When five-year-old Lyton Banda from Nkuna Andrea Village in Mzimba South first stepped his frail feet in a classroom at a community-based care centre (CBCC), his biggest worry might have been how to interact with his peers.
He had spent the previous years in loneliness, away from those he was supposed to revel in his childhood with. His speaking difficulties compelled his parents to restrain him from going out of their home.
“He literally could not speak. Most children speak their first words between 10 and 14 months but it was not the case with Lyton. In fact, even at four years, he could not speak,” says Modester Mseteka, a caregiver at Mtuzuzu CBCC.
Her desire is that children— whatever their condition— should have access to Early Childhood Development (ECD) care and experiences so that they are sufficiently set for primary education.
Such care and experiences, especially in the first 1,000 days of life, have long-lasting impacts on learning, skills gain and income, according to studies.
Mseteka has seen that in the 20 years that she has been a CBCC caregiver, despite that a familiar problem bothers her.
“As a caregiver, you want every child to go through your hands. It feels good. You watch them develop into bright people who easily make it in primary school if they are focused and continue being supported.
“But there were many children who were not allowed to come out and take part in the CBCC services. Parents with children who have various forms of disabilities chose to keep them away from the CBCC,” Mseteka says.
It was a sigh of relief for her when Lyton first stepped his feet in a classroom whose walls are covered with letters of the alphabet, words, numbers and paintings of objects and animals.
Mseteka admits that, at the start, she had no clue about how to assist the little anxious boy who had been drawn from a solitary place to the spacious room through which hundreds others had gone before transitioning to the nearby Mtuzuzu Primary School and others.
“Gradually, he fitted in and began to speak. It was a miracle. He had lived for four years without speaking. When a child gets rid of speaking difficulties, teaching them becomes easy,” she explains.
The caregiver gained the skill to persuade parents who have children with disabilities to allow them into CBCCs after an encounter with Save the Children (SCI), which also taught her how to handle learners with varied needs.
“She is doing a wonderful job. Children with hearing, mobility and visual problems are also flocking to the CBCC because their parents now appreciate that no one should be left behind,” Lyton’s grandfather, Banda, after whom the little boy was named, says.
As chairperson of Mtuzuzu CBCC Committee, Banda wants to see more children going through the centre before entering primary school.
He is anticipative that through SCI’s Inclusive Early Childhood Care and Development Project, whose second phase is being implemented in Mzimba South Education Division, from March 2019 to February 2022, through St John of God, literacy levels among people in his area will considerably expand.
“I have another grandchild with problems similar to what Lyton had and, very soon, he will be enrolling with the CBCC,” Banda says.
United Nations Children’s Fund states that early interventions for disadvantaged children lead to improvements in survival, health, growth and cognitive and social development.
“Children who receive assistance in their early years achieve more success at school. As adults, they have higher employment and earnings, better health and lower levels of welfare dependence and crime rates than those who don’t have these early opportunities,” the United Nations agency says.
Deputy Head teacher at Mtuzuzu Primary School, Enala Banda, agrees.
She is particularly enthralled by learners with disabilities who have minimal problems as they progress through primary school after going through CBCCs.
“When children with disabilities stayed away from CBCCs, most of them would not even come to primary school. That has changed. Now, there are also proper linkages between teachers in primary schools and caregivers especially on how to handle learners with special needs,” Banda says.
She further discloses that teachers are adequatel y enlightened on how to take care of learners with disabilities so that the knowledge and skills they gain at the CBCCs do not seep away.
The trend, Banda says, is establishing roots and more children with learning difficulties are suitably supported.
On his part, SCI Inclusive Early Childhood Care and Development Coordinator for Mzimba South, Tadeo Goliath, is confident that the project, funded by Ferrari through SCI Italy to the tune of €1.3 million, targeting 143 CBCCs, will produce lifelong impacts on communities.
“There should be equal access to ECD services irrespective of children’s differences and vulnerabilities. In Mzimba South, we are working with traditional leaders, village and area development committees and CBCCs management committees.
“The idea is that even after the project phases out, they should be able to sustain operations of the CBCCs. Among other things, locals around Mtuzuzu CBCC have a village savings and loans scheme from which 10 percent goes into operations of the CBCC,” Goliath says.
That is why Lyton’s grandfather does not doubt the possibility of children, regardless of their status, making it after the support they get in their early days.
He has observed little Lyton discover himself and sees many more with similar conditions moving along with their peers as inclusivity becomes part of their lives.
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