Early Childhood Development (ECD) is key to a full and productive life for every child. In fact, child development experts say in their first years of life, children establish the cognitive, emotional and social foundation upon which they can build their futures.
However, for some reasons, ECD services remained a preserve for middle income families in urban areas who can manage to pay for them; not to talk about Inclusive Early Childhood Care Development (IECCD) programmes.
This is despite that the Government of Malawi and Unicef first piloted rural ECD centres in the early 1980s, although these early pilots were not sustained by communities.
Consequently, the model of Community Based Child Care Centres (CBCCs) was developed to create a self-sustaining childcare system, initiated, managed and owned by the communities themselves.
The original purpose of these CBCCs was to meet the care needs of orphans and vulnerable children affected by the HIV and Aids epidemic but the services have since expanded their mandate to provide early development and learning opportunities as well as part-time childcare for working parents.
Mtuzuzu CBCC in Traditional Authority (T/A) M’mbelwa in Mzimba was born in September 2001 out of the need to provide a conducive environment for the development of the cognitive, emotional and social foundation of the children.
The centre, located deep in one of the rural parts of Mzimba near the border between Malawi and Zambia, has a funny history as it launched its ECD lessons under a tree.
“It was not easy at all, but we fought on because we understood its importance to our children. And as time went, the Head teacher for Mtuzuzu Full Primary School allocated us an unoccupied teacher’s house where we continued with our programmes,” explains Mtuzuzu CBCC chairperson, Lyton Banda.
Banda states that Mzimba District Social Welfare Office assisted the communities with the training of caregivers while traditional leaders and parents provided resources for the running of the facility.
Modester Mseteka, the longest caregiver at the centre, says although the communities voluntarily initiated and have been steadfast in implementing the CBCC over the years, sustainability of the programme has been their ongoing challenge.
Mseteka says the centre provides porridge in the morning using contributions from the community.
“But due to poverty among parents, irregular supply of food has been our biggest problem and this has also been the main cause of child absenteeism. The other challenge was inadequate training and skills on how to provide holistic services to children by caregivers due to our limited training,” she explains.
This notwithstanding, their interventions have caught the attention of Saint John of God Hospitaller Services, which is implementing an IECCD project in Mzimba South District with funding from Save the Children Malawi.
Budgeted at €1,300, 000, the project targets 143 CBCCs, in T/ As Kampingo Sibande, Mzikubola and M’mbelwa in Mzimba South Education District.
The CBCCs are clustered around 34 primary schools targeted by the Norwegian Aid for Development Cooperation (Norad) framework agreement funded integrated programme.
IECCD Project Coordinator, Byson Chidzalo, says the project is targeting 10,000 children and that out of these, 7,228 children (3,414 boys and 3,814 girls) are already in CBCCs and 2,000 are out of CBCCs.
Those out of CBCCs include the 0-2 year olds attending growth monitoring sessions at the centres.
Chidzalo states that the project further looks at strengthening school readiness interventions by using approaches that provide special support to children with special needs, working with parents and communities to support inclusion of all children in ECD services.
“We are working with caregivers and government structures to provide necessary support to all children regardless of their unique abilities and characteristics as the project pays special attention to learners with diverse needs like physical disabilities, learning difficulties, negative gender norms and poverty within the implementation area,” he says.
Chidzalo further states that the overall objective of the project is that all children of ECD age in the targeted areas, irrespective of their gender, particularly those currently excluded from participating in ECD services on the basis of gender, socio economic status, HIV and Aids status of their parents and disabilities, have access to quality inclusive ECD services within their communities.
“By 2022, we want to have expanded equitable access to ECD services for all children, especially those marginalised by gender, extreme-poverty, disabilities and effects of HIV and Aids; improve the quality and relevance of inclusive ECD services and strengthen the capacity for management and governance of inclusive CBCCs by community structures and households,” he explains.
However, the project has established that there were untrained caregivers in the 23 newly adopted CBCCs who are working on a rotational basis.
To address the problem, the project will soon train caregivers in the fundamentals of child development, role of the caregivers, how young children learn, health, nutrition, hygiene, supporting children with special learning needs and child rights, among others.
According to Chidzalo, the training will be residential, an approach that is suitable for volunteers with other responsibilities that may affect the quality of training and time spent on actual content and practice if they were to be trained at a venue right in their community.
“This approach also provides more conducive environment and opportunities for making play and learning materials using locally available resources, which are a requirement for running ECD centres,” he explains.
The intervention has already started bearing fruits as evidenced by the birth of Tikoleraneko Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), which is an offspring and a brainchild of Mtuzuzu CBCC.
The association’s chairperson, Verentina Khosa-Nkuna, says the objective of the association is to generate resources for supporting the ECD centre.
“The buying of the shares started in December 2019. By the end of five months, we had K800, 000 and as of today, our shares have doubled to K1.6 million,” Khosa-Nkuna says.
The association has since used part of the profits generated from individual members’ businesses to buy maize and soya beans for feeding their children at the centre.
Mzoma Child Protection Worker, Seweza Mumba, describes the intervention by the Saint John of God Hospitaller Services as timely, saying it will go a long way in revitalizing the zeal and commitment among communities to promote and enhance the quality of ECD services in the area.
Mumba says the area has also seen a renewed commitment from traditional and community leaders towards supporting their CBCCs with locally available resources.