By Sam Majamanda:
Community participation in development activities is said to be vital for meaningful and sustainable socio-economic growth in Malawi.
Most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and development partners have often emphasised the significance of putting communities in the lead to foster development.
This phenomenon is affirmed through introduction of projects aimed at building communities’ capacity to take a leading role in implementation of development activities.
Women’s Legal Resources Centre (Worlec), a rights-based NGO implementing projects across the country, is one of the partners living the dream of harnessing community-led sustainable development in rural areas.
In Phalombe, for instance, Worlec has been implementing Right to Learn Project since 2016. Through the project, communities have been empowered to lead through star circles.
“Star circle is an approach that encourages people to gather together, deliberate and propose solutions to issues affecting their community.
“Members of the star circles are drawn from all the governance structures at community level such as area and village development committees,” says Right to Learn’s Project Assistant for Phalombe Glasten Kanjala.
Kanjala adds that the concept allows the group, which acts as the community’s Sanhedrin, to identify challenges that people face in their areas and provide lasting solutions to the same.
He further says the process is intended to result in communities taking ownership over their development.
Membership of a star circle is designed to encompass representatives of all interest groups to effectively address issues from all sections of society.
“When critical issues arise and solutions are identified, the group begins to solicit external support to such interventions.
“But where challenges require local solutions, the group simply identifies people to work with and mobilises the whole community for action,” Kanjala says.
In Phalombe, Worlec has established 62 star circles in traditional authorities (TAs) Kaduya and Mkhumba with particular focus on education and other development initiatives.
In Nantapo Village in Chief Mkhumba’s area, a star circle has led to the construction of a community-based childcare centre (CBCC) where early childhood development (ECD) services are provided to under-five children.
Village Head Nantapo says, before the centre was established, children had no proper care and early initiation to school life, a development that slowed catch up with school life upon attaining primary school-going age.
“Children had difficulties to catch up with school life due to late introduction to classroom environment and this reduced them to slow learners.
“This may look like a small problem but it is not because we realised that enhancement of sustainable development needs an educated citizenry.
“The country’s future adults are the children. So, we could not do better without ECDs,” explains Nantapo.
She adds that a meeting of leaders and primary school management committees within her area established that children who had access to ECD services did extremely well in class than those without access.
This, Nantapo says, propelled the community to proceed with the idea of establishing a CBCC.
“Along the way, it was also discovered that the centre created space for parents with children to concentrate on other socio-economic activities while their children were at the centre.
“Children spend a minimum of five hours at the CBCC. During this period, mothers find time to concentrate on small-scale businesses and farming without being disturbed by children,” the village head says.
Interestingly, Nantapo Star Circle also introduced primary school attendance policing initiative to ensure that no child remained at home during school time.
From 2017/18 academic year, members of the circle in collaboration with community policing forum started patrolling the village to force all children of school-going age to school.
The results of the sweeping initiative are too evident for any visitor to miss. Nantapo Village is usually free of children during school hours and teachers have hailed the initiative.
Chimbiri Primary School Deputy Head teacher Jonathan Morson exalts the star circle for sending back to the school over 100 learners who dropped out between 2016 and 2018.
“In 2016/17 academic year alone, the circle facilitated the return of 89 learners who dropped out of school.
“Later in 2017/18, it brought back seven girls who were withdrawn from marriages and five boys who were engaged in child labour,” Morson proudly says.
When this initiative was replicated to Mukhota Village in TA Mkhumba, passing rate and grades for Standard eight learners at Chilayeni Primary School improved tremendously.
Facilitator for Mukhota Star Circle Goodson Majawa waxes lyrical about the rise in passing rate since 2016.
“If the results provided by the school’s head teacher are anything to go by, only eight learners passed exams in 2016.
“But after the introduction of the star circle, the school registered 19 passes later in 2017 and 36 passes in 2018. These are the fruits of the circle,” Majawa says.
While education might be Worlec star circles’ priority area, the circles have an indirect bearing on various aspects of human development in the areas they have thrived for the past two years.
In Nasiyaya Village in TA Mkhumba’s area, Nasiyaya Star Circle members beam with pride due to improved economic status attained through a vibrant village savings and loans (VSL) scheme also known as village bank.
Through the VSL which primarily benefits members of the circle, some households that could not support their children’s education with learning materials have discovered their potential through partnership in the savings initiative.
Mary Haliwa, a single mother of three, all of school-going age, curses her past as she failed to fund her children’s education.
One of her children goes to a community day secondary school but used to miss lessons due to non-payment of tuition fees as she was being sent back home frequently.
“That is now history. When there is no money, I simply go to the village bank and borrow enough for school fees which I later repay in installments,” she says.
Haliwa explains that, as she services the loan, she technically raises her savings by increasing the profit-margin of the grouping from which she benefits through annuities.
Meanwhile, Phalombe District Council recognises the good tidings the star circle initiative has brought to communities.
Local Development Fund Project Officer for Phalombe Smith Majoni lauds communities that have embraced the model and encourages them to fully utilise the opportunity to achieve meaningful and sustainable development.
“It is quite pleasing to see that an initiative that was intended to facilitate community participation in the Right to Learn Project has gone all the way to propel socio-economic activities,” Majoni says. – Mana
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