Apendeki Ibungu, 27, was a child when she fled incessant war in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Malawian soldiers are deployed as peacekeepers.
The Congolese mother of two is one of seven caregivers at Dzaleka Refuge Camp in Dowa
She says: “I was very small when I came to Malawi. I love the peace that prevails in the country. My family and I peacefully coexist with those around us,” she says.
After completing secondary school, Ibingu developed an interest in helping children build a firm foundation for a better life.
“As a young girl growing up in a war zone was not easy. I didn’t have the pleasure of attending early child learning. I experienced fear, anxiety and grief. I never knew what would happen next,” she said.
Now the volunteer at Light of Hope Community-Based Childcare Centre finds peace in ensuring every child grows up in a safe environment with access to education for all. The centre is owned by Moravian Humanitarian and Development Services, a christian organisation which has been working in Malawi since 2016.
Her class comprises 190 children aged three to four who learn in Swahili, Chichewa and English because they come from different backgrounds.
Denis Kabudula, a Malawian caregiver at Light of Hope, says the free-of-charge centre mostly attracts children from households that cannot afford private nursery schools.
“At first, we had few children, but most parents now send their children here,” he says. “The cordial relationship between the refugees and host communities makes our job easier.
Light of Hope runs a school-feeding programme credited with improving learners’ nutrition enrolment, attendance, retention and performance.
“Children in the refugee camp lack many things, but the centre guarantees them a nutritious meal in the morning. This is vital for their upbringing,” says Kabudula.
Omari Mlisho, from Burundi, says his three-year-old daughter has become cleverer and a team player since she enrolled with the centre.
“She is becoming brighter by the day. Surely, she will make me proud in future,” he states.
Mlisho’s education was disrupted by war in his country, but he is determined to ensure that his daughter learns in peace. He says children need not go through the same pain he endured.
Group village head Kabudula says both refugees and surrounding communities are proud of the centre and they work together to safeguard children’s rights.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) reports that about 60 percent of Malawian children are deprived of education and quality health services, with 52 percent unable to access early childhood education (ECD) services.
Jonah Sinyangwe, programme manager at the Moravian Humanitarian and Development Services, says parents take turns to prepare school meals for their children.
“The parents have also been trained to open backyard gardens where they produce food to supplement the meals the children get at the centre,” he says.
The centres enrollment surged from 500 to over 1 000 since its opening in 2016.
“Due to high demand and challenges caused by high enrollment, we plan to add more facilities that can accommodate children who are currently excluded and children,” says Sinyangwe.
The centre is located next to Light of Hope Primary School which enrols the children completing the early childhood lessons offered by Ibingu and Kabudula.
Jane Nkhoma, headteacher at the primary school, says children with early childhood learning outperform those who come straight into Standard One.
She says: “Children with early childhood learning perform so well that it makes our teachers’ job easier. As such, I plead with all parents to ensure their children take this path,” she says.