Saturday, 3 March 2012

Some thoughts so far.......

Having been here for 5 months now, I feel that I am able to draw together something of a coherent idea about some of the difficulties here in Ethiopia. I am of the view that many of the problems experienced here stem from a lack of cognitive development in childhood. What I am arguing is that important aspects of brain functioning need to be developed in early childhood, and presumably in the West, this happens through the massive stimulation that children get. In the UK and other western countries, new born babies are provided with colourful and tuneful mobiles and surrounded by people who chat away and make funny faces and sounds in an attempt to get some reaction from their otherwise non-responsive offspring. From just a few months old, the baby will be sat in a bouncing chair with toys strung across, which when bashed produce an entire range of sounds. The cooing infant will also be bathed in warm, bubbly water, which is also likely to have the odd rubber duck floating around. As the baby gets older, there are further bouncing apparatus that allow them to test out their legs before they can walk and clumpy walking frames that create havoc in even the largest of living rooms. The toys continue to stimulate cognitive development by teaching the child how adults cherish them getting the correct wooden shapes in the holes, matching up the right colours, and even being able to make the correct sounds to various farmyard animals. My point is that these babies are constantly stimulated with exercises that develop the problem-solving part of the brain.
Contrast this to Ethiopian babies who have no colourful, musical toys, and since the women are busy carrying water, wood and cooking, they don’t have time to coo and cluck over their new born. So the baby is placed inside the dark, often windowless, one or two-roomed house whilst the rest of the family work in the fields or look after the household needs. She or he rapidly gets used to this under stimulated lifestyle and throws out little objection to this isolation, only crying out when s/he needs food. Once the baby can sit up unaided, s/he is placed outside of the house where s/he watches the world go by. As you drive around the Ethiopian countryside you will see many small children sitting, often alone, outside the houses. They seem to sit for hours ‘playing’ in the earth. So even at this young tender age, they lack any impetus to object to their isolated existence. They are accepting of it, presumably as they know of nothing else.

So the western 2 or 3-year old may be a complete handful and I’m sure that everyone can cite times when their toddler throwing a tantrum in the local supermarket was a source of enormous embarrassment. But at least this child had the drive to object to something. At least this child knew that there was something better on offer. At least this child had the cognitive ability to work out that screaming and shouting got at least some response – even if it wasn’t the response they wanted. The Ethiopian 2 or 3-year old is much more passive. Yes, they cry but this is largely because they are hungry or they have fallen and hurt themselves. They may even cry out if they see something that they want, but on the whole, there is little for them to yearn for.

By the time the western child reaches 4-5 years, s/he is shipped off to school to face yet more challenges, developing further and more complex problem solving skills. Their critical thinking skills may even be aroused, although this tends to come a bit later in life. What is important is that these children, and later these adults are constantly facing problems that they are stimulated to solve. It’s an integral part of our education system and something that we largely take for granted.

In Ethiopia, due to a lack of schools, children go to school for either the morning or the afternoon. They are taught to remember as many facts as can be packed into the limited time they have at school. The emphasis, however, is on ‘more knowledge is better’ rather than ‘deeper understanding is better’. So it is little wonder that the nurses’ response to ‘why has the baby not been fed?’ is a nonchalant shrug and ‘no milk’. I think that they simply don’t think about finding a solution. Their cognitive ability does not provoke a problem solving response and instead, they adopt the only response they know; to shrug and accept the situation. So what I’m suggesting is that you need to develop the brain at an early age and if you don’t do this, vital aspects of cognition remain embryonic through to adulthood. I am unsure as to whether these parts of the brain can be developed later on in life or whether they need to be stimulated in early childhood. If the latter is true, there is little hope for the Ethiopians here today, although a radical change in child care and education could rescue future generations.

This is just my take on things and clearly there will be exceptions to what I have described. Some children are stimulated and some adults do have the ability to think critically. The scene that I have described above, however, reflects a large proportion of the population that I have observed. 

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