A redeemed childhood through remedial learning

How a UNICEF supported remedial learning programme gave hope to a desperate girl child with a painful childhood

By Pamela Mudakikwa
Umutoni Shakila
14 December 2021

NYAGATARE, RWANDA – Seated in the comfort of the Head Teacher’s office where I met her, 14-year-old Shakila Umutoni recounts the painful story of her life before she saw light and hope, six months ago. Her remedial learning teachers at Groupe Scolaire Gacundezi decided to dig deep into the reasons for the 5th grader’s frequent absenteeism, tardiness, and poor performance in class. Switching frequently between tears and a big smile, Shakila narrates her journey.

The young girl went through a lot at a very young age. At only 14, Shakila thought about committing suicide several times. Her mental state affected her well-being as well as her performance in class. “The woman who raised me abused me a lot. She would force me to work in her fields all the time, from sowing to reaping. She also forced me to do all heavy domestic chores before I went to school. She also made it a pre-condition for me to get school materials and other basic needs. Even when I managed to get in class, I would barely capture what the teacher is saying because I was always tired and exhausted.’’

Remedial learning class session underway
The remedial learning classes have offered Shakila a renewed sense of purpose and hope for a brighter future.

Shakila lost her mother when she was pregnant with another baby. Shakila was only seven years old at that time. They had relocated to Nyagatare, a district in the Eastern Province of Rwanda when her mother was seven months pregnant. A few months after, both mother and child died during birth leaving Shakila all alone. Shakila’s only family was buried by the management of the hospital when they couldn’t trace any other relatives. The village leaders decided to put the seven-year-old under the custody of her mother’s landlady since she had no relatives to take care of her.

“That was the beginning of my misery. It was the first time I was asked to fetch water from afar. I had to carry a 15 liters jerrican on my head all the way back home. Since then, the woman I had started to call 'Mama' would insult me on a daily basis.’’

Shakila Umutoni

“I had to cook my own food or sleep with an empty stomach. She would beat me for no reason, she never gave me anything not even soap or lotion to keep my body clean. Even when my friends supported me with uniforms and shoes, she would burn everything. I never knew what I had done to deserve that kind of punishment.’’ Shakila said with tears forming on the sides of her already moist eyes. She endured that misery for seven long years. She never told anyone about it.

One morning, Shakila’s foster mother went to school to report that Shakila had stolen RWF 800 (less than a US dollar) from her. The teacher, Ms. Emelyne Murebwayire who had been observing her student decided to use the opportunity to help the young student with her dire situation.

“It was obvious that she was not well. She never brought enough school materials. We would always reprimand her for being late or absent and her marks were very low; which is the reason why we enrolled her in the remedial learning programme, but still it was not easy to understand the real reason for Shakila’s poor performance.’’ Murebwayire said.

When they heard the full story, the school management reported the case to the local leaders who summoned Shakila’s foster mother and requested her to watch her actions towards the young child. That was in vain. The same night, Shakila paid the price for reporting the woman to the authorities.

“She heated a sharp knife to burn my hands. She threatened to kill me and bury me in her banana plantation. She said no one will ever ask for my whereabouts because I have no family and nobody cares about me. I felt desperate and helpless. I decided to take my life away since I was convinced that it was simply worthless.’’ Shakila said, breaking down uncontrollably.

Not all was lost for Shakila. One afternoon in April, two staff from Imbuto Foundation, an NGO supported by UNICEF visited the school to follow up on the remedial learning programme. The programme is run after official school hours for students who need that additional push or support to catch up on their studies and improve their performance.

After the group session, they had a one on one with students with special cases. Shakila came last.  When they heard her story, they were moved immensely. It was hard not to. “All I want is a family that will love me as a child,’’ she told them.

The visiting group immediately contacted the local authorities and together with the support of the Nyagatare District Child protection Officers, they were able to find Shakila a foster family that truly loved her and took her in as their own.

Teacher Murebwayire
Ms. Murebwayire, one of the teachers who took it upon herself to help Shakila escape the difficult situation she was in.

Today, thanks to the timely intervention by UNICEF, its partners and the government authorities, Shakila is safe and her performance has improved significantly. The Remedial Learning Programme which is run across 150 schools reaching nearly 13,906 students helped Shakila leave her past behind and excel in her studies.

The teachers trained by the Remedial Learning Programme are well versed with traumatic issues faced by students like Shakila and know how to address these in a professional and empathetic manner. “Violence and neglect are the main causes that hinder a child’s ability to learn and progress. Sometimes students lag behind in class not because they are not smart but because they are abused and exploited back home.’’ Murebwayire noted.

Today, Shakila lives with Kagimbura Jean Damascene and Kayitesi Jeanne, whom she calls ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’. Her new parents enrolled her into a new school Groupe Scolaire Cyonyo, which has remedial learning clubs as well.  They say she is improving in all aspects, she no longer cries all the time, she has stopped talking about suicide and she socialises with other children in the family. Most importantly she loves her family and she loves school.

“I feel loved and valued. I love my life because I know I have people who care about me. Now, I understand what my teachers teach me, I still struggle with reading but I hope I will master it soon. When I grow up, I want support children especially orphans so that they do not experience a miserable childhood like mine.’’ Shakila concluded with a big smile.

Shakila walks with her new friends
Shakila interacts with her new friends.

With generous funds from the Hempel Foundation, UNICEF has been partnering with Imbuto Foundation, to model remedial learning at the school level through remedial learning clubs. These clubs are helping improve the learning outcomes of underperforming girls in literacy and numeracy as well as general skills development. In total 225 remedial learning clubs are now operational in 150 schools. By the end of 2021, 13,906 children (74 per cent girls) participated in the remedial education programme. A total of 460 teachers (50 per cent female) were trained in remedial learning and gender responsive pedagogy to better support the remedial learning classes, they also received tablets uploaded with the curriculum on remedial learning and learning games.  Within the same programme, UNICEF continued to contribute to the enhancement of the enabling environment to ensure all marginalised children are identified and supported in a systematic manner including referral to appropriate services where appropriate.