Story by Lilliane Pitters, Photos by Josephine Mukakalisa
“School is the best thing in my life because I am no longer lonely; I play with other children and I can talk through sign language,” says Kasian. “I want to be in school every day,”
Kasian, 11, is deaf and cannot speak; he had never been to school until June 2017, when a group of community activists visited his home and convinced his guardian to enroll him in school. In rural Tanzania, it is common for children, like Kasian, who have disabilities to be kept out of school. Without adequate facilities for special education, these children have limited access to a quality education. But Muungano Primary School’s Head Teacher Fataki is changing this status quo.
As the one person with the skills to interact positively with Kasian, Fataki, 34, felt that he had found his calling when the young boy joined his school. Finally, he had an opportunity to use his training in special needs education, including sign language. After ten years as a teacher, Fataki felt he could truly make a difference to children with special needs by combining his play-based approach to learning with his special needs background.
Empowered by this training which focuses on children’s rights, inclusiveness and equality in access to education, Fataki dedicated himself to supporting Kasian, to overcome his challenges. It was a difficult beginning.
Kasian could not communicate with his classmates and teachers and found it difficult to participate in class. With the head teacher’s support, the boy’s communication improved progressively as he learned sign language and was increasingly able to engage in the play-based activities in the classroom.
“Kasian is very charming, confident, loving and caring,” says Fataki. “He is also brilliant; in just a month, he learnt how to read and write his name, and some words like chair and ball.”
Signing with his teacher, Kasian says his favorite subject is reading and he is very proud of his new skills. “I like to show people that I can understand them, and I can communicate,” says Kasian, who adds that
he is very happy to have someone he can talk to and who understands him, especially someone who is teaching him how to read and write like other children.
“Kasian had a difficult beginning and got into fights because he couldn’t express himself and felt misunderstood by the other children,” says Fataki. “However, things have changed for the better since he is learning how to communicate and feel accepted by his peers. This is a constant source of fulfillment for me, knowing I can make a difference for him.”
As the school’s Head Teacher, Fataki hopes to reach more children like Kasian by coaching and mentoring other teachers in the application of special needs education, the use of sign language and the integration of play-based learning through games.
“Kasian interacts better with other children since he started learning sign language, and we involve him in all the games and activities,” says Fataki. “The other children accept his company and include him in any way that they can. This is good because they are learning empathy for disability and in the future, will have the same
Supported by Right To Play, the school has also established a Child Protection Club, which meets regularly to discuss child welfare and how to improve their learning environment. Fataki takes the students’ concerns to the School Committee so that parents and teachers can respond accordingly to their issues. In this manner several issues have been addressed, such as child safety at school and home, access to education for all children and protection from violence. Earlier this year, the Child Protection Club supported an awareness campaign for inclusivity by identifying the homes where children with disabilities live. Kasian was one of 54 children identified.
“The trainings we had with Right To Play galvanized me into action,” says Fataki, who alongside thousands of other teachers, was trained by Right To Play and the Government of Tanzania in play-based learning and positive learning environments. “I know I have all these skills I can use to help children, so that is what I am doing with Kasian. I plan to visit other schools and share my knowledge with other teachers so that they can have something to offer children with special needs.”
The sharing of knowledge and best practice is important because teachers are routinely transferred to different locations and assigned to new schools. Fataki encourages his school’s Child Protection Club to visit other schools in the area to share information and to learn from each other.
"Their peer-to-peer mentoring network is helping to expand play-based learning to include children with various disabilities. Fataki believes that as more teachers understand and practice play-based approaches, the future of children with disabilities will become more secure."
“Our awareness campaign was successful because parents responded positively by enrolling their children with disabilities in our schools,” says Fataki. “However, children with special needs require special teaching aids and teachers need training, which is not widely available.”
Three primary schools in the area have, however, adopted the awareness campaign and are expecting more children with disabilities to enroll in the next school year.
“We want to make it possible for every child with disabilities to have an education,” says Fataki. “This is an opportunity to make a difference.”