From Make Believe Play to Making Manure

On Wednesday Ron, Grace, Josephine and I headed to the village of Nabigwali to facilitate a Make Believe workshop. As we made our way to Nabigwali we enjoyed the excitement in the communities as crowds of people were playing music, dancing and singing to celebrate their candidates victory in the elections. The aim of the Make Believe workshop is to teach volunteer mothers about the importance of imaginary play for their children. Imaginary play provides opportunities for children to expand their communication and language skills, it encourages imitation and modelling, and it fosters cooperation, sharing and other adaptive social skills. As someone who loved playing princesses, shop, school, mammies & daddies, and actresses (yes that is a make believe game; anything goes, it’s make believe!) over playing with dolls and puzzles, I can endorse that above all of the developmental benefits make believe play is lots of fun.

To begin, the mothers are taught about the benefits of playing make believe games. The team then present them with examples of make believe scenarios; for example, playing shop or school or taxi. They are then asked to brainstorm what their child would do if they were to play the game and what materials from their local environment could they use to enhance their engagement with the game. For example, if the game was shop, the child can be encouraged to use tins and boxes as grocery items, bricks as shelves, and stones as money. And because everyone loves a good role-play (but really because role-plays help consolidate learning), the mothers are then invited to play a make believe game and reflect on their experience. They are then encouraged to play make believe games with their young ones at home and required to incorporate make believe play into the Play Centre curriculum.

As protocol the Lively Minds team contact a leader in the village prior to our departure from the Jinja office to remind the women that we are coming, and to find out if there are any events that might prevent the workshops form taking place. However, this precaution does not always ensure that training goes ahead as planned. When we arrived at Nabigwali we learned that an elder in the village had suddenly passed away and that all the women had gone to pay their respects. And so Make Believe training in Nabigwali was not to be that day.

Women & children (& a few men) eagerly listening to the Manure-Making workshop

Women & children (& a few men) eagerly listening to the Manure-Making workshop

Instead we travelled to a neighbouring village called Bukasami, where Mike & Salma were leading a Manure-Making workshop. Uganda is one of the most fertile countries in Africa and so Lively Minds teach their Play Centre volunteers how to make the most of their garden produce by cultivating manure. In addition to the twenty women who were attending the workshop, their children also gathered for the lesson and so too did a few men, who coyly hung back within earshot of Mike’s instructions. The women had brought all the required tools and ingredients; trowels, sticks, potato leaves, urine, water, cow dung, and ash; and they weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty!

The first step: digging the pit

The first step: digging the pit

Adding all the active ingredients

Adding all the active ingredients

Following the demonstration, each volunteer was set with the challenge to make their own manure pit, which will be ready to nourish their fruit and veggies in four weeks. In encouraging the women to complete the task Mike reminded them that the manure pit did not cost anything as all the materials used are free and plentiful, and that the benefits would be many. He also jovially informed them that he would be back to inspect their work!

Mike: your go-to-guy for manure making!

Mike: your go-to-guy for manure making!



Election Day/s in Uganda

On Monday the nationwide local elections were supposed to be held, however, as Ugandan’s headed to the polls they were informed that the elections were postponed until the following day. When I asked why, Grace, a Lively Minds employee replied, “Because this is Uganda”. As all of Lively Minds play centres and workshops are in held in public buildings, which are used as polling centres, we had already cancelled all field-work for Monday and consequently had to cancel our plans for Tuesday. But we made the most of the unforeseen circumstances regardless.

Joshua, Lively Minds country manager, invited me to give a psychological opinion on a 9-year-old boy with significantly delayed verbal skills. I was greeted by the happiest little boy that I’ve met in quite some time. His parents informed me that they had taken him to many doctors in Jinja and Kampala, who repeatedly told them that their son does not have any difficulties or impairment. From me, they wanted an answer to their question of whether he would benefit from attending a special needs school. A universal model of education is provided in Uganda. Although at face value free education for all is ideal, universal education here equates to the same education for all. With one teacher and up for 50 students in each class, this means that children with any learning difficulties do not get support or a tailored curriculum to help them reach their potential. Priding itself with one of the highest English proficiency rates in Africa, lessons are mostly taught through English, which makes it even harder for children with learning disabilities to achieve. Imagine how difficult learning in that environment would be for a child who can only articulate a handful of words in his local language. Although they are rare special needs schools and classrooms do exist. They reside outside of the universal education system, ensuring that they are reserved for only those who can afford to pay.


Pupils enjoying biology at Twin Primary School, Buwagi

Before Joshua joined the Lively Minds team he founded his own primary school in his home village of Buwagi. He invited me to visit his school to meet a boy with significant learning difficulties and hopefully advise his staff on how best to support him. However, on arriving this young boy had already called it a day! Since starting his school eight years ago the pupil numbers have grown to 200. Although it is officially a private school, a quarter of the students are orphans from HIV-AIDS, many of which also have HIV. Their tuition, board and medical care are covered by the school profits. The prevalence of HIV in Uganda is 7.4% and related mortality is frightfully high. Joshua explained that despite these rash facts the government do not support sufficient services for children who are orphaned to the virus, leaving the responsibility to rest with people like Joshua and his staff. He introduced me to his youngest pupil, an adorable three-year-old girl, who has found neglected after her parents passed from HIV. Although she is too young to participate in lessons, the local children join her on the school grounds to play. They were having so much fun until I rudely asked for a photo!

Joshua, his youngest pupil (centre) & her playmates

Joshua, his youngest pupil (centre) & her playmates


A Lively Start with Lively Minds in Uganda

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.

One of the play centre's matching tasks

One of the play centre’s matching tasks

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!


One of the young mothers feeding her baby & educating the children

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!


Busy at work! The play centre at Bulakalya


A new opportunity for Kanamb Village, Uganda

Jamie Meyer – volunteer, Jan 11 2015

Just a few days ago I was cursing someone under my breath as I hurriedly made my way up the escalator from the underground, as god forbid they hadn’t moved to the right.

Today, I’m in Jinja, Uganda, where I’m volunteering for the next few weeks with Lively Minds. An absolute contrast to the hustle and bustle of London, where I’m now adjusting to “African time”.

For those unsure, Lively Minds are based in both Ghana and Uganda, where they set up early year play schemes for children 3-6 in remote, deprived villages by training local mothers themselves to run the programs. Ensuring they are sustainable and ongoing, with lasting benefits for the entire community.

During my first morning briefing we hear from Grace and Selma, two of the local team members, who have a lead on a potential new play centre location in the village of Kanamb. During the day while we’re out in the field visiting established centres, Joshua contacts the head of the village to arrange a community meeting.

The next day we take the hour long drive via 4WD, passing local villagers along dirt roads as they make their way to a water supply, or to the market where they may try to sell some fruit.

The sheer amount of village huts and locals we pass along the way is quite shocking. In my naivety I had expected a much smaller number of villages around Jinja, each with a small population. The team gives me an understanding of the hundreds of villages, sometimes with thousands of people living within each. Only now to I begin to understand the scale of the issue we are trying to tackle in Uganda alone.

We arrive at the village of Kanamb to see a group of locals have already gathered under the shade of the trees. Around 40 men are seated on wooden stools in a circle, with 10 or so women sitting on the ground to the side of the circle with their children. We are welcomed to the circle and offered a stool, which we take up but ask to expand the circle to include the women. We communicate that we also want to speak to the women of the village and numbers are low, so following the okay from the village head, one of the women runs off to gather more mothers from their homes. Slowly another 20 or so women wonder over to join the meeting.


I am surprised to see the structure of the meeting, which has a dedicated chairperson and leads with a prayer and welcome from the village head. The men explain they have three big issues in the village; the first being a lack of clean water, the second being no work or money, and the third being almost no access to education. They know little about the program so far, but are hoping we can help with one of these issues. I look around the group and can see so much hope and optimism in their eyes, that it really chokes me.

The news that the men are already mentioning education is a really good sign – in some of the villages, it has little value and the team really has to push to put it on their agenda. The men and women clap and cheer in agreement to show their support for a better future.

Grace, Joshua and Selma do a superb job of introducing the program, explaining the value of education and how much we would love to work with 30 women volunteers to run the educational games for the children of the village. I introduce myself with the entire two words of Lugandan I have learned so far, leaving the remainder of my intro to Grace to translate for me. I let them know I am honoured to be welcomed into the village and how much I am looking forward to working with them. They give me a welcome clap and cheer, along with a nickname for me in the local language which translates to “princess” – I try not to take offence of being called a princess!


To understand the village further, we ask the group some questions in the local language: “How many of you have a paid job?” zero movement from the floor, as no one amongst the 70 strong currently have a paid job. Apparently not uncommon as there is so little work available – the sugar cane fields and selling fruit at the market are amongst the most common.

“How many of you here can read?” A few hands start to go up, with around 9 men and 2 women able to read. “What are the causes of these challenges?” Grace encourages the women to speak up, saying she really wants to hear from them – in Uganda, the male dominates the community and rules the family, meaning it is very common for women to shy away from voicing her opinion. A few hands start to go up, explaining that money, distance, chores at home and the fact that their parents did not value education, are the biggest factors.

This leads to the question of “Do you want your children to have opportunities that you didn’t have as a child?” there is agreement amongst both men and women.


Selma demonstrates one of the games that will be used in the play centre – a basic shape puzzle (if you are a kid of the 80’s, it is similar to the red plastic ones that were passed down to you from your siblings or cousins)! She calls upon some volunteers – two men and a woman to see if they can place the shape in the corresponding hole. None of them can do it. Infact, they look incredibly blank as they take their time trying to figure it out. I ask the team later if they were joking – unfortunately not. I am embarrassed that I had even taken my early years education for granted.

The visit has been a success when they invite us back the following Tuesday, where we will hopefully be greeted by some eager volunteers who will begin to learn the games. The women will then spend two hours a week over the next eight weeks learning the program before they graduate, signalling they are ready to teach the children.

We leave the village feeling good and I congratulate the team on their efforts. I am confident we will match their hope and optimism, with a great program that will provide lasting benefits for Kanamb village. So excited to work with these women over the next few weeks and see the transition they go through!

Tuesday 12/03/2013


First day in the field. After a 1 hour motorbike ride (always appreciated by a former pony-express Vespa courier like me) we reached the village of Gundaa with the mission of establishing a reading scheme at the local school. Session 1 went quite smoothly: both kids and teacher seemed to be very supportive and interested in the project. Once again I was amazed by the degree of discipline and attention displayed by african pupils. No spoiled brats here for sure! I don’t know about the rest of Europe, but I can easily say that the main
concern of italian primary school teachers is to keep the kids relatively quiet (my teacher overcame the issue by implementing a regime of terror that made the khmer rouge look like a band of teddy bears in comparison). Nothing of the kind here: religious silence interrupted only by whispered answers to direct questions and big curious eyes all around you.
My main contribution to the day’s activity was a story-reading demonstration. I confess I had to struggle to keep reading rather than throw away the text and perform a vaudeville version of  “Little Red Riding Hood” featuring cancan dancing wolves, rambo-style woodsmen, half-digested grannies and so on.
But since all was about the importance of reading, I tried to kill the little natural-born italian comedian in me and did my best to stick to reading. The kids did not display any evident sign of boredom and that made me feel quite happy! In the afternoon I started my Dagbani lessons, but I think I have a psychological advantage over english native speakers here: when I speak english I don’t feel like I’m imposing my language, because after all the effort I make to speak is not different from the one locals make.
After work I’ll try to find a place where I can watch the champions league match Barcelona-AC Milan: even if I can define myself a hardcore football aficionado, tonight I’ll surely pay more attention to the local audience rather than to the game itself.

Sunday 09/03/2013

DSCN0019Reached Tamale after a confortable trip from Accra: today I’ll take it easy. First impressions are quite positive: Ghana looks like what I hope other african countries I visited will look like in 10-20 years from now. The only problem is the heat… snow was still melting down when I left Italy and now I need to carefully plan each and every movement of my body in advance to save some energy. I guess I will get used to it in a couple of days, but today i’ll mainly hang around at the Lively Minds headquarters, drinking huge quantities of cold mate and reading a book about the war between whites and reds in 1920 Siberia (they surely had no heat-related problems). I am also quite satisfied with the first night spent in Tamale: not a single mosquito bite, not a single mosquito in sight! For that, I have good allies: a mosquito net in wonderful conditions covering my bed, but most of all spiders and lizards strategically placed between the windows and the anti-mosquito grids (after a few trips in the Amazon region I learned to mistrust accomodations deprived of such friends). Tomorrow I’ll visit the office and start my training.
I am so happy I’m going to work for human minds, rather than for human bellies. In post-war Angola my job had to do with food-aid programs, a one-way ticket to a world of corruption, injustice, greed, frustration and impotence. When Alison told me ‘no need to bring pens and stuff, we don’t do handouts’ I thought that Skype should really consider adding a little “hug” button !

Settling in at Lively Minds

Sitting here in my room in the Lively Minds house in Tamale, life is calm. The bustle and stress of my normal everyday life seems to have disappeared and instead has been replaced by relative peace and the occasional sound of a goat bleating. Things seem to move at a different pace here, almost as if time has slowed down. Everything takes far longer than ‘normal’ and I’m slowly growing accustomed to waiting over an hour after I have ordered food for it to arrive. Travelling anywhere, even down the road seems to take much longer and I’ve learnt that patience is the key. This is Ghana.


I’ve been volunteering with the Lively Minds team in Ghana for about two weeks now and it has been an incredible experience. During the week we travel by motorbike (or motion-sickness inducing tro-tro) to two remote communities about an hour away from Tamale. Within these communities we are setting up a play centre to be run by the local women, and a reading scheme to take place in the local school. Arriving in these communities is an experience in itself. As soon as the kids see us, they rush out to greet us and we commonly find ourselves trapped in a throng of excited, smiling children wanting to say hello. Disentangling yourself from this commotion can be rather tricky, especially if they notice you have a camera. Endless posing for the camera ensues until one of the locals chases the kids away so we can start our work.



Hayley, International Volunteer

Working in the reading scheme can be challenging because not all the children understand English very well and prefer to speak in their native Dagbani. Despite this, it’s amazing how much you can get across through simple actions and pointing. Spending time with the children is rewarding, but my favourite part of this trip has been interacting with the women in the play centre. These women have never been to school, are illiterate, and cannot speak English, which provides certain challenges when it comes to teaching them how to teach games. Additionally, in these remote communities, the roles and opinions of women are not held in high regard and women generally don’t speak in community meetings in the presence of men. As an Australian women who has always spoken up and been listened to, I find this incredibly frustrating.


Despite these obstacles, once you remove the local men from the equation it’s amazing how much you can teach through simple gestures and pointing. The excitement in the room amongst the women is contagious, and you really do get the sense that you are doing something positive for the community. Gradually the women are coming out of their shells and starting to realise that they can be influential, important members of the community. Slowly slowly my frustration is abating as these women grow more confident and I really hope that by the end of my time here I will have seen a calculable change in these women and that they truly are more empowered than they were when we arrived.