It is a bright Wednesday morning in Mchinji District and our work sojourns of the day take us to Traditional Authority Zulu’s area, specifically at Mbachundu Community-based Child Care Centre (CBCC).
Voices of singing children can be heard from a distance and get louder as we draw closer. This should obviously be one of the music classes for the day.
But sounds of our vehicles arriving at the centre disrupt the class; one by one they come out of class to see what is going on.
Their curious faces, punctuated with beautiful innocent smiles, are without doubt having a calming effect on our team, as we all get busy interacting with their teachers while some of us pose for pictures with these little bundles of joy.
Few of them run around carrying cups and spoons in their hands; they are an excited bunch.
“We have created a safe haven for these children; they come here every week day. Our goal is to make a difference in early childhood development (ECD) and break the barriers to their education and proper early brain development,” said Lucas Bilimoni one of the six caregivers at Mbachundu CBCC.
The centre looks after 120 children between the ages of three and five and, due to lack of resources and space, they are most of the times placed in the same room but in different rows and are taught at different times.
Concerned with high levels of malnutrition and stunting among children, managers of the center introduced a feeding program in which they provide food to the toddlers a majority of whom come from poor and hunger stricken households.
The move has seen an improvement in enrolment and has in the past three years resulted in substantial reduction of children suffering from nutrition related illnesses in the area of TA Zulu.
ECD coordinator for Chikondi CBCC Mary Sundwe reiterated the food challenges that the centers are faced with almost all the times.
She said an existing arrangement in which parents are asked to contribute flour for preparing the children’s porridge is not sustainable.
“We would like to get into maize and soya beans farming but we have not been able to acquire enough land, so we are appealing to well-wishers to help us, we look after 192 children for five hours every day, and there is no way we can keep the young children without food for that long,” Sundwe retorted.
Sundwe, whose centre has 221 children with seven caregivers, then decried lack of incentives for the caregivers, which have seen some of them quitting, adding that they need necessary skills to ensure quality ECD services.
Unlike their counterparts at Chikondi, the coordinating committee at Suwerera CBCC in the area of Traditional authority Simohasi, has gone into fruit production.
They have since set up an orchard to compliment the cereal production all in an effort to improve the nutrition of the children they look after and also make some money from the sales.
For over 16 years Chisomo CBCC operated in a dilapidated structure, this posed a lot of challenges including safety risks, which according to one of the caregivers Fanny Nyirenda became unbearable overtime.
With about 119 children every school calendar Nyirenda said when we met her, that it became almost impossible to provide the necessary support to the children they looked after.
In harsh weather conditions during summer and the rainy season the children would be sent home before it was time to knock off, a thing she said defeated the whole purpose of introducing Early Childhood Development (ECD) in the area.
“Until 2021 when the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare came with the project of investing in early years, we had numerous challenges. The site we were at had no playground for the children, toys and wall hangings that just added to the existing challenges,” Nyirenda explained.
The project Nyirenda said has seen construction of two modern classrooms, a kitchen and toilets.
She attests that the new infrastructure has made a huge difference to their work by improving the quality of early learning, stimulation and cognitive potential.
“We have made tremendous strides and we now have happier children that we look after who are always looking forward to being in school, we have been equipped with skills that promote learning with locally made materials such as toys and puzzles, but we still need see-saws and swings for outdoor playing and running water in the campus,” Nyirenda said.
The Investing in Early Years for Growth and Productivity in Malawi is a World Bank Funded Project aimed at improving coverage and utilization of ECD services, with focus on nutrition, stimulation and early learning, from conception to 59 months in selected districts of Malawi including Mchinji.
Through the project, a majority of the caregivers in all the benefiting CBCCs have been well capacitated on responsive parenting education and an Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) program has been introduced in some of the centers such as Alinafe in the Area of Traditional Authority Tembwe.
Blandina Kamadzi is a mentor at Alinafe CBCC and tells us that IRI is a distance education system that combines radio broadcasts with active learning to improve educational quality and teaching practices.
She and other 14 mentors in Mchinji were taken through a rigorous training process on how to use this low cost education technology focusing on all the six development areas of a child which are: physical, spiritual, social, emotional, learning and behavioral; which inform areas of assessment using an electronic tablet.
“Since we started using the tablets everything has changed and there is a lot of improvement when we compare with the conventional learning and teaching outcomes. In an IRI classroom you will not find students or teachers passively sitting and listening to the audio, caregivers and the children are engaged in songs, question-and-answer activities and various types of physical movement, as ‘instructed and that is quite distinctive,” Kamadzi highlighted.
She also hailed the social protection component of the project in which they have formed a Village Savings and Loan (VSL) group at the CBCC where they meet and access small loans to cater for their various business interests.
ECD Coordinator for Mchinji District Hannah Mangani hailed the VSL program saying it is a game changer in terms of helping members to pursue their socio-economic goals of life.
“The programme is also an incentive and a social protection intervention for the community volunteers who invest their time and resources to look after children who patronise the CBCCs,” she said.
Corroborating Sundwe, Mangani disclosed that there are over 3000 unskilled caregivers in the district who lack the necessary skills to support children’s cognitive, psychological, motor and language development among other areas.
Mangani said this when Deputy Minister of Gender, Children and Social Welfare Agnes Nkusa nkhoma inspected some of the ECD structures that have been built under the World Bank funded Investing in Early Years Project for Growth and Productivity in the district.
“As a district we lack funding to be able to train all the caregivers in all our CBCCs, through the World Bank project we have trained 120 caregivers, there are more than 3000 who have not been trained in Mchinji, who are doing their work out of passion and commitment,” she said.
Mangani said in the interim they are encouraging the caregivers that have undergone training to share the knowledge gained with others through mentorship programs.
On her part, Mkusankhoma said government is committed to ensuring quality ECD services in Malawi and that through various partners caregivers’ training is one of the key priority areas.
She then thanked the World Bank for the $60 million five-year project which is being implemented in 13 districts.
Apart from Mchinji the other beneficiary districts are Rumphi, Ntcheu, Mangochi, Machinga, Neno, Chikwawa, Zomba, Likoma, Mwanza, Dowa, Thyolo and Chiradzulu.
“We are so thankful that World Bank came in to support government’s agenda in pre-school training of our children by stimulating activities and education. Through the project we are also tackling the problem of under-nutrition,” she said.
Through the Investing in Early Years project a lot has changed in improving the quality of life and education for under-five children in all the benefiting districts.
However, there still is more work needed to ensure that other districts which are not on the project get similar support of bringing such schools, clinics and water facilities closer to the children so that Malawi is able to unlock its future potential through the little ones.