Mending them young
In Mzimba South, some children born with disabilities have defeated the infirmities through little interactions with their peers. ALICK PONJE writes.
Joyce Ngwira was terribly distressed when she realised that her new-born son had frail legs which doctors confirmed were deformed.
Her first-born daughter, now seven, was born with a similar condition and has been confined to her mat and wheelchair ever since.
“In the village, like where I come from, the general feeling is that giving birth to a baby with disabilities is a curse; it is believed that you have been bewitched,” Ngwira, 32, says.
Her husband, a subsistence farmer, did not show any sign of regret despite that his friends apparently urged him to divorce Ngwira, saying she was adulterating his kinfolk.
“He stuck around for a while after the birth of my second child four years ago. Then he left for South Africa and has not returned ever since. He even stopped helping me and the two children,” Ngwira says, a distant look registering in her eyes.
Now, she is finding relief in the fact that her second-born child defeated the disability and manages to walk his way to Chituzu community-based care centre (CBCC) to listen to lessons aired on Mzimba Community Radio.
Ngwira, from Yazoza Village in Mzimba South, recounts with delight her son’s journey to defeating the disability that has, unfortunately, bound his sister.
“A friend told me that at St John of God [in Mzuzu] they offer physical rehabilitation services to children while they are young. My son was helped there. I was also equipped with skills of how I would continue tending to him at home,” she recalls.
The mother of two is, however, sad that her daughter missed the services which have already rehabilitated hundreds of children in Mzimba South.
Programmes Manager at St John of God, Christopher Mhone, stresses that when disabilities are identified in children at birth, medical rehabilitation technicians and even parents have at their disposal ways of mending them.
“Such early interventions prove very effective. Even children with speech problems get rid of them. When we have them at our facility, we also train their parents who continue assisting them at home.
“We believe the first medical rehabilitation technician is the parent who will be monitoring the child every day instead of coming to the hospital every week,” Mhone says.
His institution is utilising that expertise in implementing a project dubbed ‘Inclusive Early Childhood Care and Development’ in partnership with Save the Children (SC) which sourced funds from Ferrari through SC Italy.
Mhone states that the 210 children with various forms of disabilities, who have found their way into CBCCs in Mzimba South, are openly interacting with their peers.
“They are realising their right to education. Through their interactions with their peers, what were initially taken as lifelong disabilities have seeped away.
“The stimulations and coordination that the children get ensure they eventually get rid of the disability. Such developments would not be possible if the caregivers and parents were not properly trained to handle the children,” Mhone says.
As the children—some of whom first wobbled their way into the CBCCs with terrible difficulties—finally walk upright, speak and interact with others will all confidence, Mhone believes the lessons can be replicated elsewhere.
A caregiver at Chituzu CBCC Faliness Mbale aptly applies the skills she has gained from the training facilitated by Save the Children, St John of God and their partners that include Mzimba District Social Welfare Office and Federation of Disability Organisations.
Among those that listen to her instructions are children drawn from their homes where parents confined them due to their disabilities.
“They are like any other child. As a caregiver, I feel proud that I am assisting every child who comes my way. It is so fulfilling,” Mbale explains as she mobilises the little ones to gather around a radio which has become their source of hope in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In several homes across Mzimba South, interactive radio instruction (IRI) is proving essential in keeping early childhood development lessons flowing even where CBCCs have been shut down.
Mbale is among trained caregivers who have been equipping parents with skills of instructing their children who do not make it to places where caregivers manage IRI with few children around.
“So, the learning continues in homes. One radio is enough to cater for up to six learners as long as there is distance between them. Many parents have embraced the radio lessons,” she says.
According to Save the Children Senior Technical Advisor for Education and Child Development, Lexon Ndalama, IRI which the child-centred organisation and its partners are championing in the country, is proving efficient in ensuring children are not drastically affected by the pandemic.
“In fact, we noticed that the children are greatly attracted by the fun of the radio. Just surrounding and listening to something aired on radio is attractive to them,” Ndalama says.
He hopes that, even beyond the pandemic, IRI will continue being effective in reaching the little ones in areas without CBCCs.
With the content and design of IRI being easy to follow even by parents who are not literate, Ndalama say, the gaps created by the absence of caregivers in some areas are sufficiently filled.
For Ngwira, who admits she never imagined she could eve lead in the education of her children, there is a feeling of satisfaction every moment she mobilises her son and neighbours’ children around a small cell-powered radio airing lessons in Chitumbuka, the prominent language in her area.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje