Greetings from beautiful Uganda, where it’s lush & green (as green as the little emerald that I herald from) and the people greet with open arms. I’ve been overwhelmed by the Ugandan welcome. Coming from London, where we fear to make eye contact with strangers, let alone greet with a hello or smile, the warm welcome is striking. Arriving in Entebbe, which is one of the most picturesque landings I’ve yet experienced, I was met by a driver who hold me all about the history of Uganda & even tried to sell me a trip to see the chimpanzees (apparently he’s a safari guide too, which might come in handy later in my trip). We had a 3-hour edge-of-your-seat/imaginary-break-pumping journey to Jinja. But arrived safely at the Lively Minds house where, Sarah and Cliff were there with hugs and kisses to welcome me to the team.
Work at Lively Minds starts at 10am (for a person who finds early mornings aversive, Africa Time really suits me). I met all the team who expressed such gratitude that I’ve come to work with them. Although, I’m pretty confident I’ve much more to gain from learning from their team than I’ll add. Their day starts with a team debrief about the previous day’s work out on the field. Then a plan is made for the afternoon & resources for the play centres and workshops are worked on. I made my first Ugandan child cry that morning. Maria, the house keeper, has gorgeous 2 year old called Trisha. The team had a good laugh about it and teased “wait until you get to the field, most of the villagers have never seen a Muzungo before”. I didn’t really believe it, but it was soon to be true. We drove an hour into the countryside where the team planned to spontaneously review a play centre in Bulakaloya. The team were worried that it would rain and the car would become stranded in the muddy roads. As it’s rainy season, it inevitably poured, but (spoiler alert) we got out safely.
I had visited rural villages on an Intrepid tour in Kenya & Tanzania last year but this village was much more deprived; no water, no electricity, a community of small mud farming houses. When we pulled up and got out of the car, lots of the kids burst out crying and a few went running into the sugar cane fields. I quickly learned that the Lively Mind’s team’s prediction was true! These infants had never seen a white person before and quite frankly we’re pretty scary looking, especially a freckly one! The children who didn’t crying starred at me wide eyed petrified. Despite the initial commotion, lively learning in the play centre quickly resumed.
You’ll hopefully see from the photos, that Mum’s are teaching lots of different cognitive tasks like matching shapes and colours, naming objects & counting and other skills like turn taking, imaginative play & story-telling. What I didn’t capture here were the group of children who were playing imaginative games outside. As we all need motivation to keep us going, the children are reinforced for their hard work by praise from their peers; by singing a little Asante Sana (thank you very much) song & rhythmic clapping. For me, the most impressive aspect of the play centres is that theses mothers never received formal education at all; most were married about 14-17 years of age and assume a low social standing in their patriarchal communities . Lively Minds fosters the idea that parents are our best teachers and in these rural communities mothers are best placed to provide their young ones with essential first formal learning experiences. From Lively Minds input, I saw a group of enthusiastic teachers who took pride in their work and delivered the programme with such love and passion. I particularly admired how female empowerment is at the core of the play centres. You’ll notice in the pictures that one woman is breastfeeding her infant while teaching and another has her baby taking a nap in the sling on her back, multi-tasking at its best!
The team informed me that although the child outcomes from the play centres are great; the mothers are more likely to send them to primary school, the kids score higher on testing, and they have fun, to name but a few. The mother’s outcomes are equally impressive, their attitudes toward education completely changes, and their relationship with their child improves, as too does their parenting skills. And importantly they feel empowered, reporting higher self-esteem and self-worth. All the mothers who run the play centres are volunteers, and they are asked to give two hours a week, while the kids attend two hours a day. At the end of the play school day, the volunteering mothers deliver the children back safely to their homes; effective community functioning in action!