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Field Diary: A Week in Mozambique

Casey Marsh is the managing director of the U.S. Fund’s Midwest Regional Office.

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 185 out of 187 on the Human Development Index. Despite a fast-growing economy fueled by the discovery of vast natural gas resources, the country’s poverty level has remained stubbornly unchanged.  It is an extremely difficult place to grow up. I recently had the opportunity to lead a group of Chicago-based donors on a field visit to Mozambique to observe UNICEF programs. The week we spent there was fascinating, heartbreaking and hopeful – all at once.

Alshley Prasad high-fives a Mozambican student

UNICEF supporter Ashley Prasad makes a new friend in Mozambique. © U.S. Fund for UNICEF/ Casey Marsh

Notebooks in hand, we began our visit with a stop at the Community School of ADEMO (the Mozambican Association of People with Disabilities) in Maputo. The students here have multiple challenges – some are deaf or mute, while some have mental disabilities. Our group was struck by the dark, overcrowded classrooms, where the littlest students sat with no desks and little light. The facility would have been challenging for able-bodied children, much less children with special needs. One of the teachers, however, was wonderful with the students and developed a system to help them count visually in order to learn addition. UNICEF’s partnership with FAMOD (the Forum of Mozambican Associations of People with Disabilities) focuses on teacher training to overcome the tremendous lack of specialized teachers equipped to work with special needs children.

In sharp contrast to the experience at the ADEMO school was our visit to Radio Mozambique, where we checked out the child-to-child media program. This is part of UNICEF’s communication for development strategy in Mozambique, and nationwide over 1,500 children develop and produce radio and television programs for and by kids. Two young people, Cecilia and Mike, proudly greeted us at the door: “Welcome, friends, to our Radio Mozambique family!” They gave us a tour, and we talked to kids and young people aged 8 to 21, who all work on the program after school and are expected to earn excellent grades to continue participating. The kids told us about some of their programming, covering topics like child abuse and violence against children, how to avoid HIV/AIDS, why stay in school, why early child marriage is not a good thing, child rights in Mozambique, and more. Then they asked us, “What are the kids in America talking about?” We left Radio Mozambique feeling certain that one of these children would be President of Mozambique 20 years from now.

Next, we visited a school on a beach in a district called Angoche. A grass hut with a thatched roof, the school is part of UNICEF’s child-friendly Schools for Africa initiative. In Mozambique, this program covers all primary schools in seven districts, benefiting 800 schools and 400,000 school-age children. Funds from the U.S. Fund for UNICEF help to provide desks, basic school materials,  health interventions like deworming and immunizations, and “life skills development.”  While life skills development may sound vague, we saw it in action — with kids learning how to make informed decisions about important issues affecting their lives, including early marriage.

A serious problem in Mozambique, child marriage has terrible health implications for young girls. Over half of Mozambican girls are married before the age of 18. As we walked into the beachside classroom, children aged 10  to 13 greeted us with smiles and a song that they had learned through educational materials provided by UNICEF. “I am a girl, 12 years old,” they sang. “My mother is very poor.  She says that I should marry. I don’t want to marry; I want to go to school. I tell my mother I want to go to school.  Mozambican boys don’t want to marry illiterate girls these days.” The song made quite an impression on us. It was a wonderful example of the power that young people have to change cultural norms. When a member of our group later asked the UNICEF Child Protection specialist what motivates her to get up and go to work every day, she answered, “those kids, singing that song.”

One of the last stops on our intensive tour of UNICEF programs was a state-run orphanage called the Infantario da Matola. It serves about 75 people, mostly kids, and almost all with mental or physical disabilities. We interacted with many of the children and had a chance to speak with the staff. Until the initiation of support from UNICEF last year, most of the staff had never had any training in working with children with disabilities. Through a partnership with the International Child Development Program, 10 caregivers have been given on-the-job training in caring for physically and mentally disabled children. One staff member told us, “Now we treat the children with more love.”

Throughout the visit, our group was in total awe of the UNICEF staff in Mozambique. They are dedicated, smart, professional and caring. They know how to get things done, and they have a singular focus to help improve the lives of kids. One of the members of our group said, “If I were facing any major problem in politics, or business or life… this is the group of people I would want to assemble to tackle that problem and come up with solutions. This is the dream team.”

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