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  • Writer's pictureDr. Yakama Manty Jones

Storie--- Storie---- In-Out--- Once upon a time-----the number is 430

“When you pay attention to the beginning of the story, you can change the whole story”_Raffi Cavoukian, singer and founder of Canada’s Centre for Child Honouring.

Can you remember the first time you were asked, “What do you want to become when you grow up?” Sometimes I look back at how my response to that question evolved as I grew. Once upon a time, my desire was to become a Poda-Poda driver (mini-bus driver) as I imagined they had the most fun ferrying people from various backgrounds around while blasting the latest tunes. At some point, I remember wanting to become a Nun and teaching in a catholic school. Looking back, I think it was one of the impacts of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation rites from Archbishop Joseph Henry Ganda, the then Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Freetown and Bo. Later, as a science student, I wanted to become a Forensic Detective. My obsession with crime and legal TV series and movies has not waned. I am currently an Economist, Researcher, Lecturer and Entrepreneur and still feel like my career choices will continue to evolve. Sometimes, I feel like going back to science and potentially working for NASA (lol) or becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon ( blame it on Shonda Rhime’s Grey’s Anatomy). That’s when I tell myself that I need to complete the Python course I signed myself up for on Coursera.

When I look back at these dreams, aspirations, and realities, it is clear that the environment I was exposed to played a critical role. The people, their actions and words, the tools including toys and books; and most significantly, the stories- (nursery rhymes, fairytales, other stories, movies, news etc.). Even now, these factors, amongst many others, continue to influence adults and our children and are being reflected in many settings including themes for birthday parties.‘Storie-Storie’…….‘In-Out’…..‘Once upon a time’’....fact not fiction, we are raising ‘Princess Sophia’, ‘Spiderman’, ‘Power Rangers’.. etc. For now, my daughter Hedya- Gold wants to be Gymnast, and Hedsania-Silver wants to be a Painter. In all of this, the magic is in the ‘foundation’.

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, babies’ brains form new neural connections at an astounding rate of more than 1 million every second! This brain-building process is shaped by genes and life experiences –nutrition, protection and stimulation from the talk, play and responsive attention of parents and other caregivers. Therefore, we must constantly seek ways to maximise the opportunity for increased productivity embedded in this developmental stage. On one part are the investments being made into nurturing the child to reach her fullest potential considering every dimension of human capital development, especially the education, health and social dimensions. On the other part is creating the space for children to enjoy the necessary freedoms whilst learning to become responsible global citizens.

When policies are being designed to enhance human capital, it is often advised that they be done within the context of life stages articulated in the field of medicine – Pregnancy, Infancy, Toddler years, Childhood, Puberty, Older adolescence, Adulthood, Middle age and Old age- to account for the genetic and environmental influences on physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development.

I believe that once upon a time in the health space, you might have heard about the importance of the first 1000 days in a child's life. “The first 1,000 days of life - the time spanning roughly between conception and one’s second birthday - is a unique period of opportunity when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established.” Storie---Storie--- In----out--- you might have also heard that ‘Belleh woman nor for wash na night’ (a pregnant woman shouldn’t shower at night) and several other pregnancy myths. According to experts, in the earliest years of life, especially from pregnancy to age three, nutrition, protection, and stimulation are significant determinants of healthy brain development. Education, especially Early Childhood Education, is critical for such stimulation.

UNICEF reports that, despite the need, early childhood programmes remain severely underfunded. In 2012, UNICEF reported that in 27 sub-Saharan African countries measured, only 0.01 per cent of gross national product was spent on pre-primary education in 2012. I am, however, happy that this trajectory is changing in Sierra Leone. The central Government through the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, the local Government through the Freetown City Council, development Partners like UNICEF, private sector partners such as Orange Sierra Leone and several Non-Government Organisations, including the Yak Jones Foundation, are collectively working to scale up investments in Early Childhood Education.

As stated in previous blog posts, the Yak Jones Foundation seeks to bring back the reading culture to Sierra Leone. As part of its efforts, it established sixteen Reading Squads across primary schools in the Western Area, Freetown.

In these Reading Squads, Reading Coaches work with 430 children to improve their reading skills with an extra focus on pronunciation, comprehension, creativity and civics ( how the lessons from the stories would help them become good citizens as they grow up). Storie—Storie…. In—Out…. Once upon a time--- with 97 boys and 333 girls, the number is 430—fact, not fiction.

Before the Reading Coaches started coaching sessions, a baseline assessment across all the Reading Squads was done. Yes, in this Storie…Storie…, data informs interventions as it should be the case across different sectors. It was revealed that only 41% of the Squad members attended pre-primary school. However, 59% of them were kept home until age 5, when they were enrolled in Class One. Furthermore, 53% of the girls did not benefit from pre-primary, while it was 75% for the boys. Why do you think more boys are kept home till they are old enough to start primary school? ( Please share your thoughts in the comments section).

Thus, when the Yak Jones Reading Squads sessions started, some Squads started with identifying, writing and sounding letters of the alphabet. Others’ phonics sessions started off with an introduction to single letter sounds, whilst others started with identifying and pronouncing short words.

In….. Out…….. why is the difference between attending pre-primary school versus not attending significant in this Storie….. Storie……?The difference is the impact of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) on the children’s cognitive ability and other skills. Remember, early childhood is the period from birth to age eight. When simple competencies were assessed during the pre-coaching survey, across all levels ( identifying letters, sounding vowels, sounding two letter words, comprehension of short sentences in English, reading and comprehension), pupils that accessed pre-primary education outperformed those that had not.

Once upon a time…… according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), “Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing.” Storie…… Storie…… fact…not fiction, “ECCE is one of the best investments a country can make to promote human resource development, gender equality and social cohesion, and to reduce the costs for later remedial programmes. For disadvantaged children, ECCE plays an important role in compensating for the disadvantages in the family and combating educational inequalities”.

The number is 430, and the data shows that attending pre-primary school is very important. In addition to the differences in basic competencies, the data also revealed that extra investments in helping the children need to be made in terms of reading. The baseline assessment showed that 59% of Reading Squad members were ‘afraid of reading’, most of the time. It also revealed the 42% of them could not read their school work nor understand what is being read.

Nonetheless, 92% of them explicitly expressed their desire to learn how to read. Pure Joy!!!! So Storie…. Storie……. In……. Out…….. Once upon a time……….. the number is 430, and the Yak Jones Foundation Reading Coaches have been teaching 430 boys and girls to read!!! While a mix of methods has been used, the notion of ‘we learn through play’ is at the core. ‘Play’ manifests in opportunities for the children to express themselves freely and stimulate their imagination …….. storytelling!!!!. The children’s ability to tell and comprehend stories in English versus Krio showed marked variation. This once again brought the notion of teaching in local languages versus English to the forefront ( a conversation for another day).

Just like 2020, 2021 has been another challenging year across many sectors with the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. In a bid to leverage the benefits of storytelling and leave the children motivated to continue learning to read as they embark on the long school break, the Yak Jones Foundation collaborated with Alim Kamara, a British-Sierra Leonean rapper and storyteller, to organise a storytelling tour for several primary schools that host the Yak Jones Reading squads or have benefited from the Foundation’s donations of books and learning materials. It is with pride that I look back to assess how productive these tours were. They gave the pupils an opportunity to listen to professional storytelling and created an educative and funfilled platform for them to learn and express themselves—special appreciation to the sponsors- Peninsular Innovative Group, The Betts Firm and Zoodlabs SL.

In target 4.2 of Sustainable Development Goal 4, the aim is by 2030, to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.’ UNICEF reports, “many children are still missing out on the ‘eat, play, and love’ their brains need to develop.” As we look forward to certain critical milestones in the lives of our children or Wards like their first cry, first cold, their first steps, first words, the first day of school, losing their milk teeth ( my girls are at this stage ), graduations, sports etc., remember:

We, therefore, need to invest in the brain development of children as much as their physical health.

At the upcoming Global Education Summit scheduled for July 28 and 29, 2021, Governments and partners seek to mobilise resources to fund the Global Partnership for Education’s work for 2021-2025, targeting the transformation of education systems in up to 90 countries and territories. As parents, guardians, teachers, aunts, uncles and citizens of the world, we must be creative in how we can complement ongoing efforts in this space as we scale investments in the education of our children.

We all have stories to tell that will inspire children, stimulate their brain development and transform lives. As schools have closed down, let's make it our individual and collective responsibility to keep children inspired during the holidays and build their reading skills through storytelling. Sharing stories with your child doesn’t mean you have to read from the book. By looking at books with your child and talking about them, you can be a great storyteller and a good model for using language and books. Pay attention to the beginning of the story so that you can change the whole story.

Come on and share……. ‘Storie Storie’ ---- In ---out---- ‘wan day wan day ya’---- once upon a time………..the number is 430 for now, what’s yours?

Over to you!


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