Six-year-old Erbenebayar, or ‘Erka’ for short, lives with a semi-nomadic herder family in the remote Khuvsgul province of Mongolia. They are based in a bagh (small district) around 20 kilometres from the nearest settlement, Tsagaan-Uur soum (village). There are no proper roads. Erka’s parents have to look after their livestock and cannot take her to the soum centre every day. Luckily, there is a mobile kindergarten nearby that she can attend.
“I like coming to the kindergarten,” Erka says. “I enjoy singing songs, playing with puzzle games and reading poems. My favourite poem is about a baby chicken and my favourite song is about getting an excellent mark at kindergarten. Yesterday I got an excellent mark for my drawing. My best friend is Namuun. She’s the teacher’s daughter.”
The kindergarten is in a traditional Mongolian ger (tent), with a thick quilted lining and a carpet on the floor. Children’s pictures are pinned to the wooden frame. Outside it is raining and heavy clouds blanket the hills. The ger is pitched in the middle of a wide, flat valley. Some children arrive on foot, with older brothers carrying them across a river. Others arrive with their parents on horseback, motorbike or tractor.
The ger was supplied to the soum by UNICEF Mongolia, fully equipped with toys, learning materials and furniture. It is run by Dolzodmaa, a teacher from the main kindergarten in the soum centre, who now spends the summer taking the ger around the baghs linked to the soum. Currently, 24 children attend the ger kindergarten.
The mobile ger kindergartens are a unique solution to the problem of providing education to a nomadic population. They function in rural areas from June to August and, where weather permits, from May to November. As well as providing early childhood education, they give children the opportunity to socialise with others. In Mongolia, herder families live spread out over a wide area and can be very isolated, particularly in the winter when the days shorten, temperatures plunge and heavy snow piles up outside. The gers also give teachers better access to parents, and allow the parents to go out and work, tending their livestock and preparing for the next winter.
“The facilities here are more basic than in the soum centre so we concentrate on teaching the children to interact and socialise,” Dolzodmaa says. “This is their main opportunity to meet strangers, make friends and express themselves. Today we talked about weather in the summer season. The children learned a poem about a rainbow and made pictures of raindrops. There was a big thunderstorm last night and some of the children were scared, so it’s helpful to talk about it.”
Little house on the prairie
|Erka rides a horse with her father Ulziiochir outside their family home
© UNICEF Mongolia/2013/Andy Brown
Erka faces a double disadvantage. As well living in a remote rural area, she is disabled. She contracted polio at just four months old and was left with a damaged right arm and leg and difficulties communicating. She was given up by her mother, a single parent who couldn’t cope, and adopted by her current family.
The family live in a small log cabin further down the valley. This is their summer home, close to the pasture where their livestock graze. Although small, the house is clean, well-furnished and comfortable. There are many toys and books, and a stove where Erka’s mother Oguuntsetseg is preparing noodles with dumplings and traditional Mongolian milk tea. Her father Ulziiochir comes in from working outside.
Erka’s adoptive parents have 80 livestock, including horses, cows, sheep and goats. They sell milk, butter and meat at the local soum, as well as wool for cashmere products. Life can be hard. The family have just survived a particularly severe winter known as a ‘dzud’, with temperatures falling to minus 35 degrees. Luckily, her parents prepared well. They built a warm shelter for the animals and stored fodder for them. As a result, they only lost one cow.
Remote herders were also helped by solidarity from their distant neighbours. “During the winter, we asked for donations from families living in the soum centre,” Governor Erdene-Bat explains. “We asked them for one day’s salary, plus food, clothes and blankets for animals. We then gave these to families living further out. Over 1,300 animals died during the winter but it could have been worse. No people died.”
Oguuntsetseg and Ulziiochir are clearly loving parents and very affectionate with Erka. “We had four boys of our own,” her father says. “The first two passed away but the third and fourth survived and are now grown up. We wanted a girl and decided to adopt Erka. It happened that she had disabilities.
“We sold some of our animals to pay for her to have an operation in Ulaanbaatar. At first it was very difficult. When she came home she hurt all the time and we had to comfort her during the night. But after a week or so she started to get better. Now she can walk and run normally, and you can hardly tell her apart from other children.”
Learning and playing
|Erka arrives at the mobile ger kindergarten in the morning by motorbike
© UNICEF Mongolia/2013/Andy Brown
UNICEF is working with education authorities throughout Khuvsgul province. “We are supporting early childhood development in each soum, by training teachers and officials, providing toys and learning materials for kindergartens, and supplying mobile gers,” Zoya Baduan, UNICEF community development officer for Khuvsgul, says.
“We also work with schools to renovate classrooms and provide alternative learning for out-of-school children and children with disabilities. We help schools develop emergency preparedness plans in case of harsh winters and look at water, sanitation and health in schools. This is part of our strategy to address inequality by targeting the most vulnerable children and communities.”
Governor Erdene-Bat highlights the success of the programme in Tsagaan-Uur soum. “Parents here are very happy with the ger kindergartens,” he comments. “It gives them time to rest and work, and the children a chance to learn. We know it’s been successful because it’s created demand. If a particular bagh area doesn’t have a ger kindergarten, the parents come to us and ask for one.”
For Erka, there’s no doubt that the ger kindergarten has helped. Since coming for the first time this year, she has learned to talk. Before, she could understand her parents, but her own speech was slurred and unclear. Now, thanks to interacting with other children, she can speak clearly and easily.
In her home, Erka tells a story from ‘Sleeping Beauty’, her favourite book. “The Prince says ‘I will kiss you’ and then she wakes up,” she says. “We try to encourage her by reading lots of books,” her mother comments. “She used to be bad at speaking but since going to kindergarten she is very good.”
Her father agrees. “The mobile ger kindergarten has helped us a lot,” he says, smiling broadly. “Erka has learned to sing, dance and play. She doesn’t cry or complain. When she comes home she says to me: ‘Daddy please take me to kindergarten in the morning, but don’t forget to pick me up in the afternoon’.”
|Erka reads a book at home with her best friend Namuun
© UNICEF Mongolia/2013/Andy Brown
Andy Brown is Communication Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific