Day after day, children in pursuit of knowledge thronged Nkundi Community-Based Care Centre (CBCC) in Sub-Traditional Authority (STA) Ngwelero in Zomba Rural.
But the closure of the facility in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic scattered the little ones back to their homes with no hope of getting the information which was on hand with no trouble at the CBCC.
“It was difficult for my two children to accept that they would no longer be going to the CBCC even when I told them that all schools in the country have been closed,” says Emily Leston whose home, some yards away from the CBCC, has turned into a haven of hope for the children and others from nearby families.
Now, from 2 to 2:30pm every week day, the children assemble around a small solar-powered radio to listen to lessons which, prior to the pandemic, were exclusively available at the care centre.
It is a practice they unwaveringly follow so that schooling continues while the little ones remain in their homes as a preventive measure against the global scourge.
“They can’t be at the CBCC for the lessons, but they are equally getting them at home. I try my best to prepare everything before the time of the lessons come. They are able to follow everything that is being said on the radio,” Leston says.
She methodically calls the roll minutes before the instructor on the radio invites her attention and that of the children.
The Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) initiative championed by child-centred non-governmental organisation, Save the Children, has captured the mother of three into lessons which she had never imagined she would help facilitate.
As the instructor on the radio progresses with her teaching, Leston keenly follows and guides the children where necessary. Little cardboards bearing numbers and letters of the alphabet are handy in the process.
“I follow what the instructor says on Chanco Radio through which the lessons reach us and, in essence, the children learn twice—from me and the instructor on the radio. I raise a cardboard bearing a number or letter that the instructor mentions. It works,” Leston explains pluckily.
The technique is being replicated in all districts across the country and at least 2.2 million children continue learning so that their brains remain fresh when they return to their CBCCs once they reopen.
The participation of parents is also proving crucial as they easily have power over their children, according to Nkundi CBCC caregiver Shakira Malemba who also supervises 33 centres in STA Ngwelero.
Since 2009, she has prepared children for primary school and never thought a time would turn up when they would both be forced out of the care centres.
“It is a difficult situation,” Malemba admits. “But the most important thing is that learning continues. I continue to follow up on how the children are faring in their homes and push on parents who are slackening when it comes to assisting their children.”
She also has a high regard for the unity that exists in rural areas like hers where children from less-privileged households are still able to follow the radio instructions in homes which have the radio sets.
Malemba values early childhood education having witnessed the success of several children who went through Nkundi CBCC who have breezed through primary to secondary school.
“When all hope seemed to be lost, the radio lessons came forward. As a caregiver, there is nothing more gratifying than seeing children having an easy pass through primary school after attending CBCC lessons,” she says.
The caregiver also admits that while it works with little effort for her when she has the children at the care centres, the scaring toll of Covid-19 compelled her to accept that it would be very difficult to tame it in the centres if it reached them.
“Instruction in the centres involves a lot of touching. You cannot stop children from touching each other. In fact, even for us as instructors, it is impossible not to touch the children as we help them, for instance, with how they can hold reading and writing materials,” she says.
On the other hand, the caregiver hopes that the IRI initiative will continue beyond the pandemic so that even those children without a chance to visit CBCCs should continue learning in their homes.
There is an answer to her wish.
According to Save the Children Senior Technical Advisor for Education and Child Development, Lexon Ndalama, government already engaged the organisation for the scaling up of a similar programme across the country.
Ndalama waxes lyrical about the IRI initiative which he says is also further building the capacity of the caregivers who continue to master how to deliver early childhood lessons and to develop the curriculum.
“First, the programme has broadened our reach. When schools got closed, government was looking for alternative ways of reaching children while in their homes.
“IRI, which we were already implementing in Zomba, Mangochi and Mchinji, became attractive and government asked us to lead in organising the programme for the whole country,” Ndalama says.
He is particularly impressed that the radio is proving striking to children who have it easy in grasping what is being produced for them.
Leston attests to that assertion. Since the programme rolled out earlier this month, just before 2pm, her two children and others from neighbouring families impulsively rush to gather around the small solar-powered radio that her family owns, seldom cutting class.
“The attention they pay in unprecedented,” she sums up before switching off the radio to shift into a post-lesson review to gauge the progress the children are making.
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. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje