At three years, Vitumbiko has become good at reciting the alphabet.
Ironically, just eight months ago, he could not manage to converse with peers for two or three minutes, let alone keep company with others.
He was one of the children who, apart from enjoying conversations with mum and dad, could not think of any better world than the family home.
However, through actions of people like Group Village Head (GVH) Chamono, under Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwalweni in Rumphi District, he has become a sociable being; one versed in pre-school things.
“I do not feel good when I see a child aged three years and above loitering around the home, marketplace or other places instead of going to school,” he indicated.
Indeed, the traditional leader has established a routine.
“At the crack of dawn, I work up, prepare myself and, between 6am and 8am, carry out what I call ‘people audits’ in the neighbourhood. This means ensuring that no child aged between three and six years is at home without a good reason,” he explained.
When he finds children at home, he takes parents and guardians to task and, when he discovers that the reason for keeping the child at home is lame, the parents or guardians are punished.
“I fine the errant parents or guardians a tin of maize. We then tell the parents to take the child to school,” he pointed out.
However, the traditional leader does not act out of malice. On their own, community members came up with by-laws that promote pre-school and school attendance by children.
That is how the tin-of-maize punishment became fixed in people’s way of life there.
Today, women such as Grace Mhango, from Chamono Village, have embraced pre-school for their children.
“At first, I used to think that pre-school is for town mongers and not for those in rural areas such as Ntchenachena. I have since changed my mindset. Just like in urban areas, we, people in rural areas, can expose our children to pre-school lessons, thereby giving them the best start in life.
“I am proud to say, now, our children are active at primary school level, more so because they go to pre-school, where they get prepared for primary school and, later in their life, tertiary education,” Mhango explained.
Nkhombolo Early Childhood Development Centre caregiver Mercy Kalumbi concurs.
She said she is happy because, not only are children exposed to lessons that shape their thinking, the number of children attending pre-school has increased, too.
“In the over five years that I have been a caregiver, I have seen changes in community members’ attitudes as well as children.
“The only problem we have is that of poor infrastructure. I have 33 children in pre-school but no proper structure. This acts as a demotivating factor to them,” Kalumbi lamented.
However, Kalumbi said the coming in of Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) lessons has partly addressed the challenge of limited expertise among caregivers, who are currently working on voluntary basis.
“We have never been trained as caregivers; as such, these radio lessons have somehow helped us address the problem of lack of skills.
“Honestly, we are banking on the Interactive Radio Instruction initiative to teach the kids, and we thank Save the Children for the project,” Kalumbi indicated.
One of the standard one teachers at Nkhomboli Primary School, Naome Luwe, lauded pre-school for helping children do well in class.
“Early childhood development centres have made our job easy. Children who go through pre-school do well in class,” she said.
Nkhombolo Primary School Head teacher Rodeny Mwale is equally ecstatic.
However, Rumphi District Social Welfare Officer Zindaba Lungu said, despite that the district is doing well in ensuring that children attend pre-school, lack of motivation among caregivers is a recurring problem.
Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Minister Patricia Kaliati said the country is taking the necessary steps to ensure that all children are exposed to pre-school facilities so that they can become productive citizens.
She said they plan to reach out to 70 percent of the country’s children with Early Childhood Development (ECD) education by 2023.
Only 48 percent of children have access to the same at the moment.
The ministry’s chief child development officer, Pauline Simwaka, believes that, at the rate of pre-schools’ penetration in the country, the future can only be brighter than ever.
“We have plans to have at least an ECD centre at each and every primary school in the country,” she pointed out.
Quite ambitious. However, if caregivers’ motivation is not on the agenda, the ministry’s plans may become another futile attempt.