Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Early Childhood in Malawi: Building the Future Through Fun, Play

There are no sharp metals where the kids sharpen their cognitive skills.

Save for the snaky noise of vehicles travelling through the Ndirande-Chinseu Road and Blantyre-Magalasi Road, or the intermittent bursts of laughter or song choruses emanating from Blantyre Girls Primary School close by, the kids live in their own orb: an orb filled not with sharp metals but voices that scream happiness in the air on both still and windy days.

Apart from the noise, the place is strewn with make-believe creatures, including dolls, taking the form of human beings and animals. There are also traces of hope which, though not visible on the playgrounds and in the rooms where the kids pass their time, can be traced in the caretakers’ faces!

“Hope. It is hope that the future will be better that keeps us going. Otherwise (apart from the outpouring of hope), the funds have not been forthcoming,” says George Gwengwe, an old hand in Early Childhood Development (ECD).]

Gwengwe, who is the Executive Director the Association of Early Childhood Development in Malawi (AECDM), observes that Early Childhood Development programmes suffer from an age-old ailment called ‘resource suffocation’, a trend that, as experience has taught him, spells only ‘doom’ and ‘trouble’.

“It is as simple as this: You neglect ECD, you neglect the future. That’s what we have been doing in Malawi, actually. In the end, when we produce politicians who do not think critically, politicians who think along the lines of a child, we complain. No, we should not complain. When some politicians behave in incomprehensible ways, what it tells you is that they were not exposed to ECD,” says Gwengwe.

He equates ECD to a well that never goes dry, saying, once a child is exposed to ECD between the ages of zero to five years, a seed of knowledge is planted in them, a seed that will continue to germinate for life, turning people into timeless critical thinkers.

It is the seemingly little actions such as the innocent moments when boys and girls flex their hand muscles after getting turn on the see-saw, when they splash imaginary peddles of sand from the cleanly swept concrete floor while others shave’ imaginary beards from their chins, that define the future.

Gwengwe says that’s all there is to the, otherwise, comic absurdity to the place: building leaders of tomorrow in a systenmatic way by letting toddlers understand the world just a small piece of it at a time!

May be Gwengwe is right, after all, because, despite the kids being sorrounded by breathless beings all over the place, none of the dolls is missing their heads , or arms, or legs. The toddlers are so careful that they do not expose their ‘playmates’ to intentional defacement or any systematic depredation. It is like, as Gwengwe aptly observes, they are mature already!

What this does is to inspire hopes that the toddlers may, really, be the total sum of the country’s hope and investment in the future.

Broken bridges to success

For the time being, however, ECD seems to be an ambitious project that, somehow, seems not to take off.

While lauding the government for showing interest in ECD education, AECDM Board Chairperson, Foster Kholowa, observes that efforts being taken by the sector were being hampered by reduced funding.

“Apart from funding, the other key issue is access. Not many kids are able to access ECD education. By ECD education, we do not talk of centre-based services only; instead, we also talk of rparenting programmes, as well as programmes meant for children during their early primary education years,” Kholowa said.

Kholowa, a lecture at Chancellor College- a constituent college of the Uiversity of Malawi- asks the ministry to increase funding meant for EDC.

He says, apart from facing the challenge of meagre funding, the country is hit by the shortage of caregivers, with only 26, 000 personnel available to cater for a population of four million kids.

One of the country’s male caregivers in a world dominated by women, Kennedy Kholowa from Nsanje, says there is need to support caregivers who work on voluntary basis.

Kholowa also calls for a change of attitude towards male caregivers, saying some community members ridicule them for “grabbing” the roles of women in society.

Fortunately, challenges like these, and many others being faced by the sector, are well-known by the parent ministry. Principal Secretary for Gender, Children and Social Welfare, Mary Shawa, says ECD is key to national development, and cites the example of one of her own children who benefitted from the same and soured to greater heights in education.

“Teachers would always talk about how intelligent my kid was that it did not come as a surprise to me when a number of teachers asked us to allow them to put the child in more senior classes. Our child even went to Chancellor and did well there, and we attribute all this to ECD,” says Shawa.

Shawa says a nation that values ECD has greater chances of developing because funds that would have been channeled towards pupils who repeat in classes are channeled towards other areas of development.

She adds that, “among other advantages, ECD helps us identify gifted children at a tender age, thereby increasing our chances of nurturing them into geniuses”, and thus leaders of tomorrow.

However, Shawa acknowledges that efforts to scale up ECD education are being hampered by the challenge of caregivers’ shortage. She says, out of 26, 000 caregivers, only 16 percent are trained.

This means 10 out of every 100 caregivers do not know modules that are covered by trained caregivers. These include child development, play and early learning materials and equipment, learning through play, planning and organising the learning environment, child health and care, child hygiene and environtal care, child nutrition and care, children’s rights and their welfare, care and development of children with special needs, EDC centre management and partnerships.

“Malawi has four million kids aged between one and eight years that need ECD education but only 38 percent of these kids are currently being reached,” says Shawa.

Shawa reiterates the government’s commitment to improving the situation, saying it has put in place strategies that would help it reach 70 percent of the population eligible for ECD education.

This means that, when the 70 out of every 100 kids that are left out finally get their day in the sun, they, too, will learn how to play in the midst of a thousand replicas of human beings and animals without breaking their (the replicas) heads, and arms, and legs!

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