|© UNICEF South Africa/2009|
|Young children dance and sing a traditional song with UNICEF Ireland Ambassador ‘Dustin the Turkey’ in the cool high veld in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where only 20 per cent of children have access to early childhood development programmes.|
By Eva Gilliam and Julianne Savage
KWAZULU-NATAL PROVINCE, South Africa, 24 November 2009 – The popular Irish children’s character ‘Dustin the Turkey’ made a surprise visit recently (in puppet form) to children in Ematimatolo, located in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Accompanied by a team from UNICEF Ireland, Dustin – a household name and a UNICEF Ambassador in Ireland – visited a local early childhood development (ECD) organization, the Little Elephant Learning Centre for Early Education. There, the team learned about the challenges facing vulnerable South African children in rural areas.
Easing the burden on families
Families in rural South Africa have been hit hard by HIV and AIDS, and poverty adds a substantial burden to these households. In fact, there are more children orphaned or left vulnerable by AIDS in South Africa than anywhere else in the world – a staggering 1.4 million children who have lost a parent to the disease.
Most of the families in the area that Dustin visited have been directly affected by HIV/AIDS. As a result, many children are left in the care of older siblings or elderly family members.
The Little Elephant centre, with assistance from UNICEF, is working to ease the burden on impoverished families in the region. One of its programme trains community members to act as family facilitators, assisting vulnerable families with a range of tasks – from obtaining medication to playing games that develop the social, physical and mental skills children need for primary school.
The facilitators also help caregivers with basic child registration, and streamline access to social welfare programmes. Over 60 family facilitators are currently employed by a community committee with financial and logistical support from Little Elephant.
“Many of these children are staying with their grandparents, and it can be hard for them to care for the child on their own,” said the centre’s Community Development Coordinator, Ncgoebo Zondi. While some families were initially hesitant to let facilitators into their homes, she added, “a strong trust” is now developing.
“We can see they are happy to have them there, assisting and participating in the development of their grandchildren,” said Ms. Zondi.
Breaking down inequalities
Due to long distances in the countryside, less than 20 per cent of children in Ematimatolo have access to ECD programmes – which the World Development Report 2006 noted “can be central to more equal opportunities” worldwide.
The Little Elephant centre works to break down these inequalities by bringing ECD into homes in the area.
To learn more about ECD, Dustin spent an afternoon with some of the centre’s ‘buddies’ – children between 9 and 13 years of age who become mentors for younger children in their communities. The buddies teach them games, and songs, read them stories and do arts and crafts. Many of these older children have been through the centre’s ECD programme themselves.
A best-practice model
The buddies also play an important role in helping the family facilitators identify problems children may be having at home, such as neglect or abuse.
“It helps the kids to know who they are, and get them ready for school,” said buddy Zama Ndlovu, 13. “And it is so much fun! Playing is always fun.”
In addition, Little Elephant trains adult ECD practitioners from the surrounding communities; last year alone, the centre trained over 750 practitioners. The programmes are so successful that UNICEF South Africa is now promoting them as a best-practice model for other areas of the country.
Skills for the future
Dustin also travelled around KwaZulu-Natal, visiting smaller villages to meet with children and their families.
"For all the children that Dustin met this week, it was their very first time meeting such a personality!” said the Little Elephant centre’s founder, Mary James. “Dustin has helped us to further expand [our] vision and, most importantly, the imagination of all the children and the educators we work with."
Added UNICEF Ireland Executive Director Melanie Verwoerd: "Early childhood is the most significant period of development in children's lives. It establishes the cognitive, emotional and social skills upon which we build our futures."