take good care of us. Some parents don’t allow their children to attend the lessons as they engage them in work all the time. Caregivers tell them that this is bad.”
Suzan Ibrihim, a parent, is appreciative of the positive change World Vision is creating in the lives of children and the community. “I’m happy about the job well done by the caregivers and I appreciate their kindness towards our children.” she says. “Our children are learning a lot from home. As parents, we are also taught about positive parenting. We have also been equipped with skills to make play materials locally to always help our children in the absence of the caregivers.”
Rashid Waiga, the head of the caregivers at Arise and Shine CFS, says that children are happy about the programme and their lives have been greatly impacted. “On June 18, World Vision called back seven caregivers and oriented us about implementing a home-based approach of learning in the settlement,” says Rashid. “We were also taught on how to integrate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of COVID-19 in our activities. Children have fully embraced this mode of learning as they wait for schools to reopen.”
The seven caregivers implement home-based learning in the four villages of Zone II in BidiBidi. The beauty of this approach is that it has also created a bond between caregivers and children.
“The project is going well and learners have a special relationship with the caregivers,” says Rashid. “They can easily talk to them on issues affecting them.” The project has needs, he says. "Some of the challenges we are facing include; limited playing materials, unstable playing ground especially for football and rolling tyres, lack of enough scholastic materials like pencils, rubber and plain paper for drawing and some parents refusing to send their children to study.”
Caeser Odongo, World Vision's Monitoring & Evaluation Officer under the UNICEF-funded project, says they are working closely with caregivers because they fully understand the needs of children, parents, and the way of life of communities.
“We engage caregivers from both the refugee and host communities because they are able to provide a swift response to the persons of concern before World Vision intervenes.” Caeser says. “All our caregivers adhere to COVID-19 SOP’s while engaging with the communities,” says Ceasar. “Children are divided in smaller groups that are manageable to avoid close contact but this also helps them to be attended to fully by the caregiver.”
Child protection system strengthening
For the last seven months, World Vision has been working closely with community structures like caregivers, Refugee Welfare Council leaders, community leaders, and Government leaders in the districts of Terego, Yumbe and Adjumani to strengthen child protection systems.
“We have trained Government staff and community structures both in the refugee and host communities in what we believe can strengthen child protection systems.” says Caesar. “We have empowered them because they understand their community needs and we want them to take lead in decision-making in their communities.”
World Vision has been able to reach over 15,000 people in the three districts with different child protection interventions.