In Namibia, ‘Little Bugs’ brings early childhood development to the desert

An Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centre has opened up its doors in Sossusvlei, ushering in hope that children here will one day overcome life’s adversities and achieve great academic and social excellence

By Tapuwa Loreen Mutseyekwa
A woman and her two sons, Namibia
UNICEF Namibia/2016/Mutseyekwa
12 September 2016

Jeanette Swartbooi was forced to sacrifice education opportunities for her children when she moved her family to the Namib Desert – where essential social services like schools and health facilities are hard to come by. But now, 13 years later, her youngest children are finally getting access to early childhood development thanks to a newly opened centre called Little Bugs.

SOSSUSVLEI, Namibia, 12 September 2016 – Thirteen years ago, Jeanette Swartbooi, 38, relocated to Sossusvlei, in the middle of the Namib Desert. This move was in response to a breakthrough in employment opportunities in the booming tourism industry. The testimony of her life today demonstrates the paradox of how this employment opportunity has resulted in her children being excluded from essential social services such as schools, health facilities and even shops.

With a heavy heart, Jeanette had to send her eldest son, Tangeni, off to boarding school at the age of six, only seeing him once every three months during holidays. For the last seven years, a 180 km stretch of a dirt road, which is not serviced by public transport, has separated Jeanette and Tangeni.

A woman at the front of a classroom, Namibia
UNICEF Namibia/2016/Mutseyekwa
Inside one of the colourful classrooms at the Little Bugs ECD centre. The centre holds classes for 28 children, aged 3-8 years.

“It is never easy for a mother to send her six-year-old into boarding school, but I had no choice because there are no schools in the desert,” says the mother of four, who believes living in an isolated community has deprived her of the chance to nurture and influence Tangeni’s academic, social and physical growth.

As Jeanette continues to monitor Tangeni’s progress from a distance, fortunes are turning for Tangeni’s siblings, Freddie and Rudolf. An Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centre has opened up its doors in Sossusvlei, ushering in hope that children here will one day overcome life’s adversities and achieve great academic and social excellence.

Bright colours decorate Little Bugs ECD centre – a welcome contrast to the ashen and sandy setting of Sossusvlei, and symbolic of the nurturing experiences, which have become a part of life for the 28 children, aged 3-8 years, who attend the centre.

Initially set up as a family establishment, Little Bugs ECD centre is today one of five regionally diverse centres supported by UNICEF to strengthen the implementation of quality pro-poor integrated ECD programmes.

A woman and her three children, Namibia
Jeanette at home with three of her four children: Freddie, Rudolf and Rosaline.

Throughout Namibia, issues of poverty, distances from school and a host of other social and economic inequities often prevent children from accessing and enjoying the benefits of early learning. School dropout and retention rates are worrying, with 11 per cent of primary school aged children out of school. According to the 2011 Population and Housing Census, only 13 per cent of children between the ages of 0 and 4 years old have passed through an ECD programme.

“Poverty and some of the many inequities within our communities have long prevented Namibia’s children from enjoying the benefits of integrated Early Childhood Development,” says UNICEF Representative, Micaela Marques de Sousa. “These model centres therefore show the possibilities and importance of breaking barriers and providing a good start to life for every child, irrespective of their geographic, social or economic background.”

By offering professional early learning, health, nutritional, child protection and social experiences to these children from disadvantaged and often disengaged communities, the model centres are pivotal in UNICEF’s work towards re-positioning ECD services in Namibia, including the importance of meaningful parental involvement for a child’s holistic development.

Little Bugs ECD centre regularly engages with parents, encouraging them to boost their parenting skills, so that the lessons adopted at the centre do not fade away when the children go back home. For Jeannette, the lessons about cultivating a vegetable garden, also supported through UNICEF, are helping her overcome the struggle of relying on commercial food products when shops are too far away.

Jeanette hopes that the precedent set by Little Bugs ECD will give impetus to future education and social interventions in Sossusvlei, so that the foundations built for the family remain unshaken.