Special Report
How do Tanzanian parents provide children their first chance to learn?
By Anaclet Rwegayura

HARD-to-deal-with social, economic and, sometimes, culture-related problems are driving the Tanzanian population to look at life in new and varying ways.

Improved well-being is their common goal and many seem to have an upbeat approach to life even where they seem to be hitting a brick wall.

But what increasingly becomes clear is that few Tanzanians have the necessary skills and capacity to be their own coaches and spot what drags down the development of this nearly half-a-century old nation.

Critical problems that society must grapple with are matter-of-factly outcomes of the people’s own past and upbringing.

Now at least, there are indications that part of the population is slowly waking up to the role of early childhood development in society, as they reassess the present and look for alternative ways to ensure the nation’s place under the sun.

“There is need to start up a national dialogue on the upbringing of the Tanzanian child,” says Fortidas R. Bakuza, national coordinator of Tanzania Early Childhood Development Network (TECDEN) – founded in 2000 as a group of civil society organisations working to influence policies and practices related to children’s wellbeing and rights.

“We don’t need to adopt foreign concepts of early childhood development,” Bakuza emphasises, observing that the broad perception of childhood development in Tanzania has been guided by foreign manuals and methods.

The idea is to have homegrown principles and ethical standards that guide early childhood development. Since every adult is a stakeholder in the upbringing of the nation’s children, dialogue on this issue is necessary to build knowledge, share insights and reach out to all members of each community.

Networks such as TECDEN are created to find solutions to the most critical challenges facing a nation. The diversity and independence of their membership should allow them to examine problems from many different perspectives and bring diverse abilities to bear.

The public would expect this NGO to reach every type of parent, including those who work outside their homes, those who take care of large families, those with children who may have special needs, and even single mothers who face tremendous challenges in the upbringing of their children.

As the youngest and most vulnerable members of society, children up to eight years of age can be at risk of being turned into any character, ranging from the usual to the eccentric personality. That’s why early childhood learning and early education are fundamentally important in shaping the distinctive qualities of citizens.

It is a wonderful opportunity for those who undertake this awesome task successfully because they carry the power to turn kids into whatever they want. Responsible citizens and crooks as well can be moulded by the same hands.

 “Though we live in an era of many, rapid and simultaneous changes, culture has a significant influence on the total functioning of an individual,” says Lyabwene Mtahaba, psychology lecturer at the University of Dodoma.

According to Mtahaba, Tanzanians should keep a firm hold of their cultural environment for posterity. While genetics set the base for intellectual development, he explains, the cultural environment sets direction.

Early childhood education often focuses on learning through play and, on this account, experts maintain that Tanzanian children could pick early literacy skills through play under the country’s rich, cultural and natural environment.

But many childcare centres across the country are using foreign educational approaches which succeed in alienating children from the local surroundings. Naturally, physical environment affects 30 percent of a child’s life and when it is conducive, it can make a big difference.

Researchers in the field and early childhood educators view parents as an integral part of the early childhood education process that takes many forms, depending on the orientation of beliefs, interests or tendencies of the educator or parent.

After the United Nations adopted its landmark Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 November 1989, advocates of action to protect children’s rights to survival and development expected the whole world to pay attention to their agenda. Generally, there has been good progress.

According to UNICEF, the convention has paved the way for the consolidation of child protection as a holistic concept, offering children the right to be safeguarded against a broad spectrum of violence, exploitation, abuse, discrimination and neglect.

But in its latest edition of 'The State of the World’s Children' report commemorating 20 years of the convention, UNICEF laments that disparities in realising child rights are increasingly apparent in all countries.

“Evidence shows that some children are at greater risk of missing out on essential services and protection than others, particularly children from marginalized, remote and impoverished communities; those who are disabled; from minority or indigenous populations; or those living in families with low levels of mother’s education.

“Girls also remain at higher risk of being married before age 18 and of experiencing physical and sexual violence, although boys are also affected by these protection threats,” the report says, singling out Africa and Asia as continents which present the largest global challenges for child rights to survival, development and protection.

The obvious questions here are: ‘What’s wrong with Africa, especially in sub-Saharan countries? Are parents not aware of their responsibilities for raising their children?’

Article 27 of the convention states: 'Every child has the right to a standard of living adequate for his or her physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. Parents have the primary responsibility to ensure that the child has an adequate standard of living.

'The State’s duty is to ensure that this responsibility can be, and is, fulfilled. State responsibility can include material assistance to parents and their children.'

The prevailing situation in African countries including Tanzania, therefore, testifies that millions of parents on the one hand and the State on the other hand are to blame for failure or negligence of their responsibilities to many vulnerable children who are mired in squalor, both in urban and rural settings as well.

Whether or not the country can ensure the wellbeing of its children depends very much on a number of factors, but most importantly local leadership, popular participation and the economic situation.

A serious downturn in the economy can throw public institutions into disorder in the same way it would with individual parents and families. Effects of the global recession have seriously dented savings and incomes of many working parents and caregivers in Africa.

Many families in Tanzania are suffering not just because of failure to live within their means but as a direct result of today’s difficult economic climate.

Ironically, however, this recession offers every parent a unique chance to teach children about the importance of service and about true compassion. Can children brought up with values of sympathy and care for other people turn into money-grabbers (mafisadi) or robbers in adulthood?

The answer is an emphatic ‘No’. These are the people who would always be willing to help others both financially and emotionally through difficult and challenging times.

It’s a pity to see hordes of young children denied the chance to build their own identity and getting the vital ‘sense of self’ in their relation to other people because they lack caregivers who can, among other things, emphasise family links, home culture, home language, nutrition and personal hygiene.

Studies have shown that if a young child doesn't receive sufficient nurturing, nutrition and parental interaction during this crucial period, he/she may be left with a developmental deficit that hampers success in pre-school learning and beyond.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child reaffirmed the indispensable place of the family in ensuring the rights of children. It says that the family is "the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, especially the child."

TECDEN and other key stakeholders in early childhood development in Tanzania need to educate the broader public, and parents in particular, that they only have limited time to impart values on children before they are launched into the world, a society that can be scary at times.

Children should be prepared in a way that will help them keep their values and virtues as responsible citizens as they grow into adulthood, so that they can avoid the many ills that afflict today’s society and retard national development.

Usually, where there is need, there is opportunity. Realising the big demand for preschool education in Tanzania, many people are capitalising more on this situation to do business rather than provide good early childhood education.

Many of the so-called preschools and daycare centres are unfurnished, staffed with unqualified teachers and located in run-down buildings without the necessary sanitation facilities. The prime concern of their private operators is money.

Only a few preschools, largely run by religious institutions, offer a high-quality learning curriculum that helps cultivate in children skills for further education. Their standards have led to improved achievements by their former pupils.

But many other preschools being operated in private home grounds and backwoods simply cannot push forward the frontiers of a child’s learning. Yet, these are the places where the majority of low-income families crowd their kids because the cost is low.

The poor normally don’t realise that cheap things eventually cost double.

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