In Kinyarwanda, Higa Ubeho means “be determined and live”. For Rwanda’s most vulnerable populations, such as people living with HIV and AIDS (PLHA), orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC), and their families, it takes much determination to live to the fullest. The USAID Higa Ubeho program being implemented by CHF International through support of USAID, is helping them do just that. The program is helping by building the resilience of families to economic shocks, providing health and social services, and building the capacity of local organizations that will support them in the future.
When families are vulnerable due to these challenges, it is often the smallest children who suffer most. In rural Rwanda in particular, it is common for young children of poor families affected by HIV and AIDS to be isolated, inactive, under-stimulated, and slow to begin speaking. By the time they reach six years old and begin to attend school, they often have problems learning and developing at the same rates as their peers. USAID Higa Ubeho is addressing this challenge by hosting play groups for children under five years old.
According to Janet Mutoni, who oversees OVC Care and Support for the USAID Higa Ubeho program, “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.”
During the groups the children sing and dance, play games, play with such basic things as clapping and jumping. Each child also receives a play group kit to take home. The kit contains toys hand-made by cooperatives of artisans that are supported by USAID Higa Ubeho, and are made from local and recycled materials. Says Jane, “This way the parents can see that they don’t have to buy expensive, plastic toys from overseas. These toys are beautiful, affordable, and make the children very happy.”
The playgroups have become very popular with children and parents alike. News of lives being changed through simply playing has spread through the communities, and parents will sometimes send their children with their neighbors if they cannot attend themselves. Muhoza Adraphine, 30, is a mother who has been bringing her four year old son to the play group for one year. When he started, he was not speaking at all. Now, says Muhoza, “he speaks all the time, repeating what he learns at the group, and singing songs. I wanted him to have other children to play with. As a parent, I feel happy inside that I get to play with him and that he is learning new things. At home, we go through what he has learned, and I feel proud.”
Janet Tuisenge, 26, is a full-time nursery school teacher, but volunteers her time to lead the playgroups and work with the children. She says, “I felt it was important do something for kids who are normally isolated. I saw that I had the chance to do something for them. They are now so happy that when I am with them I forget everything else in my life. I am happy that they are happy.”
Janet Mutoni of CHF International has seen the impact of the groups not just on the children, but on the parents as well. She says, “The playgroup is actually a demonstration to the parents of how to play with their children. We show them that their children can learn, speak, laugh, and smile. Some of the parents say, ‘I didn’t know my child could smile that big. I love to see the face of my child smiling.’ Then they go home and do similar activities with them. It changes them as parents and is making the next generation of Rwandans better people and more prepared for the future.”