For the first time in his life, David stood up

How a child care centre on a Rwandan tea plantation halted one boy’s stunted development

By Veronica Houser
At the Rutsiro Tea Plantation early childhood development centre, David walks slowly back towards his friends while they drink milk.
UNICEF/UN0308951/Rudakubana

01 September 2019

RUTSIRO, Rwanda – It was almost like the emerald green of their tiny knit sweaters was carefully chosen to match the sprawling tea plantations around the day care centre. Exuberant and impatient, the children bounce up and down, eager for their morning milk box, distributed each day to promote healthy growth.

With support from UNICEF and Rwanda's National Agricultural Export Development Board, tea plantations like this one have begun investing in day care centres, so children have a safe and stimulating place to learn and play while their parents work to earn an income.

But amidst the excitement this morning, one child sits conspicuously still, a bit quieter than the rest as he sips his milk.

David sips his milk box during the morning break at his day care centre on the Rutsiro Tea Plantation.
UNICEF/UN0313162/Rudakubana
David sips his milk box during morning break at his day care centre on the Rutsiro Tea Plantation.

David is five years old, but when he arrived at the day care centre two months ago, he was not able to walk.

“When his mother told me his age, I could not believe it,” says Betty Mukazitoni, lead caregiver at the centre. “He always chose to sit away from the other children, always with his arms crossed.”

Almost as if defying Betty’s recollections, David stands up and totters over to the playground. He is unsteady, but clearly able to walk on his own. As a gentle rain begins to fall, a little girl runs to David, adjusting the hood of his sweater gently and snugly on his head.

Betty smiles. It is impossible not to.

“You would never believe it now, but he could not even hold his own food. But look at him now,” she says warmly.

David slides down the slide, backwards, but on purpose. He walks calmly back towards the other children, sits among them and begins to peel a banana.

Josiane smiles as she picks her son David up from his day care centre after a day's work on the tea plantation.
UNICEF/UN0308965/Rudakubana
Josiane smiles as she picks her son David up from his day care centre after a day's work on the tea plantation.

David’s mother Josiane harvests tea on the plantation to support herself and three children. Before the centre was built, Josiane was forced to leave David home alone when she worked, in a closed room with no cognitive stimulation or proper nutrition. With David at home and concerned for his safety, Josiane was not able to work a full day, missing out on valuable wages.

“David was very malnourished because I could not always afford a variety of food,” she says. “I felt like I had so few options... I had to choose between spending time with my son or earning money to buy the things he needs.”

“At one point, the doctors told me he might not survive. But when this centre was built, I felt like my prayers had been answered. David is much healthier and happier now, and I can work the full day.”

Josiane, David's mother
Children play outside at their day care centre while their parents harvest tea on the plantation.
UNICEF/UN0313181/Rudakubana
Children play outside at the Rutsiro Tea Plantation day care centre.

Children between ages 3 and 6 also participate in play and learning sessions in the centre’s pre-school. Sitting at colourful tables and surrounded by blocks, puzzles, crayons and other toys, they spend the day learning through songs, games, and fun activities, led by Betty and other caregivers.

“Even though David is five, when he first arrived I placed him in the day care with the children under three. He was so afraid. Actually, he had trouble sitting up by himself.”

But when David heard the clapping, singing and shouting in the pre-school, for the first time in his life, he stood up.

“I saw him peeking around the corner one day,” recalls Betty. “He had taught himself to walk. Then one day, he sat with the other children in the pre-school. He is still too shy to answer questions, but the other day I saw him clapping when we were singing.”

Maybe he understands, because as Betty describes his progress, David claps along to a private game he is sharing with his friend. Break time is nearly over, and Betty begins to usher the children back into the classroom.

It is nearly impossible to discern that David arrived with a few more setbacks than others. He sits among his friends in the pre-school, quiet but attentive, and if you watch closely, you might even see a smile.


This story is brought to you with support from RwandAir and was originally featured in the September-November 2019 issue of RwandAir's "Inzozi" in-flight magazine to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.