This story first appeared in the Star newspaper.
Kajiado town is a small Kenyan trading centre, close to the border with Tanzania. It’s surrounded by open grasslands, where Maasai pastoralists tend their cattle. A line of wind turbines turn slowly on a hillside outside town. Hard hit during COVID-19 travel restrictions, Kajiado’s economy is now starting to recover. Close to the centre of town is a compound of a dozen houses. This is clearly a middle-income area. The houses are small but well-made and painted white and blue. A large water tank in one corner provides water for the houses, which are also connected to the electricity grid.
Inside one of the homes, two-year-old Mikyela plays with her mother Esther Naisimoi Cosmas. Mikyela is a bright and active girl with big eyes and hair in bunches. She laughs as her mother throws a teddy bear to her, catches it, and throws it on to child protection volunteer Sylvia Lemomo. They play other games, including cooking and looking in a mirror, with a focus on interaction. Mikyela clearly enjoys the activity and attention. Her favourite toy is Toto – a large white teddy bear which is missing one arm.
Esther is one of many mothers in Kajiado benefitting from parenting training alongside universal child benefit, which the national government is piloting with support from UNICEF. As well as providing cash transfers to all families in the area, regardless of income, the programme provides training on nutrition and parenting, delivered by local volunteers like Sylvia.
“Sylvia has really helped me understand positive parenting and how to raise my child,” Esther explains. “For example, there is a big difference between Mikyela and Melvin, my firstborn. With Melvin, most of the time we were shouting at him. When he did something good, we didn’t encourage him. But with Mikyela, we now concentrate on her strengths.”
At a nearby compound, child protection volunteer (CPV) Sylvia Lemomo leads a group session for new parents in the area. She talks about parenting, while a community health volunteer (CHV) discusses nutrition. Twelve mothers sit closely together on the ground, in a shady corner provided by one of the houses. One mother of a young boy with albinism breastfeeds him as she listens. The parents pay close attention to the talks and ask questions throughout. During the nutrition session, they name healthy foods from the seven food groups that are available in the market, such as carrots and omena (fish).
“We meet twice a month at different mothers’ houses,” Sylvia explains. “The CHVs talk about things like nutrition, breastfeeding and immunisation. The CPVs talk about positive parenting, how to come together as a family, and acceptance of children with disabilities. Parents want to join these groups because they share ideas and support each other. If a mother has a problem, we discuss and solve it together.”
Sylvia says that Esther is one of the parents who is most willing to learn. “As a mother, she wants to understand how to look after her girl child,” she continues. “I teach her to play games using the toys that she has. For example, there is a game where the girl stands in the centre, and you throw the balls back and forth. That game is about fitness for the child, and it also makes them more social.”
Window of opportunity
A child’s brain develops fastest during the first three years of life. To a large extent, this determines how that girl or boy will fare in later life. To get the best start in life, young children need a comprehensive package of good nutrition, health care, stimulation and early education. Studies have shown that the return on investment from such interventions can be as high as 22 to one. This is due to the different contribution to the economy that the child is likely to make as an adult.
However, in Kenya 26 percent of children under five years of age – or 1.5 million children – are chronically malnourished, seriously harming their chances in later life. In some counties this is over 30 percent. Access to pre-primary education nationally is 78 percent, but as low as 37 percent in some counties.
“The early years from zero to five is a make-or-break window of opportunity for young children,” UNICEF Kenya Early Childhood Education Specialist Agnes Ngonyo says. “If they get everything they need during that time – including good nutrition, education, stimulation and healthcare – then their future is unlimited. Unfortunately, if children don’t get what they need in those first five years, it becomes very difficult for them to recover in later life.”
“That’s why UNICEF is calling for the next Government of Kenya to invest in early childhood, to pledge to reduce malnutrition by one third over the next five years, and to improve early childhood education,” Agnes continues. “UNICEF works with anyone interested in children’s rights and we will be ready to support the next Government and partners to implement policies and programmes for children.”
After the parenting session, Esther walks up the hill to a small kiosk – an orange-shuttered window in the concrete wall of a building, where a shopkeeper sells food, toiletries and kitchen supplies. They chat for a while, then Esther asks for fresh fruit and vegetables. She buys a few avocados and a lemon. Back at home, she cuts one of the avocados in half and scoops out the flesh into a plastic bowl, making a healthy and nutritious snack for Mikyela. Initially, Esther feeds this to her daughter, but the girl quickly takes the fork from her and starts feeding herself.
“The parenting training has given me a different perspective and made me feel safe in raising my child,” Esther says. “I would encourage other parents to follow positive parenting. They should set boundaries for their children but not punish them and give them a balanced diet so they can grow up healthy.”
“It has really made me proud of being a parent,” she adds with a smile. “I’m a very proud mother of Mikyela.”