Five-year-old Marita wakes up early, eager to get to Chanthonga Community-based Childcare Centre (CBCC), for her lessons. Despite the lessons being conducted in a thatched structure not fit to be called a nursery school, she is enthusiastic about learning.
The classroom she learns in heavily leaks during the rainy season. At times the school closes abruptly as the children cannot sit on the wet mud floor. Thus, the dry-hot weather is a blessing to them.
The informal centre, which is run entirely by community volunteers of Group Village Head Mthunzi in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chikho’s area in Ntchisi, offers early learning and provides many children with porridge, courtesy of Tiwalere Project being run by Feed the Children Malawi.
However, despite the poor learning environment, more and more children are attending classes.
When it comes to early childhood development (ECD), the story is almost the same in many centres across the country— poor learning structures, lack of resources and learning materials and unskilled caregivers.
A caregiver at Chanthonga CBCC, Felia Nepiyala, says they lack basic materials for teaching the children and mostly rely on verbal descriptions or write on the ground when teaching the children.
“I attended a one-week training in ECD, but most caregivers do not have any formal training at all. The requirement is that one gets training for at least two weeks to qualify as a caregiver,” says Nepiyala.
According to the Association of Early Childhood Development in Malawi (Aecdm) executive director Charles Gwengwe, there are several basic things that every ECD centre needs.
“There is need for a strong structure which has adequate space, is well lit and ventilated with clean walls and surfaces. It needs to have adequate and safe play space both inside and outside. There is also need for adequate learning materials, cooking and eating utensils, trained caregivers and a committee.
“While ECD centres receive replenishment play materials kit, it is emphasised that children should be given more material made from locally available resources. It has scientifically been proved that play materials from locally available resources offer much higher early stimulation and learning to children than ready-made toys from shops,” says Gwengwe.
He said the learning materials, reading area, learning and art area, among others, should be accessible to the children in the ECD centre.
With these challenges, Gwengwe is of the view that some centres should not be operational.
“Honestly, there is more harm done to these children and quite a number of such centres just need to be closed as they do not meet the minimum standard operational guidelines which guide integrated approach to early childhood.
“The ECD standard operational guidelines form the basis for different kinds of standards that are critical for children’s early development and education. For example, standards for a centre, for parenting education, for transition services, for nutrition programmes standards for caregiver certification and other providers,” he says.
However, one may wonder, why provide porridge to a centre that is not worth being called a school?
Feed the Children’s programmes development and communications officer Wezi Kenani says they started Tiwalere as an ECD programme with a focus on nutrition and health of children.
“However, along the way, we noted gaps in education and we, therefore, incorporated it in the programme. We have trained some caregivers in the 847 centres in the seven districts of our project,” Kenani says.
She says the project has linked up some of the CBCC’s with organisations that might help them.
“Others have since been supplied with learning materials, but there is much to be done. But it is a national challenge that CBCC’s do not have learning and teaching materials, others lack proper shelter,” she explains.
Government acknowledges these challenges and has since embarked on a nationwide project aimed at improving early childhood centres.
Principal secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare Dr. Mary Shawa says research has shown that the first few years of life are critical to a child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.
“An investment in early childhood care and development not only transforms a child’s future prospects but makes a significant difference in a country’s development. We will build structures and renovate existing ones which are in bad shape. We will also supply learning and teaching materials at all centres throughout the country in the next five years,” Shawa says.
Already, Shawa says, government has started donating books to ECDs.
“But we cannot close structures that are in bad shape because that will disturb the learning process of the children. On top of that, we continuously train caregivers for six months unlike what has been happening now whereby some train for one to two weeks,” she explains.