Dwarfed by mountains to one side and bordered by long stretches of shrubs round-about, Group Village Head Chagunda’s subjects are as good as out of public service providers’ reach.
And the neglect starts at an early age, if the ramshackle structure community members call an early childhood development (ECD) centre is anything to go by.
But, somehow, the people seem to have accepted that they are in Malawi; yes, but that they exist in the anonymity of policymakers’ minds anyway.
“People may look at the structure we call ECD centre and think that we are ashamed of it; that we are embarrassed. Far from it. This is just the beginning. We know we will get there, one day. As at now, we just want to create a good foundation for our children,” Chagunda, a seemingly eloquent speaker, says.
In the background, shouts of “Four! Five. Six!” can be heard escaping from the structure they call Chagunda Community Based Organisation ECD Centre— a semi-open structure community members created out of loam soils that are also good for cotton cultivation.
On top is a grass-thatched roof that would be leaking cuts and dogs the moment it rains.
Outside the structure, almost close to the shrubs, stand a kitchen, toilets and store room.
“This is the best we can do,” says caregiver and mentor Mercy Steven, who is quick to say, “at the ‘threat’ of rain, we, community members, quickly mobilise K200s or other resources and buy plastic roofing material to avoid a case where our children stop coming to school because the rainy season is on us. We are committed to ensuring that learning is continuous”.
That is the point.
No matter how GVH Chagunda peppers over problems his subjects face, the truth is that the people of Chagunda are, when it comes to the management of ECD centres, on their own.
And, yet, at this early age in the lives of the children that call Chagunda ECD Centre home away from home, the brain is supposed to be in full flower, developing the faculties that may affect the children’s way of thinking later in life.
But, at Chagunda ECD Centre, portents of trouble are obvious.
Take, for instance, the provision of Covid personal protective equipment.
“There is no Covid protective equipment and Covid restriction measures such as social distancing are hardly followed here. The room the children learn in is so small that it cannot accommodate the 140-plus children we keep here but we have no option but to keep them in one place,” says another caregiver Saineti Jonasi.
This is how the glamor of ECD policy goals is tempered by the neglect from policymakers these Salima District community members suffer from.
And, sadly, the suffering is treated with an almost good-humoured contempt, as if anyone feels comfortable with an undesirable situation.
No wonder, the sense of helplessness is almost everywhere, and in everyone’s mind, except in that of the ever hopeful GVH Chagunda, who is seemingly not ready to give up on either the children aged between one year and five years and the adult population of his subjects.
“We do not need many things. All we need is a push. I, and my subjects, are ready to mould bricks. All we need is support ‘up there’,” he says, an indirect reference to durable roofing material.
He is one who does not want to be found out, or blamed for failing to motivate his subjects to do this or that.
When the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) took journalists to Chagunda on Friday, when they appreciated efforts community members are taking to expose their children to EDC education, it was clear that, at some point in the year, GVH Chagunda is haunted by the specter of starving families.
“Community members contribute food items and this is what the children are given as food during breaks. For example, the children get porridge, which has helped improve their nutrition status.
“However, at some point of the year, it becomes a challenge for the parents to contribute, say, maize flour, especially during lean periods when food is scarce. That is why we need a helping hand,” the chief says.
It is common knowledge that hunger inhibits children from actively participating in lessons. Poor structures have a like effect.
Unicef Malawi representative Rudolf Schwenk says it is important that stakeholders invest in ECD, saying, for every $1 invested in the same, the government serves about $16.
“ECD has to be promoted because investments made in the early years of a child yield positive results in future,” he says.
According to the Unicef Country Programme for Malawi for the period 2019-23, if schools are accessible, inclusive, safe, prepared for any emergency, embody principles of children’s rights, meet national standards, have the support of families and communities and provide innovative and quality teaching, learning and assessment, children are likely to reach their full potential.
The document, however, observes that challenges persist, notably the insufficient number of qualified teachers, secondary schools and alternative and non-formal learning opportunities and a lack of awareness of education policies; and an absence of inter-sectoral linkages.
It, however, touts the theory of change as the panacea for positive outcomes.
“If community members are able to practise positive social behaviours in the best interest of the child, demand quality, resilient and child-friendly services and hold duty-bearers accountable for such services; households and communities prepare for and become resilient to climate change and economic shocks and receive support to overcome chronic vulnerabilities that affect children; and national and decentralised administrative systems are strengthened through support to the government and local authorities to operationalise key policies and legal frameworks and develop plans and budgets for coordinated social services to address disparities and deprivations affecting children, then the country programme will successfully contribute to the outcome….
“This theory of change supports the development of a sustainable enabling environment at the national and decentralised levels to ensure that the rights of girls and boys are protected and fulfilled in both stable and humanitarian situations,” it indicates.
Social Welfare and Community Development Minister Patricia Kaliati says the government is committed to providing an enabling environment for children at EDC level and other levels of development.
“This is why, for example, we have been training caregivers because we want them to be giving children the right messages, stimulate their [children’s] brains in the right way and prepare ECD learners for life in primary school.
“We, as the government, realise that, once a child moves from ECD to primary school, he or she does well in class. That child is also likely to become a productive citizen in future, which will culminate in the attainment of national socio-economic development goals,” she says.
That way, she hopes, ignorance will no longer loom over Malawi’s socio-economic development goals.