Early childhood care and education is critical in the development of a person. It is more than just preparation for primary school. Research stresses the importance of early childhood education as an essential building block of a child’s successful future. But as ERIC MSIKITI explores in this Friday Shaker, the frontline champions of such education are often tucked away in the mists of time.
Golie Alice Mkandawire of Kawazamawe Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chikulamayembe in Rumphi, has been working as caregiver at an Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC) on voluntary basis for 21 years now.
Mkandawire received her first basic training in Early Childhood Development (ECD) 12 years later in 2011.
A mother herself, the 62-year-old has seen it all in as far taking care of children—regarded as the country’s future—is concerned.
“It has been a very long journey and some of the children I have taken care of in ECD centres are now responsible adults working in various sectors while some are students in various institutions of higher learning,” Mkandawire recounts with nostalgic gratification.
In her life as a caregiver, she has freely taken care of all kinds of children: orphans, children with special needs and those with visual impairments.
She has found satisfaction in what becomes of those that went through her lessons and care. Preparing them for their future has been her biggest rewards.
“If it is given to me to help in the mental, physical and cognitive development of the children, all thanks,” Mkandawire says.
It was in 1999 when she and her friend Agnes Kumwenda, 52, decided to open an ECD centre to help children who were not yet ready for primary education.
“We used to meet and play with the children in a church at Saint Albert Catholic Church at Chirambo in the area. Then the surrounding communities would help us with food such as porridge to feed the children,” she recalls.
But the stress associated with unpaid work eventually took its toll on the two young women who quit and look for other things to do which could at least bring food on their table.
“We opted for farming which many of our friends were engaged in that time,” Mkandawire says.
But after some time and seeing the gaps created by the absence of an ECD centre in the area, the communities approached the two women to continue with their initiative and promised more support.
“We reluctantly accepted considering that it was still voluntary work and that we felt no one appreciated our efforts to take care of the children while their parents were doing other things which at the end of the day would bring them money but not us,” says Kumwenda.
The two partly epitomise at least 35,000 caregivers working in 12,000 ECD centres across the country.
They work on voluntary basis in taking care of children who need to learn basic things in life such as talking, walking, identifying things and how to hold things.
“We teach them through plays, and sometimes, as a caregiver, you need to think like them and take them as your friends. In most instances, we encourage calling each other by first name, a thing which builds trust among us and the children,” Kumwenda, who works as a caregiver at Chirambo Community- Based Care Centre, explains.
These are the forerunners in as far as early child development is concerned but most of them have the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education as their highest qualification.
The government of Malawi does not pay caregivers despite calls by various stakeholders in the ECD sector for the teachers to be getting a monthly honorarium as a source of motivation.
Research indicates that children who have attended early ECD education are likely to go further with their education and do better in life as compared to their counterparts who join primary school without going through that kind of education.
Children who attend ECD education are also likely to grow into responsible adults than their counterparts who fail to go through the same.
Experts, therefore, say ECD programmes are key to national development efforts as well as to the fight against malnutrition and stunted growth.
But for such initiatives to work, caregivers are critical and must be sufficiently stimulated. Yet, most of them continue to work on voluntary basis in tough economic times.
Director of Child Affairs in the Ministry of Gender and Child Affairs, McKnight Kalanda, says the only viable option that the government is considering on the issue is to establish a revolving fund for the caregivers.
According to Kalanda, the government is also working on plans to financially empower local councils so that they are able to support and monitor progress in ECD centres across the country.
“We need to understand that it will require the government to spend at least K6.9 billion every year to pay over 35,000 caregivers a monthly honorarium of K15,000 which we still think is not enough, suffice to say that we will shortly start implementing a revolving fund for the caregivers because this has proven effective in a programme being conducted by ActionAid Malawi,” Kalanda says.
In the ActionAid Malawi model, caregivers are trained and empowered economically. Communities surrounding the targeted ECD centres are not left behind.
It is through this initiative that Mkandawire and Kumwenda received their training. They are better than before, they say.
Action Aid Malawi Executive Director, Assan Golowa, admits that while Malawi has made progress in ECD education, still more needs to be done to ensure that the gains registered are sustained.
“We must continue to perform better because before this intervention in 2011, most people especially parents, did not know the importance of ECD services, and lacked knowledge on the importance of a child’s first five years to their growth,” he says.
Having now been empowered to do their job efficiently, Mkandawire and Kumwenda wish other caregivers gained the same skills.
Together with around 2,000 others, they are somehow satisfied again since they are partakers of a revolving fund which ensures that their economic statuses are sustained.
Still, ECD education continues to suffer in Malawi. It requires the ultimate attention of the government in terms of motivating caregivers who are the champions of that king of education.
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.