Approach nicely: Culture and disability in rural Namibia

Indiscernible from afar, the seemingly disconnected homesteads scattered across the vast open landscape of Northern Namibia belie an advanced intelligence network. In this hard landscape, people have taken on roles and responsibilities, centred on Indunas (village chiefs in the Zambezi Region), to help them cope. People share the news they get from others or from the radio, making sure everybody has the best information; people speak to their local Induna about problems they face – such as drought, abuse or neglect – and in turn the Indunas collect their local information, like an intelligence library. Unseen to most but the locals, there is a strong drive towards self-management and problem solving.

Cultural stewardship starts from the idea that people in a local environment know best; they know what their problems are and can provide the best solutions

We were in Namibia in April to kick-off the study of social norms regarding access to education and other services for children with disabilities. To hear how teachers, parents, children, and community workers in the region understand disability and access to school, we travelled across the North, and conducted 30 focus-group discussions. The Zambezi region in the northeast, tucked in between Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, a result of German expansion drift in the years running up to World War I, and the Kunene region, including Opuwo previously known as or “Kaokoland” in the northwest, caught between the border of Angola and the Atlantic Ocean, are far away from even the capital city of Windhoek. We came to hear their untold stories, some heart-breaking, some happy.

A girl sitting on a wheelchair as a boy stands besides her.
© UNICEF/Namibia/2019/BrouwersA fragile young boy in Opuwo showing inspiring strength and resilience, pushes his older sister in a wheelchair to school and back home again, 10 kilometers every day.

Traveling through Namibia, we learned of parents’ struggle to be heard and find solutions for their situations – like having a child with disability who isn’t going to school. UNICEF’s initiative Education for All has worked around the world, with non-enrolment rates dropping from 100 to 61 million between 2000 and 2015. The biggest trials, however, are faced by children with disabilities. What we saw in the Northern regions of Namibia is that, many times, parents of children with disabilities do not know what to do: They don’t know where to go for support, they may not even know it’s possible to send a child with a disability to school – they don’t realize it will pay off in immediate well-being and future economic independence of their children. This gap in knowledge provides opportunities for UNICEF to address ways to include children with disabilities in school.

UNICEF could be a viable resource for Indunas and their informal intelligence networks, to reach parents of children with disabilities. But, often distances are long, schools do not have the necessary qualified and trained teachers or the inclusive infrastructure to provide the necessary environment for these children. Combining UNICEF’s Communications for Development (C4D) program with expertise from cross-cultural psychology and critical ethnography could help build and maintain shared social platforms for learning about disability, enrolment and retention in school. Central to this is the practice of cultural stewardship.

Cultural stewardship starts from the idea that people in a local environment know best; they know what their problems are and can provide the best solutions. Stewardship entails asking a community about their history and cultural background to encourage them to think about the challenges, harmful social behaviour, and conditions that perpetuate the abuse and neglect of children with disabilities.

A child in school uniform sits on a wheelchair and smiles while a girl also in uniform and a lady standing around him.
© UNICEF/Namibia/2019/BrouwersAs school teachers feel unequipped to provide care to her son with cerebral palsy, a young mother in the Zambezi region stays with him throughout the school stay.

Hopeful stories underwrite the need for cultural stewardship. In one story, we saw a young mom bring her eleven-year-old son with cerebral palsy to pre-primary school every day. She said she was happy to carry him or push his wheelchair to school in the morning and stay with him during the school day to assist the teacher and make sure he is well taken care of. In other stories, we heard about fathers also taking care of their children with disabilities: one boy had difficulty catching up with the others in school, another boy had his leg amputated when he was three months old due to a fire accident. In these cases, the mothers had divorced and left, and the fathers remained supportive of their children. One young boy pushes his older sister in her wheelchair on a rocky surface to school every day; immensely shy but proving strength and character inside.

Indunas, school management, and social workers praised the methods we used in our focus-group discussions. All responded positively to questions about disability and schooling, outlining an “approach nicely and not imposing our ideas” model for working. With a cultural stewardship approach like ours, where development is grounded in local intelligence, UNICEF can help build trust between communities, service providers, and investors to benefit the inclusion of children with disabilities into school and their communities.



Symen Brouwers is the lead researcher of the Social Norms & Disability project at the UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya. He received a PhD in Cross-Cultural Psychology from Tilburg University.

Aune Victor is Education Specialist at UNICEF Namibia. She has a PhD in Specialized Education from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and has been working in the field of inclusive education for over 15 years.

Alvaro Fortin is Education Specialist at the UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya.

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