Molara Otujo, the founder of a successful pre-school program for middle-class children, is now helping those responsible for the rudimentary backyard and hallway facilities that serve poor children add significant elements of educational enrichment and safety.
The New Idea
Molara is striving to upgrade the standard of care offered by the large number of "mushroom" child-care facilities springing up in low-income areas as a result of worsening economic conditions. She plans to reach the children through parents and child caretakers. She is vigorously working to break down the apathetic attitudes of low-income parents towards pre-school care–an attitude typified by giving such child-care facilities the nickname "jeleosimi", meaning "peace at home."Jeleosimis are informal child care centers formed in homes, backyards, sheds or any place where there is available space. Those who operate these centers are most often untrained and their primary motive is to make a living. Parents will pay as little as fifty Kobo ($5) a week for a child to stay at one of these centers. They are overcrowded and do not have any particular curriculum planning. Since none of these centers provide meals, the children bring whatever they eat from home. Many of them come from homes where there is no extra food to give them, or the parents leave earlier than the children so there is no one to make sure that the little ones take food to eat at the center. The hygienic conditions at many of the centers are questionable. Yet the alternative is to lock the child in the house until a parent comes home or an older sibling returns from school.Molara recognizes that there are no alternatives to these substandard child-care centers, but believes that the caretakers and parents have the potential for improving the standards of the centers at a minimum cost in both time and resources. She focuses on low-income urban communities because of her perception that they have been virtually ignored in all other pre-school and early childhood development projects. She insists, "There is not much difference between the deplorable condition of children in the slums and those in the village." When no other organization took up the challenge to improve conditions, Molara stepped forward and decided to do something herself.
Mushin Local Government, where Molara is initiating and perfecting her work, occupies a land mass of 140 square kilometers with an estimated population of 1,026,449. In Lagos state the average household size is five persons. In Mushin, which lies within Lagos state, the average household size is about eight persons. Besides being overcrowded, Mushin is also one of the most impoverished and deprived areas of Lagos state. It is common to find poor health and nutrition, particularly among the women and children.A high percentage of the adult women are traders who sell in the market daily to make a living. The youth are groomed early to be traders, and many engage in street hawking at a very early age. With parents and older siblings trading to make a living, the care of pre-school children is increasingly left to the informal child-care centers.According to a baseline survey of Mushin, as many as 10-15 jeleosimi centers exist on one block, most of which are overcrowded. The estimated teacher to pupil ratio in these centers is 1:40. Yet these centers receive no positive attention from Nigerian education policy makers, who initiate their planning at the primary level; children under the age of six are expected to be taught at home. The primary interest directed towards these centers by the authorities is in the form of harassment and indignant demands that they be abolished in the interests of the children who suffer in unwholesome conditions.The oppressed economic situation, with the increase of working mothers, nonetheless necessitates the establishment of private child-care facilities for those under six years old. Those with the means seek quality day care and nurseries for their children. Those who do not have the means settle for what they are able to afford. They desire little more than a secure place to leave the children so they can struggle to earn a living. The conditions of child care in the low-income communities lies in stark contrast to those in middle- and upper-income communities. There, pre-school care is seen as preparation for entrance into formal academies. These "elite" facilities are seen as and operated as a vital part of the child's social and academic development. Molara believes this difference in attitude is not due to the fact that low-income parents do not care, but because they do not know what to expect. "When poor parents see the benefits of enhanced pre-school care," says Molara, they will want to work to realize these benefits."
Molara's strategy for upgrading jeleosimis is to involve parents in the maintenance and running of the facilities where their children are cared for, and organize proprietors and caretakers to share resources and learning opportunities to ensure enhanced child care. She does this through her Community Day Care Resource Center. The focus is on involvement and cooperation at the community level so that the work will continue long term, and so that the model can be replicated readily in other communities.To achieve this, the center has established four committees consisting of parents and care givers:1. Food and nutrition education 2. Health and growth monitoring techniques3. Psycho-social development4. Pre-school educationThe members of these committees are given opportunities to increase their awareness and knowledge through participation in workshops and seminars organized by Molara's project. They then monitor the activities relating to each of the areas of development in their respective day-care centers. The first-aid boxes began this way. The project organized workshops to acquaint parents and caretakers with the value and methods of using first-aid boxes. The workshop also demonstrated how the boxes could be made locally, what should they contain and where and how to get the contents. Each center was given a box with the parent group expected to ensure that the box is maintained and kept full.In addition, the project employs and trains a set of field workers who go out in the community visiting each day care center, demonstrating appropriate and creative methods of day care and learning and keeping in touch with the needs and problems being faced by the centers. In the process, they also learn much about the needs and problems of the parents as well.
Molara has a natural interest in young children and their appropriate care. She was the first of six children and helped raise all her siblings. She has four children of her own and has cared for several foster children.At one point, she worked outside the home. She encountered difficulties in finding a safe place to keep her babies while she was at work. Disturbed by the situation, she decided to resign from her position and establish a day care center where she could care for her children and others. She decided to locate the center in Mushin, site of her family home. This was the first time the idea of a day-care center was introduced in that area. Her experience founding and building up this center leaves her with very hands-on, in depth understanding of what's required to make a significant difference for such young children. Molara was raised in the Mushin area herself, and has never lost her commitment and interest in the welfare of children growing up in that area or in other impoverished communities.