By Shantha Bloemen
CHITETA, Malawi, 4 October 2010 – Every weekday morning, Leviticus, 5, wakes his mother early. He is eager to get to the community-based childcare centre, a red brick building in eastern Malawi’s Chiteta village and a 2 km walk from Leviticus’ home.
|VIDEO: UNICEF's Victor Chinyama reports on early childhood education centres in Malawi. Watch in RealPlayer|
During the week, the hall is turned into a preschool for more than 100 three- to five-year-olds. The informal centre – which is operated entirely by community volunteers – offers early learning and provides many children with the only nutritious meal they’ll have for the day.
A game-changing difference
Chiteta’s community-based childcare centre offers what parents and education authorities hope will make a game-changing difference in Malawi’s educational goals. To date, the country’s education record has been grim. It is estimated that only about 36 per cent of children in the country of some 14.8 million people complete the primary school cycle.
|Children play at the Chiteta community-based early childhood care centre in Malawi.|
Part of Malawi’s challenge is to cope with a high percentage of children who enter primary school with no educational preparation or basic foundation for learning.
“We know from global experience that the first few years of life are critical to a child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development,” explained UNICEF Malawi Communications Officer Kusali Kubwalo. An investment in early childhood care and development, she says, not only transforms a child’s future prospects but makes a significant difference in a country’s development.
Leviticus’ mother, Martha Bestec, is convinced that any investment makes a world of a difference.
“My biggest hope is that my children finish school and no longer have to survive on our small plot of land,” she said. “Leviticus is a clever child. I have seen him learn to play better with friends and be better socialized. If he wasn’t going [to the centre] he would just have been playing in the field and around the house.”
The community-based childcare centre in Chiteta is one of around 6,000 centres providing much-needed preparation for tens of thousands of children across Malawi. As approximately 1.1 million children under the age of 18 are orphaned across the country, support for early childhood learning is essential.
|A community member waters the garden at the Chiteta community-based early childhood care centre in Malawi.|
And strides are being made daily.
“There is still a big gap, but what we are seeing is that communities themselves are mobilizing,” said Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Malawi Bruce Grant. “Each year hundreds of new centres are opening,” he added.
Blessing Gama, a 29-year-old cotton farmer, is one of the volunteers at the Chiteta centre. Though Mr. Gama has only a high school education, he believes the time he dedicates is making an important contribution.
“I come here because the children are our future leaders,” said Mr. Gama. “I want them to develop this village. I want this village to be a better place.”
Model centres, higher standards
The Government of Malawi has developed a policy framework that guides local district efforts to manage the childcare centres. But not all of the centres have the resources they need.
|A child is weighed at the community-based early childhood care in Chiteta, Malawi.|
To confront this problem, UNICEF – with funding support from the Australian Government – is working with officials in Malawi to raise standards in early learning and to provide educational materials and training to all volunteers.
Additionally, the centres benefit from monthly visits from a local health worker, who weighs children and checks on their health and growth. Those who are not growing adequately or appear malnourished are referred to a health clinic where they can be given the right treatment.
The focus now is on creating model community-based care centres that can be easily replicated.
“The important thing for us is to make sure the centres are up to a certain standard,” said Ms. Kubwalo. “That means that the caregivers are given the right training and that the centres provide the environment they’re supposed to give.”