Mtendere Chibwana, of the Chisanja village in southern Malawi is just five years old. Last year, he was turned away from starting primary school education because he had not reached the age of six, which is the recommended age for starting public primary schools. Because of this, Mtendere is now back at home and playing with his friends as he waits to turn six so that he can start school next year.
Elsewhere in Malawi, children Mtendere’s age are attending early childhood development (ECD) education as they wait for their time to enroll for primary school. However, in his village, there is no such centre. ECD has been neglected for so long in Malawi – especially in rural areas where majority of Malawi’s 17 million people live. This has made ECD education accessible mainly only by the urban population - who are predominantly high and middle income earners. The national policy on ECD highlights the importance of investing in children as human capital by singling it out as necessary in promoting sustainable development.
In Malawi, most children younger than five are living in poverty and lack opportunities for play and early stimulation.This means most of the children start primary schools unprepared, which is one of the contributing factors for their failure to perform in class.
According to recent statistics by UNICEF, only 27 per cent of the children in Malawi, have access to ECD services. To address this problem, the government and other stakeholders are working together to improve the situation. There are now about 11 200 ECD centres, according to the Ministry of Gender, Women and Child Affairs. These centres reach about 35 per cent of the eligible students nationwide. One such area is the Blantyre rural area of Makata, where there is an ECD centre with a total enrollment of 40 children aged three to six.
According to Esther Chimakowa, one of the ECD caregivers, the centre started its operations in 2004 when she and other four other caregivers went for ECD training. The two-week long training equipped them with knowledge in literacy and numeracy, as well as skills on how to care for and nurture children.
Chimakowa says they started their classes for the children in a court building with just ten participants – and the numbers kept growing. But at times they were being disturbed by meetings that usually happen at court.
This led them to approach a Catholic nun by the name of Anna Tommasi, simply known as Sister Anna, to assist them in building their own meeting place. Sister Anna, who, through her organization, CC Trust, offered to build them an ECD centre provided they contributed bricks and sand for the structure.
“We were delighted to receive a positive response from Sister Anna who assisted us with most building materials except bricks and sand, which we provided from which they constructed a block comprising a classroom, office and storeroom. They also built a separate kitchen and toilet,” a smiling Chimakowa says.
The good gesture did not stop there, as the nun also committed to providing soya porridge flour to the centre every month. With the new building and constant provision of porridge, the enrollment has grown from ten children to forty, which is 98 percent of the total eligible children in the village. She attributes the sudden increase in enrollment to having their own place, a conducive environment to learning and play, which is exciting and attracting to the young learners.
Samson Ndecheta, who works for CC Trust as a coordinator of Early Childhood Development, said that as a charitable institution, they saw a need for proper ECD centres in rural areas where they were not available. They started assisting communities which were already holding ECD classes in makeshift structures by providing them with materials like cement, iron sheets, wood and construction labour. They ask the community to provide bricks and river sand for building the ECD centres.
Another minder, Elina Thom, says since they started the ECD classes in 2004, over 200 children have graduated from their centre to primary school and that there has been so much improvement in the way children progress with their education thereafter. She says while previously it was commonplace for a child to repeat classes at primary school, the situation is no longer the same because in ECD centres, children are taught basic things like numeric and reading skills.
“Since the children are taught basic things like spelling, numeric and hygiene skills here, when it comes time for them to progress to primary schools, they are already familiar with class work such that they don’t encounter major challenges there,” says Thom.
Upon successfully completing the ECD education, children from the area are enrolled at a nearby Mudi full primary school where they start grade one. Rose Thomas Sabwera is a grade one teacher at Mudi. She says the coming of ECD centres has helped them as primary school teachers.
“ [T]hese days when children are starting grade one, most of them are able to do all oral things like self introduction, basic reading and number counting. Previously, when a child was coming to start grade one, they didn’t have any ideas so it was a duty for us teachers to mentor them and it was not easy,” says Sabwera, a public primary school teacher of six years.
Sabwera also commends the ECD centre minders for teaching the children proper hygiene practices, which was a challenge before the advent of ECD centres. However, she says she would have loved if the children in the ECD centres are taught to write, because currently, the minders only concentrate on oral work. She says as a seasoned teacher, she noted that the most difficult part of teaching a child is when it comes to teach them how to scribble letters.
“Much as the children are knowledgeable about some things when they come here to start grade one, however, they still have problems to scribble just as their friends who have never attended early childhood development centres. So I think it is time the minders in ECD centres start teaching them how to scribble,” she says.
While a lot is being done in making ECD education accessible to all children in Malawi, there are still challenges, like a lack of adequately trained minders for the centres. While some of the minders went for the ECD training, there are others who have not had an opportunity to be trained for over three years now.
There has also been a high number of drop-out caregivers due to lack of motivation since they work on voluntary basis and do not get paid.
“Several minders we were trained and started with, have quit along the way citing lack of incentives for the work that we do. This means we have new members who replace them who have no training in ECD education. I hope government and other stakeholders can come up with a small stipend for us so that we are motivated to work,” she says.
There is also the challenge of proper infrastructure. For example, some classes are offered under trees, which deters parents from sending their children for ECD classes. Although organizations such as CC Trust such as CC Trust are constructing ECD centres across Malawi, there are more areas which are not yet reached with ECD education like Mtendere’s area.
When asked what the government is doing on the concerns, Peter Magomero, district social welfare officer for Blantyre, says the concerns from caregivers are valid. His department, within the ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, is working on having the minders of ECD centres on monthly stipend programmes alongside adult literacy instructors so that they are motivated to work. On the infrastructure issue, Magomero says they are working closely with non-governmental-organizations, such as like Action Aid and World Vision Malawi to assist them in reaching those areas in need of proper infrastructure.