The Heart of a Caregiver: Agnes Lomkol

By Emmanuel Okaalet

The World Bank report (2006) indicates that 82 percent of the Karamojong are living below poverty compared to a national average of 31 percent. Access to sanitation is only 9 percent compared to the national average of 62 percent and literacy rate is 11 percent compared to 67 percent at the national level.

Agnes Lomkol, 29, towers over the seated children at the mud walled room that serves as the early childhood development (ECD) center, in Nakapelimen village of Moroto district in northeast Uganda. Something other than the simple coolness of the dimly lit room draws even more dust-covered children inside, away from the scorching morning sun. This is Karamoja, a disadvantaged semi-arid sub-region that is nursing wounds of inter-clan wars. Here, education is still a luxury. As the late students squeeze and shuffle around for sitting space on the mat-covered floor, a stern female voice calls them to order. With anxiety for new tidbits of knowledge they settle down hurriedly and focus their attention on the slender solemn lady standing at the far corner of the room.

Agnes's warm smile can light up any room, and she is gentle with all the children. She does not distinguish between those who arrive punctually at 8 o'clock, and those who run in hours later. "They are all wonderful children and I love them," she confirms with a grin.

Early every weekday, and even on some Saturdays, Agnes, a BRAC ECD caregiver, opens the small classroom, sweeps it clean and organizes the children's activity items before they arrive. She instructs them via call-and-response rhymes, teaching them to count and read, and invites them to the blackboard at the front to write out numbers and vowels. Her passion for what she does is unquestionable. Moreover, the children enjoy learning, and their parents appreciate that their young ones have the privilege of an early start to schooling.

Parents worldwide understand that during a child's first few years of life various events shape social, emotional, learning and health outcomes, which build human capital, and promote economic productivity later in life. However the poorest families struggle to provide even the most basic care to little children.

Reported to be 11%, Karamoja has the lowest literacy rates in Uganda, with the literacy rate for men being much higher than that for women (18% to 6%). Schools are characterized by poor access, retention, and irregular attendance, with a high girl-child dropout rate and poor quality of education. Most parents withdraw their children from school to provide for family basic needs, or because they cannot afford basic education costs. The costs of education are disproportionately high for the poorest families; most poor households devote a minimal percentage of their non-food expenditure to schooling. Moreover free meals from the UN World Food Program attracts many government primary school-going children however funding shortfalls result in reduced meal quantities and lower enrollment figures.

Sadly, only 1 in 10 children under the age of five in Uganda have access to early childhood education. The government currently focuses on policy and coordination while available ECD services are delivered through private for-profit providers in urban areas and some NGO providers in rural communities.

ECD programs exist to improve the outcomes of child health, nutrition, learning and development, particularly in marginalized and disadvantaged communities. They promote proper nurture and nutrition practices to educate the children as well as parents and caregivers. Children who take part in ECD program tend to have better health and nutritional outcomes throughout their lifetimes and become productive members of their communities and society.

Early childhood development is one of the six components of BRAC's Karamoja Initiative - a holistic program that aims to promote the capacity of individual citizens, caregivers, families and communities in the Karamoja sub-region to utilize social services, and to engage in economically productive income-generating activities and contribute to social development in line with the Millennium Development Goals.

At its core, the Karamoja Initiative recognizes that changing the outlook of the younger generation of Karamojongs is critical to the sustainable development of the sub-region. Thus the ECD component, which is addressed through BRAC's 100 existing ECD centers. At the centers, three to five-year-old learners are provided with basic education according to the guidelines of Uganda's Ministry of Education and Sports. A caregiver, like Agnes, is selected from the community to manage lessons and is trained to meet the standards of the education ministry. Learners from the age of six are mainstreamed into primary education in nearby formal primary schools.

The challenges of rural poverty loom large and affect the children in different ways. During the rainy seasons in the six years that she has been teaching, Agnes has witnessed parents prevent their children from attending class sessions because of fear that the small ones might get swept away in running water. As a mother of two young girls she understands their concern. She would like the children to have their own toilets, instead of using the nearby public latrines. The most common challenge, however, is hunger, which Agnes must deal with on a daily basis.

"At around 11 o'clock, (the children) they become irritable and start fighting each other, and you know they are hungry. Class should end at noon, but that last hour is usually a struggle," she expounds. While some children are lucky to eat something small for breakfast at home, the majority show up with empty stomachs. Agnes has been pleading with the Nakapelimen ECD center management committee (CMC), the nine-member community agency made up of local authorities and parents that manage the center, to pull resources together to provide food for the children. "If we can provide them with porridge, the turn up will improve, and many more children will be able to learn."

Her plea extends to all who can help.