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Finding a Place to Belong: Abundance’s Story

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The afternoon sun beats down on a dirt field outside the classroom of a school in Nyarugusu camp, in northwestern Tanzania. A group of children wait in a line as Siriyaki, the Head Teacher and Club Leader, finishes setting up pylons and buckets. Then the children move behind the starting line and take turns throwing rocks and sticks into buckets. The first one to get their object in the bucket will win.

One boy stands out among the group with his infectious smile. Abundance is ready to play. He winds up and throws his stick at the same time as his opponent. They both miss. But he doesn’t give up. He picks up a rock and feels the weight of it in his hand. He breathes deeply before throwing the stone. It sinks into the bucket, as his opponent’s rock lands in the dirt. Abundance’s team breaks out in cheers and his face lights up. The moment is especially sweet because it wasn’t that long ago that Abundance was excluded from playing games like this one because of his disability.

Struggling with social isolation and fear of mistreatment

When 12-year-old Abundance was born, his legs had not fully developed. He has used mobility aids, like a modified wheelchair, his whole life. He’s always been aware that his physical difference impacts the way others see him.

Stay in touch with children in Tanzania

“Growing up, I was hesitant to interact with my fellow pupils at school because I was afraid of being hurt. I was also afraid to speak in front of my fellow children because I felt that I was different from my peers and they would laugh at me,” he says.

In 2015, Abundance and his family were forced to flee their home in Burundi because of political instability. It was a scary and destabilizing time in his life. When he and his family arrived in the Nyarugusu refugee camp, they had to adapt to life in the new setting. Abundance especially struggled to get used to his new home and new school.

“I wanted my peers to see me as a normal person and include me in games and class work.” – Abundance, 12-year-old student

In classes, social isolation impacted his confidence. He was doing well in his lessons, but he often felt lonely and depressed. He longed to be a part of the activities his peers were participating in, but he was too afraid that they would make fun of him.

“I wanted my peers to see me as a normal person as they are and include me in games and class work,” he says.

Creating more inclusive learning environments through clubs

In 2020, Right To Play launched the My Education, My Future project to improve access to quality education for primary students, especially girls and children with disabilities, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis. In the Nyarugusu and Nduta refugee camps, the project focuses on equipping teachers and community coaches to foster inclusive and engaging spaces where children can thrive by using play.

Since the program began, more than 150 teachers have participated in “positive learning environment training”, which improves their understanding on how to respond to the needs of children with disabilities in the classroom and how to adapt lessons to be more inclusive of learners of all genders and abilities. For example, they are encouraged to ensure that children with disabilities have equal opportunities to ask and answer questions during lessons, and to seat them amongst their peers instead of isolating them or keeping them separated. They also learn the importance of understanding the ways that a child’s disability may affect their ability to participate in activities, and how to improvise and modify the game can be tailored to that child’s specific needs.

“We teach the other students in the club not to discriminate against children with disabilities using games.” − Siriyaki, Head Teacher

Siriyaki, the Head Teacher at Abundance’s school, participated in the training. He was eager to encourage Abundance and other children with disabilities to actively participate in clubs and classroom activities by fostering a more inclusive school environment. So, he invited Abundance to join the School Baraza Club.

Baraza means ‘council’ in Swahili. Members of the Baraza Club develop leadership skills, hone their communication skills in debates, and learn how to advocate for children’s rights, protection, and equality. The clubs also work to break down social stigma around disability.

“We teach the other students in the club not to discriminate against children with disabilities using games,” says Siriyaki. “The members of this club set an example for other students with their behaviour. We support them to build relationships with their peers, so that they won’t see themselves differently than the other children.”

Abundance - Tanzania - Image  1 - Web
Since Abundance joined the Baraza Club, he’s found acceptance and support from his peers. They play games together that have been adapted to be inclusive of children of all genders and abilities.

Finding the freedom to flourish

Abundance’s self-esteem started to grow as he attended the weekly Baraza Club sessions. He and his peers played games designed to break down communication barriers and help them develop life skills like stress management, conflict resolution, decision making, empathy, and self-esteem. One game, called “Face to Face,” helps children recognize and read each other’s emotions. Using only body language, children take turns acting out emotions like anger, sadness, and excitement, while their partner tries to guess what emotion they are embodying.

Club members also participated in debates and speeches which helped them practice their presentation and speaking skills. And teachers engaged members in group discussions on club management, gender equality, and child protection.

“I felt good when the teacher asked me to join the School Baraza Club. Before I joined, students did not want to play with me. But since I joined, the students in the club play with me and those who are not in the club see the change in the way they interact with me,” Abundance says.

Abundance isn’t the only one who has noticed a difference in the children’s behaviour. Siriyaki is also seeing a shift in the attitude of students outside of the club.

“We have seen a lot of improvement after the introduction of the clubs. Before, children who had disabilities were discriminated against. But after the introduction of these clubs, we’re seeing more inclusivity. And the children with disabilities know that they have the same rights as other children. They now feel good because of being included in the clubs.”

“The students in the club play with me and those who are not in the club see the change in the way they interact with me.”  – Abundance

A mid-project study of My Education, My Future also showed significant improvements in children’s ability to demonstrate the life skills they were learning through games. 59% of children participating in the program were able to demonstrate these life skills – up from 20% at the beginning of the project.

Now that he’s in an environment where he can shine, Abundance no longer experiences social exclusion, and he is hopeful for the future.

My ambition is to finish my studies and graduate with great grades so that I can go to university. I want to be a government leader or a doctor and be in charge of a hospital, so I can help children with special needs like me and provide for my family.”

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Abundance and his family, together outside of their home in the camp.

My Education, My Future, is a program that aims to improve access to and the quality of education for primary school-aged children, especially girls, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis. The program has been active in Tanzania and Burundi since 2020 and is made possible with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

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