After a full day of counting, singing new songs and playing with friends, 3-year-old Malifomo Rametsi and her brother, Molefe, 4, run toward their grandparents' hut in Ha ´Nyane village, a small community nestled high in the mountains of Lesotho. Rosa Maria and Julius Rametsi had been eagerly awaiting the children's arrival, ready to hear about all the new things they learned in school that day.
"There is a lot of change in these children, because when they arrive here at home, they tell us about what has happened and what the teacher was doing in school," says Rosa Maria, as she gently puts her arms around her youngest grandchild.
Malifomo and Molefe have been living with their grandparents for 2 years. The elderly couple took them in, along with six other grandchildren, when their father died and their mother left the village for work. Now in their seventies and with the older children in school, it is becoming more difficult for them to provide proper care to the youngest ones.
Then Rosa Maria heard about the Catholic Relief Services-supported Integrated Early Childhood Care and Development program—called "Whose Child Is This?"—in the village. Program leaders seek to help the most vulnerable children in the area. Rosa Maria decided to send Malifomo and Molefe to the participating preschool, which is run by CRS' local partner the Good Shepherd Sisters. Another option for families who can't afford the school fees are home bases, where trained caregivers volunteer to supervise both their children and neighborhood children in their homes.
Religious sisters like Agnes Thakafako of the Good Shepherd Sisters make sure that children served by the program get the most out of it. "The program is very, very important for these young children because it's where they are going to learn. It's where they start," says Rosa Maria.
"It's going to be the foundation for their education," she adds, with a hopeful smile.
Developing Young Minds
Just hours before, Malifomo and Molefe spent the morning with dozens of other children from ages 2 to 5 learning different lessons in basic counting and English. Sitting in a circle on tiny plastic chairs with their arms crossed in front of them, the youngsters intently listened to their teacher. Every now and again, small arms sprang into the air, signaling the children's eagerness to learn and respond.
Covering Costs, Recruiting Students
Although the Integrated Early Childhood Care and Development program in Lesotho is fee based, the Good Shepherd Sisters—the CRS local partner that runs the program—have come up with creative ways to help families that can't afford the school fees. One way is with chicken coops. The sisters give a family several chickens and invite them to raise the chickens and sell the eggs. The family then pays the school fees from the proceeds and keeps the remaining money.
"The sisters have encouraged [families] to participate in helping out in the school as a method for providing in-kind payments," says Blain Cerney, CRS' education program manager. They have recruited some family members to look after the congregation's livestock, and others earn money to pay school fees by cleaning the school premises.
"If they're not able to pay their fees, they can help with the food preparation for the children, for example," Cerney says. "The sisters accept this work as a mode of payment so that the child of the working caregiver can continue to attend class."
Together with CRS' help, the Good Shepherd Sisters work to engage the whole community in making the program a success. Parent and guardian volunteers go into surrounding villages and explain the benefits of early childhood education to their neighbors and encourage children who are not yet attending school to join the program. And village chiefs and elected leadership who endorse the program create more community buy-in and prompt more families to value their children's early development.
In areas where even the youngest children are expected to help around the house and with a family's livestock, educating parents about the importance of early childhood development is critical. Says Chandreyee Banerjee, CRS country representative in Lesotho, "Very young children are often sent out into the mountains to look after animals and are therefore completely devoid of opportunities for socialization, education or simply nurturing by their families."
Malereko Lefoka, one of three teachers at the preschool who supervise more than 60 children, explains that the program helps the youngsters develop in five areas: physical, mental, social, spiritual and emotional. "I teach them things like holding the pencil and writing," says Lefoka. "They learn through poems, songs and through play, in general."
A teacher at the school for 13 years, Lefoka has witnessed the program's effectiveness since it was first introduced by CRS and the Good Shepherd Sisters in 2011. "Some [of the children] have developed in socializing. And they can now memorize. They learn to play together and they understand when someone is talking to them."
Building a Strong Foundation
Studies show that a child's first 5 years of life are the most critical for fulfilling his or her potential for growth, cognition and social-emotional development. During this period, children learn language and reading skills, an early understanding of math and early examples of self-control. They also begin interacting with other children.
"Statistics show that when young children are stimulated and engaged through education, play and motor skill development in their early years—the stage when the brain most develops—it can have a big impact on their future learning and long-term educational outcomes," says Chandreyee Banerjee, CRS country representative in Lesotho. "So, we are putting our emphasis on the strongest foundation with this program to help these children develop all their abilities and give them a successful future."
CRS helps train teachers to follow the Lesotho Ministry of Education and Training's curriculum and to encourage the children's physical, mental and emotional development.
In Lesotho, the HIV and AIDS epidemic, combined with overwhelming poverty in many parts of the country, are worsening conditions for many of Lesotho's most vulnerable children. Early childhood care and development programs are extremely critical for children in developing countries, because they are more likely to face risks such as poverty, malnutrition, poor health and nonstimulating home environments.
For Malifomo and Molefe, the results of the program are evident. "Every day when they come home from school, our grandkids sing new songs for us," their grandmother says proudly, pulling her grandchildren closer to her. "We see them counting to 10 and using stones to show the other children how to do it. They can now recite their vowels and are starting to use bigger words."
She adds, "This education is going to give them a bright future."
Kim Pozniak is a CRS communications officer covering sub-Saharan Africa. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.