Christina Makungu’s research for her MA in Geography was funded by the Christopher Moyes Memorial Trust and Department of Geography at Durham University.

Christina Makungu, an MA student in the Department of Geography at Durham, recently completed her research in IHRR on the plight of young people in southern Tanzania who are in self care –  ‘Young People in self care: Behaviours and experiences in farming households in Kilombero Valley, southern Tanzania.’

Her dissertation explores the impact of self care arrangement in school aged-children in villages within the Kilombero Valley when their parents are away for farming activities for several months. In this interview, Christina gives insights into her research in Tanzania and identifies how problems surrounding children in self care can be addressed.

Why aren’t jobs closer to the village where children live?

Most people in Kilombero valley, as in other parts of rural Tanzania, rely on subsistence farming for their livelihood and rice is the main staple food and the most important cash crop in the area. Most households utilize family labour for planting, weeding and harvesting. The area surrounding the village is very dry and there are too many weeds, it’s difficult to cultivate rice there and all farmers depend on the production of rice to sustain themselves.

At the same time, the land close to the village is not large enough and would not be able to support the whole population of the village. Land near the Kilombero River is the most attractive for farmers because of natural irrigation. Cultivating near the river allows them to utilise irrigation for their rice paddies. When the rains come, it floods the river, which is good for the paddies as they need a lot of water.

Rice is a major cash crop in the Kilombero Valley and they do not produce nearly as many other crops, such as maize or potatoes. Farmers earn the most money by growing rice. Rice cultivation is very labour intensive, so for them it’s difficult to produce other crops at the same time.

How do children in the Kilombero Valley manage to take care of themselves when their parents are away?

It is difficult to say whether they ‘manage’. My interpretation is that parents may think their children manage, but in reality they try to cope with the situation by adopting risk behaviours which may ruin their health and diminish their future livelihood opportunities.

For instance, most children skip school to take care of responsibilities at home because their parents are away. Older children are left to look after the younger siblings together with all the other families’ responsibilities and attending school. Most of the time, they fail to combine school and family responsibilities; as a result their school attendance is poor and inevitably leads to poor school performance.

The farming period is considered a vulnerable time for the farming population because of recurring food insecurity and my findings show that parents don’t provide food for their children, so children have to work during weekends. Usually, children earn very little money to sustain themselves during the week. Girls are involved in sex for survival while boys are involved in income generating activities instead of attending school. The main challenge for children is to budget their money. They earn £2 per week and to budget this for soap, kerosene and food is very difficult for them.  Either they skip meals and have one meal per day or they can have 2-3 meals per day, but at the expense of doing prostitution (usually older girls).

What can be done to address the risky behaviours of children who are in self care?

Self care is a problem because children are left to their own devises at a very early age. I think something can be done to help this situation. For instance, most children that live in the village behave in a certain way, such as getting involved with sexual affairs, while enduring its consequences and at the same time try to solve the immediate problems they face. Also, maybe they lack reproductive health knowledge. In Tanzania, it is taboo to talk about sex between parents and children or adults.

Parents are in a unique position to help socialise their children into sexual adults by providing accurate information about sex and by fostering responsible sexual decision-making skills. But in Tanzania, studies show that children learn about sex through the media or teenagers. This increases their vulnerability to risky behaviours. If children were educated about sexual behaviour they could address the impacts of STIs such as HIV/AIDS on their health, but it is difficult for them to obtain this knowledge

When their parents are away, children spend a lot of time in the evening, making themselves vulnerable to mosquito bites where they can get malaria.  If they are educated about malaria and taught that spending most of the time playing without nets puts them at risk, they might change their behaviour.  At the family level, parents have to work, but I think they can include support from their children when they are there. I think parents need to know that they expose their children to these risks and they have to support them.

How could government better accommodate people whose livelihoods are based on farming?

The main problem here is poverty. Staying at the farms for long periods of time is due to poverty. If they received agricultural subsidies from the government, they wouldn’t need to stay a long time at the farms for planting or weeding. This is why there is no time for them to return to the village to look after their children. If you use tractors for planting, they could cultivate for two days and return home. If government would subsidise things like herbicides, they would no longer have to do weeding by hand. In my research, I found the government actually subsidised fertilisers for farmers, but farmers don’t need fertilisers, they need herbicides. The government doesn’t listen to the farmers’ needs, they just do what they think is best. If they would listen to farmers’ problems and respond accordingly, I think this would be very helpful. Subsidising herbicides and tractors would help give parents the time to stay with their children.

How could parents and children respond better to malaria?

Bed nets owned by parents are taken to the farms because people think there is higher risk of getting bitten by mosquitos there than in the villages.  During that period when parents are away there is a higher rate of transmission of malaria and their children are left without protection. The farming period is a rainy period and there are more mosquitoes. People put more effort into preventing malaria for children under five years old because they say they are ‘more vulnerable’. But by addressing it this way the consequences are that children over five years old are not considered a vulnerable population.

Most of the health research on malaria is done for children under five, not older children. But for older children, malaria is still a health problem in terms of mortality and mobility. Often parents will also take bed nets from children for fear they will damage them. People don’t think about whether older children should be protected because of over emphasising the issue of the vulnerability of children under five to malaria. People should know that malaria remains an important cause of mortality (10-20% of all cases) and attributes to 13-50% of medically related school absence in school children.

Another risk is when they get malaria, parents are not there. Children must depend one-hundred percent on their parents when they are sick. You can treat malaria with prompt diagnosis and treatment.  If they are not treated for malaria as soon as possible (preferably within 24 hours as recommended by WHO) they could die.  Parents working in farms are not able to return to their children in time if they get malaria and when they do return they are very sick.

In Tanzania, children can be diagnosed and treated for malaria in school. This could help prevent children with malaria from living with the disease untreated. Research in Nigeria and another part of Tanzania showed that teachers were very capable of providing treatment to children with malaria. Teachers can be trained to administer the right doses of drugs to treat malaria in children. Studies have shown that teachers were very careful and helped children to receive treatment through school. Most importantly, they adhered to the correct drug dosage for treating children with malaria. The issue is how to get funding for these projects in areas where children are in self care. Also, children must learn that if they feel sick they must go straight to school to be diagnosed and treated if they have malaria. It is impossible for children to receive treatment from the drug dispensaries because they don’t have enough money to pay the fees. It’s not a very attractive solution to government, but I think for children who are in self care it’s the only way to ensure they are treated for malaria, rather than have them wait for their parents when they are sick.

What is the biggest advantage of using qualitative methodologies for your research?

By interviewing people through semi-structured interviews they give me their own account of their experience:  what they think about self care, their own perception of life and their experience. There is no other way of getting in-depth knowledge of people’s lives without using qualitative methods. The problem of using questionnaires is that there is no room for interviewees to respond other than answering ‘yes’ or’ no’. How would you know what they think about the matter and why? How would you know why they behave in a certain way? These questions are important in social science in order ‘to understand people’s lives from their own experience’.

For more information on district-based health research and policy in Tanzania, visit the Ifakara Health Institute’s website .