Getting ready for school and life
At the Chimteka childcare centre in Mchinji, a small town on Malawi's western border with Zambia, a group of young children shriek as they play on slides and swings and kick a ball in the spacious grounds.
Inside a large airy room decorated with colourful educational posters, another group of children play with dolls, building blocks and read picture books with simple alphabet and numbers.
In a primary school classroom, located on the same premises, three older children reflect on their time in the centre. Eight-year-old Samuel Chiwoka says he prefers attending the primary school. “It is better for me now as I am older,” he says, brimming with confidence. “I am now in standard 2.”
Ten-year-old Manesi Buka at first disagrees, saying, “I prefer the childcare centre to the school because I had good food there and I didn't go hungry.” Then she adds, “But I also enjoy school. I like maths and life skills. I learnt the alphabet and my numbers before I came to this school. I also learnt about other things like HIV and AIDS. They told us that we must not use each others' needles for piercing our ears.”
“And not to share your toothbrush,” adds ten-year-old Jane , who is HIV-positive and who appears to be responding well to anti retroviral treatment. She smiles broadly as she enthuses, “I learnt many things (at the centre); how to wash my hands before eating and after using the toilet.” The centre has running water and separate latrines for the boys and girls. “And I also learnt to pray before eating.”
It becomes clear that all three children value their experience at the centre. It prepared them with basic cognitive and life skills, which they can share with their parents or guardians, and it also gave them a smooth transition to primary school, which was deliberately built in the same premises. The only primary school in the area used to be 4km away from the childcare centre. Many of the young children would interrupt their education at that vital period between pre-school and primary school because of the long distance.
Community-based childcare centres (CBCCs) provide many of the early learning activities in Malawi. According to a 2008 UNICEF study, 88,000 orphans and 16,000 children with special needs were registered in the country's 6,000 CBCCs. Mostly located in rural areas, the CBCCs are attended by children aged between three and five years at no cost. However, an estimated 70% of children enrolling in primary school have not had the chance to attend a childcare centre.
As well as providing a nutritious meal, the community volunteers who staff these centres have established children's corners where children who have lost their parents come to play and to express their feelings. This might include remembering their loved ones in a 'memory box' - which can contain anything the children like that reminds them of their parents.
UNICEF supports the training of the volunteers and parent committees which oversee the CBCCs. UNICEF also provides toys, books and games. Naomi Janson, who has worked as a volunteer along with three others at the Chimteka centre for 11 years, says the training has been valuable. “We learnt how to be more child-centred. Before the training, if the children did not read properly, we would punish them. But we learnt that this is not right. It is our job to get the children interested using more exciting methods, and if they aren't interested, we shouldn't force them.” She adds, “We were also not so good with hygiene. Now we always make sure there is soap in the latrines and we always accompany the children when they go to the toilet.”
The centre is open five days a week from 7.30am till noon. All the children are fed each day with food grown in the centre's plot, farmed by community members.
Janson, a 32-year-old mother of four, two of whom are registered in the centre, was elected by the community to work as a volunteer at the centre. “I feel I am contributing something important to my community and I see it as an honour to have been elected.”