My World This Week: Early Childhood Development in Tanzania

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Not only are these kids ridiculously cute, but they were my world this week. In Tanzania, 270 children under 5 years old die every day. The major causes of death are pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea. These deaths could be easily prevented if mothers and caregivers were equipped with the knowledge for proper infant and young child feeding, and sanitation and hygiene practices. Furthermore, in a society where going to the doctor is not common practice, the illnesses go untreated, or are treated too late.

The parents/caretakers of these children have received education in early childhood development for the past one to three years. Like them, I learned so much this week about the critical actions parents must take in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life to ensure that they grow up healthy and ready to succeed in life. My job was to document the changes we’ve seen in the community as a result of the educational programs and write what we (the development community) call “Success Stories.”

This post is NOT a success story, but instead a personal account of three things I saw and learnt along the way so you guys can rest assured that I don’t spend all my time in Tanzania laying on the beach. The “success stories” I’ve written will be published later on, after formal review.

Growing up in the United States where healthcare (for the most part) is above average, services are available anywhere at any time and there is universal access to education, there are several practices that seem “common sense” when it comes to taking care of an infant. It’s so commonplace that it’s easy to forget that in a different environment, these same practices could be novel ideas.

In the Mwanza region of northern Tanzania these include, but are not limited to:

  1. Hand-washing after handling or coming into contact with animal and baby faeces.

In tight spaces, it is common to find animals in the same space where children play, dishes are washed, water is kept etc. Basically, there are no physical barriers. In an environment such as this, mothers genuinely do not know the connection between exposure to animal faeces and diarrhoea. Furthermore, baby faeces are not considered to be dirty. When I asked why, I was told it was something they’d never thought about. They were used to the children “going” wherever, and then cleaning up after them. They washed their hands yes, but not as thoroughly as they should have and didn’t think twice about it. It was interesting for me to hear, because something that seemed so obvious (as a function of the environment I was raised in and education I received), was not at all obvious to them. It also reminded me that to solve development problems, you really have to step out of your head, forget about everything you know, and see the world through someone else’s perspective.

For this reason, the education they receive includes hand-washing at critical times to prevent illnesses.

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Let the animals roam free…or not. Also…those rocks are pretty cool right? Mwanza is known as the “rock” city because of them. 

2. The importance of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a baby’s life.

This was a difficult one to get mothers to do. It was extremely hard for them to accept that their baby needed nothing else but breast milk, and that even giving them water was not a good idea as it could cause diarrhoea and reduce the amount of milk the baby drank. As someone who is not in the medical field and who has not birthed a child, I didn’t know the why behind exclusive breastfeeding. After consulting the World Health Organisation (WHO) website, I learned many important facts about exclusive breastfeeding that is also part of the curriculum these women receive:

  • Exclusive (not inclusive) breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants. It provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life
  • Breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases.
  • Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery during illness

Remember I said the leading causes of death was diarrhoea and pneumonia? Exclusive breastfeeding is the single best thing women can do to protect their baby. Exclusive breastfeeding has literally saved lives in these communities, and the people will tell you so. Below is a photo of a couple I spoke to who have two other children. They said they had never undergone exclusive breastfeeding before, but with the newborn they agreed to try it and noticed a clear difference. The newborn does not fall sick and seems much stronger and healthier compared to his brothers when they were infants. They regret not exclusively breastfeeding their other two children.

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3. Children need to play.

Duh right? Not really. You won’t find toys in most homes and most people do not think it essential that their child have play time. In an environment where people struggle to buy soap for hand-washing, play materials are considered a luxury. However, after learning about how play helps with brain development, the women in the community committed to creating toys out of local resources. When speaking to community health workers, I was told that before they would not see even one play toy in the home. But now, at least for women who are participating in the educational sessions, they always carry at least one toy in their purse for their child, and have others at home.

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Toys made by women in the community from local resources. 

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This is the first time kids in the community have an official playground. 

For my Gainesville people, imagine growing up without a Westside Park, or a Kids Space. Imagine a world where kids are discouraged to play. Watching these kids play was the highlight of my week, and made me reflect on the injustice that millions of kids face when they are robbed of their childhood rights.

So there you have it, a quick snapshot of some of the things I’ve been working on and experiencing in Tanzania. Stay tuned for the Success Stories as you’ll be introduced to some great people, including the community leaders who have helped change their neighbours’ lives for the better.

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You’ll hear more about these ladies soon. 

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