As we bumped along a heavily-rutted mud road, dodged fallen bamboo branches from the surrounding forest, and swerved around massive puddles, we spotted a barrier across the road and a checkpoint manned only by children.
Two decades ago, such an opening gambit in an article about Sierra Leone would have undoubtedly gone on to describe an encounter with child soldiers. But in modern-day Sierra Leone, now enjoying many years of peace, the situation is somewhat more benign. It’s June 16, Day of the African Child, an event widely celebrated in the country by, amongst other things, children dressing up and playing the role of adults. After smiles and waves, the checkpoint barrier is lifted and we continue our journey to Njama community, in the district of Moyamba, about three hours’ drive from the capital Freetown.
We’ve come to witness a pilot project, under the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which will show Early Childhood Development techniques used in five vulnerable communities. With UNICEF support, parents are being taught to view children’s development in these early years in a holistic way, recognising the mutual reinforcement of good health, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene practices and early learning in building a strong child capable of reaching his or her full potential.
The Mothers’ Support Group in Njama is spearheading the work with UNICEF partner CAUSE. They’ve taken advantage of the Day of the African Child to bring parents and children under the covered meeting hall to share messages about good child rearing practices. A dramatic skit starts the activities, and illustrates first a model parent-child relationship with lots of play, singing and basic education. Then comes the bad parent – not allowing her daughter to go to school, and constantly engaging her in back-breaking work. Like a good Broadway musical it all ends in a song encapsulating the key messages.
The drama then leads into a discussion led by UNICEF’s education officer, Miatta Daramy. She asks the audience “Who creates children?” The audience quickly cotton on that children come from both mum and dad. “Pikin [Children] no belong to one person!” underlines Miatta. The message that both parents have a role to play in child rearing seems to go down well, even with the men. An older man at the back of the hall with a T-shirt saying ‘Mom likes me best’ in bright florescent colours appears to agree as well. But it’s noticeable that the fathers holding children in the room are the exception.
The most exciting part of the day is the toy making workshop, which brings in artisans to work crafting toys. Toys are an important part of early development in any culture, and the message being passed on today is that toys don’t need to be the expensive plastic type imported from overseas. Empty sardine cans become cars, thick stems from a nearby swamp are assembled into dolls’ houses, simple scooters are carved from wood, and cloth is sown and filled to make stuffed toys. These toys will later form part of the equipment in a new early learning centre due to open in the coming months.
The parents here in Moyamba district, like anywhere in the world, want the best for their children. The message today is that the early years are vital to future healthy development, and despite the limited resources available, some simple tips can go a long way. The Day of the African Child aside, in just a few years, these same children will be full-time adults using all the cognitive, emotional and social skills developed in these early years. As Miatta reminds the parents: “If you want your children to become leaders in society, a good upbringing starts in the womb.”
John James is a UNICEF Communications Specialist in Sierra Leone