Muhirwa means “lucky one,” and 25-year-old Olive Murikatete thinks it is an appropriate name for her three-year-old daughter. Olive lives inGatare Cell, Muhanga District– 15 km outside of the capital city of Kigali. Although not far from the capital in terms of distance, the life she and her family lead in the village where they reside is far from the urban lifestyle. She and her husband work as part-time farmers and run a small kiosk where they sell household items to neighbors and others in their small community. Although, Olive studied hospitality and completed a training course when she was younger, life in village means that employment and educational opportunities are limited. As a student Olive did okay, but she did not complete her last two years of secondary school – something that she regrets to this day. When she gave birth to her daughter she decided she would do everything she could in her power to help her succeed. So when she heard about the playgroup being organized for children under 5 from her neighbors, she was very interested.
Playgroups were established under the USAID Higa Ubeho program to help promote childhood development. The playgroups are open to all children under 5, but were created to target children from poor, rural areas and orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) who have limited learning opportunities. Young children of poor families, especially those affected by HIV and AIDS, can be isolated, under-stimulated and slow to learn. The playgroup activities are designed to engage the children and help develop their social, motor, language and cognitive thinking skills. The children also learn to build relationships with others. To date, 60 playgroups have been created across 13 districts of Rwanda.
According to Jane Mutoni, who oversees OVC Care and Support for the USAID Higa Ubeho, “Each of these children comes from a difficult situation at home. You see kids in these situations not happy and not learning anything. We help teach them to play, and get the
parents involved. We use games and activities that are traditional in our culture, so it feels natural for them. The parents can’t afford to put them in nursery school, so we do activities that get them learning while playing and being active. This stimulates them, prepares them for school, and makes them happy.”
Olive has been bringing her daughter, Muhirwa, to the playgroup in her village for almost a year now and she has seen a big difference in her behavior and her ability to learn. Olive explains that she used to be shy and did not like to interact with other children. Now she is more expressive and can easily play with others. She has also learned a tremendous amount, says Olive. She has learned songs, rhymes, games and traditional stories, which she is eager to share with neighbouring children and her parents at home.
Olive also explains that she has learned lot herself. Each week she brings Muhirwa to the playgroup and she stays and watches the activities and often participates. In this way, she can reinforce what Muhirwa is learning and interact with her at home singing the songs they have learned together. “It’s the best way to prepare the children for school,” says Olive.
As word has spread, most of Olive’s neighbors have started bringing their children to the playgroup as well. Some of its original members have already left the group and joined pre-primary school. Now the group has 104 children, and hopes to recruit more, according to Judith Cyuzuzo, a member of a partner organization in the district.
Olive explains that some parents came initially because they thought they would get something additional from the program, like a donation or scholarship. As parents kept on attending, they soon realized how beneficial the activities were for the children and they have kept their children in the playgroup.
As for Olive, she is committed to helping Muhirwa to live up to her name and she knows playgroups offer the first step for a solid education foundation.
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