Children in Kalma camp say "OK" to staying healthy

By Coco McCabe

Under the watchful gaze of his friends, Osman rubs soap carefully between each of his fingers. He sheepishly admits that he doesn't know quite how old he is ("I think I am three—or maybe four") and says he would like to go to school so he can know more about numbers.

But, he adds proudly, he does know how to wash his hands properly after going to the latrine—something he rarely did just a few weeks ago. And he proceeds to demonstrate to the group of children, who—like Osman—have started attending Oxfam's child-to-child educational programs that aim to equip the children of Kalma camp with knowledge that could save their lives.

Football matches, songs, volleyball tournaments, and playground games are just some of the innovative ways in which the Oxfam Public Health Promotion (PHP) team here is teaching children how to stay healthy.

Kalma is one of the largest camps in Darfur—mile after mile of tightly packed shelters and rapidly constructed sanitation systems currently home to around 89,000 displaced people. As in most camps, the vast majority of residents are women and children. Two years ago there were just 19,000 people here, but rapid growth since then has created an abundance of health risks, to which children are the most vulnerable.

"Children everywhere need to be taught to wash their hands and keep clean," says Khaled Suleiman, one of Oxfam's PHP officers in the camp. "But here especially so, as the consequences can easily be fatal."

To make sure the messages sink in, Khaled and the team try to make them as fun as possible. Oxfam has built a series of community shelters where child-to-child interactive classes and activities are held.

Songs are enthusiastically sung about how to prevent malaria and diarrhea ("Our food should be washed, our water should be covered," the children sing, accompanied by stomping of feet and clapping of hands).

Other songs encourage children to participate in community clean-up campaigns, and explain how to set up mosquito nets and use the latrines properly. Oxfam has installed around 9,000 family latrines and 1,500 communal latrines in Kalma.

The children in Kalma love to make noise. The merest glimpse of a new Oxfam worker elicits a chorus of hundreds of voices shouting in unison, "OK, OK"—the nickname the children of Kalma have given to foreign visitors and the first English word every child in the camp learns. The welcome is followed by mischievous smiles and laughter all round, and the children's enthusiasm for loud, energetic fun extends into the classroom.

"My favorite is the singing and dancing," says Osman of the child-to-child activities, his arms waving frantically about his head as he mimes the actions to a song about swatting away flies. "And I like to learn new things." He has spent most of his short life in the camp after arriving here with just his mother. Nobody is sure what happened to his father and brothers.

Nine-year-old Hawa also likes to sing. "I enjoy the classes as I can make friends with lots of other children and learn at the same time. We sing the songs when we go home as well. I would like to go to school but so far I have not been able to," said Hawa, who has been in the camp for two-and-a-half years since her family fled their village of Shataya, nearly 100 miles to the west.

The PHP team works with community volunteers to come up with new songs that they think the children will find both educational and entertaining. "Kalma is as big as a city, so it is divided into eight 'sectors,'" says Khaled. "Recently we heard children from sectors 7 and 8—the only parts of the camp where Oxfam does not work—singing our songs! The children at our classes had been singing at home and gradually the songs spread around the entire camp."

The programs have proved extremely popular—almost too popular. The teachers—themselves displaced people living in the camp—say they often have 400 children trying to cram into a single room at the community shelter. "Every time we open the door, another dozen or so burst in," says Khadija, who teaches children in Sector 3 of the camp.

"Having such large classes can make it very hard for us to get the message across successfully," she says. "So we have split them into groups. Group 1 comes between 8:30 and 10:30 and Group 2 between 11 and 1 pm. Of course, some children try and come to both!"

"We are trying to ensure that the children are exposed to our messages at every possible opportunity," says Khaled. "The songs are just a part of our activities and it is clear that children's health has improved since the programs began."

Cartoon drawings explaining how food can breed germs, and how failing to clean latrines will spread disease and attract rodents, are pinned to the walls of the community shelters. Football matches and other events are organized for children to attend, where health-related information is disseminated.

The PHP team is also coordinating its efforts with the four primary schools in Kalma camp. A number of children from each class are chosen as supervisors and join teachers for training in hygiene promotion. The skills and facts they learn are then passed on to their classmates and pupils.

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