Forming friendships and challenging misconceptions

Catherine Alejo

Catherine Alejo is our Programme Manager in Uganda and Tanzania. She tells us how Julia and Valentina’s friendship is challenging misconceptions.

Two young girls sitting outside school eating ice lollies, one is in a wheelchair.

Julia and Valentina’s friendship has been helping break down stigmas about disability in their local community in Tanzania.

Despite being classmates, Julia and Valentina had never spent much time together. Julia has a disability. And myths and misconceptions in the community about disability meant it had been hard for her to make friends at school.

Joining our inclusive education project

This changed after Julia and Valentina’s school was identified to be part of Leonard Cheshire’s “Investing in Futures” inclusive education project, funded by Comic Relief. The project was delivered in partnership with Tanzania Cheshire Foundation (TCF) and Miyuji Cheshire Home (MCH).

It aimed to create school environments that fostered inclusive learning for children with disabilities. A vital element of the project was child-to-child clubs, which encourage children with and without disabilities to socialise and support each other. They also offer an excellent environment for children to learn more about disability and the importance of equal rights for all children.

Before the child-to-child clubs, Valentina hadn’t really got to know Julia. The community was also sceptical about the child-to-child clubs. Because of attitudes towards disability, in the past other parents had discouraged their children from playing with Julia. And when Valentina and Julia started becoming friends, they tried to advise Valentina’s mother to stop the friendship. Fortunately, her mother ignored their comments. She could see the friendship was blossoming and found no harm in it.   

Since attending the clubs, Julia and Valentina have become close friends. They now do their homework together and play together outside of school. And Julia and Valentina’s parents have become friends too.

Friendship is a two-way street

Julia and Valentina’s friendship is a two-way street. Julia is very bright and helps Valentina academically. And Valentina makes sure Julia is included in school activities. She also helps push Julia’s adapted wheelchair if she wants her support on the way to and from school. 

“The child-to-child club enabled me to interact with other children and to get more friends whom we play together,” explained Julia. “They help me when I go to school and when I go back home from school. So this makes me feel happy and comfortable, something which was not possible before.”

Why friendship is important

Their friendship has also shown the rest of the community the importance of inclusion. They’ve realised these friendships are important. And that children with disabilities should not be left out. Now, more parents are encouraging their children to get to know Julia. 

“Other children were laughing over me because I was a friend of Julia,” Valentina said, reflecting on the project. “However, as time went on through the child-to-child clubs, all the children in the club love to play and help Julia. Other children who are not in the club also feel very happy to be with Julia.

“Before the inclusive education programme, I thought children with disabilities cannot attend school and even if they attend their performance will be poor. But now, by seeing my friend Julia performing well in class more than other children without disabilities, I now know they can do better academically.”

Julia and Valentina have a great friendship in and out of school. And they are both doing well in their studies. Valentina wants to be a teacher, and Julia wants to study to be a nurse. They plan to support each other with their academic goals right up to university.