As we approach Suzan Shawa’s home, she stands with a broad smile at the edge of her yard. I stroll over, wrapping my chitenge cloth around my trousers and responding to her warm Chichewa greeting of “Muli Bwanji” (‘How are you?’).
At the entrance, we washed our hands at a handwashing bucket with clean water and soap. I was happy that even in this village eight hours drive from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, the messages about keeping safe during the COVID-19 pandemic have landed. With the sun shining to keep us warm in Zambia’s cold season, Suzan set out chairs and stools a good distance apart, but not far from a pawpaw tree in the yard. Two-year-old Doreen watched our arrival with obvious pleasure.
Suzan, 25, lives in Mugwintu village in Zambia’s Eastern Province. She’s a year older than me, but already has two children – Catherine (5) and Doreen (2). Before COVID-19 arrived, Suzan had been one of the most committed participants at local parenting classes, run with support from UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation.
Within a few minutes, they are showing us a sorting game that mum Suzan has devised herself. Doreen needs to put coloured pieces of card into the correct cups for their colour. For a two-year-old, she’s fast.
“Unlike before, I feel much greater intimacy with my child,” she tells me, “I have become a more responsive caregiver and am able to communicate with her more effectively. I’m able to tell when she needs something and know if she is unwell even before asking.’’
One of the key lessons for parents has been around the importance of play. Initially, she tells me, parents didn’t see any benefit in playing with their children. Most mothers would be so preoccupied with household chores and gardening activities to sustain their families that playing with children was seen as, well, “childish”, she tells me.
“My youngest, Doreen, is now a very active child, and able to mingle freely with her peers without any difficulties of trying to fit in,” she tells me. “To apply the lessons I’ve learned in the parenting classes, I sing, play games to identify colours, and help her start writing.”
As we talk in the yard, I can see what she means; our conversation is frequently interrupted by Doreen’s squeals of delight when she manages to catch a homemade ball, which gets a clap from mum.
“Caregiving goes beyond play — feeding is also another critical aspect. Before, I thought it was all right to let my child wait and eat with the adults. But now I see it’s important to pay close attention to my children’s needs and keep a deep level of concentration when communicating with them.’’
The parenting classes take place at the local early childhood development hub, or Mphala as it’s known locally. This is reinforced by community-based volunteers who conduct home-based, one-on-one counselling sessions focused on play and communication, as well as preventing and responding to illnesses on a regular basis. Parents also encourage each other.
‘‘As a mother, I get to interact with other fellow mothers — some who have undertaken the training, others not yet. I use those occasions to emphasise the good playful-parenting practices when I notice something not done in the right way.”
With COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings, I wondered about how things have gone without regular parenting classes. But it turns out the community volunteers are still keeping up the mentoring through their house-to-house visits.
“Despite the restrictions on movements,” says Suzan, “I now have more time to spend and play with my children, as well as developing home-made toys for play, like a rattle made of a cut maize cob and a string.’’
UNICEF has been working on improving early childhood development in Eastern Province for several years, and in the last year, this has received a boost from the partnership with the LEGO Foundation. As of now, 140 community-based volunteers cover six zones and 1,162 households, visiting regularly to encourage playful parent-child interactions and age-appropriate activities. This will be scaled up in the coming months, aiming to reach at least 50,000 households over the next four years.
Suzan really impressed me. It was heartwarming seeing the homemade toys and hearing the songs Suzan had composed to sing to Doreen.
As we left, the games continued. A happy child, and a happy mother, too. The genuine relationship with her young daughter was so obvious and clear. I felt inspired.
Tiwine Muchipa is a UNV Youth Advocate on the Communications team, UNICEF Zambia