16 April 2013

Uganda: Catherine Kitongo and Babies That Don't Cry

She is Catherine Kitongo and she set up a daycare centre and nursery school for the most unlikely clients: market vendors.

"I was plaiting my hair in Wandegeya market in 2005 when this lady came in with a baby. It was beautiful and looking at it, I judged it to be three months old. However, when she left, my hairstylist told me that the child was nine months old," Kitongo said.

The clearly talkative hairstylist also informed her about the woman, whom sold porridge in the market, and her four-year- old who she left locked up in a muzigo - tiny bedsitter.

"She told me that the four-year-old was not strong enough to walk the distance from their home to Wandegeya market and so the mother locked her up between 5am and 8pm".

From this long, winded conversation, Kitongo realised the need for a daycare centre for market vendors. "I like to see children playing and smiling but when I imagined setting up a daycare centre, I thought it would be for these rich parents who would bring diapers," Kitongo said.

After thinking and praying about it for a while, Kitongo left her job at Infocom and registered a daycare centre for babies aged six months and above, which she called Miles2Smiles. It is located in Kalerwe.

"I was excited when I got my registration. I ran to Wandegeya market to the woman with the baby I had seen and told her I wanted her child. She cried." Kitongo found out from one of the porridge sellers' workmates that the woman's baby had died two days before.

"I didn't know what to do. This baby had been my push factor, but it had died." Regardless, she pushed on. "While travelling from Gayaza High School to work, I used to see Kalerwe market vendors' children playing and I knew it was a good place to start [soliciting for clients]."

Kitongo talked to the market vendors, some of whom accepted to give her their children - others thought she would sell their children and did not hand them to her. This was April 2006. Parents paid and still pay Shs 10,000 as daycare fees per month.

This could not cover the operational costs and Kitongo, who had taken out a loan and had used some of her savings to set up the daycare centre, ran out of finances. In December 2006, she closed, telling parents who were finding blood-cuddling solutions like "I will lock mine up again" or "I will take mine to the village" that they were closing for only the Christmas holiday.

"I wasn't sure we would open again but luckily, a lady called Priscilla from Stromme Foundation (a Norwegian organization whose goal is to eradicate poverty through providing education opportunities and microfinance services to the people they work with) called me saying they had some money left over and if I could show them what I would do with it, they would give it to me," Kitongo said.

Kitongo told Priscilla that she would use it to pay rent, and she was given the money. And Miles2Smiles was resuscitated.

Babies that don't cry:

When I visited Miles2Smiles recently, I was met with an unusual sight. Kitongo working at a laptop in her office, surrounded by about seven children. Two were swinging from her desk, some were under it, some seated on a bench ... they seemed to be everywhere in that little office!

Kitongo told them it was time for porridge, so they could leave (otherwise nothing pries them away from their 'Auntie Kate') and they left to find the porridge. Miles2Smiles has a nursery section born out of the need for cheap education for the children that outgrew the daycare centre.

They pay Shs 10,000 per month and Kitongo set up a microfinance to enable market vendors engage in business and be able to pay their children's school fees. As I conducted the interview, she showed me a picture of chubby Vivian.

"She was eight months here," and then pointing to another picture, she proudly says, "She is in P.1 here."

"When they brought me Vivian, she used not to cry. Not at all," Kitongo said, and because I wondered which baby never cries, Kitongo explained: "These babies that are locked up in the house learn not to cry. They cry and cry and when they learn that their cries are not responded to, they stop crying."

The locked-up toddlers are also constrained in their play. "You can't freely play in a muzigo," Kitongo said.

Some children end up dying in their 'prisons'; you have heard of children who get burnt while home alone.

Every baby is special:

What would you do if you found out that a certain child was a prostitute's? Ostracize them? Love them from a distance? Kitongo takes some of these children in. She can't be choosy, based on her location. Plus, as she pointed out: "We don't choose where we are born. Every baby comes as a special baby."

"I tell parents that I do not do it for them. I do it for the children."

Kitongo's last word was to government: "They need to realize that market vendors are needed. Where would you get tomatoes if they were not here? They also have a right to have children. They should provide the service we are providing and where they can't, they should provide finances to the people providing the service."

And it isn't just the market vendors that need daycare centres. A number of blue-collar workers, who can't afford the usually pricey daycare and night-care centres around town, do. Kitongo talked of a 24-year-old single father (with a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter) who insisted that his child be kept overnight because he had no place to keep her while he worked at night.

"I had to find a solution because I felt sorry for this girl. The father has neither mother nor father to help and the sister who had been the daughter's nanny had found a job upcountry. That man might have thrown that baby away or if he had left her with neighbours, she could have been defiled" Kitongo said.

The toddler is being looked after by a lady that Kitongo knows, because Miles2Smiles does not provide night-care services. Stromme Foundation still provides support for some of Miles2Smiles' programmes.

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