It all began with research: 80 percent of human brain development, experts discovered, takes place in the first three years after conception.
According to Dr Foster Kholowa, early child development (ECD) expert at Chancellor College, whatever happens to and around a child during this period is crucial in shaping who they become.
“A child is supposed to, or must, attend quality early child development training provided by professional caregivers,” he says.
Unfortunately, from the 1970’s to early 2000s in the country, ECD was mostly an urban culture manifested in sukulu ya mkaka (nursery schools).
Despite the proven wonders it had brought in the education system of the developed countries, its benefits were not widely known to Malawians.
However, things are beginning change.
With funds from Open Society of Southern Africa (Osisa) and Tilitonse—a grant making facility under European Union, the UK’s DfID and Norwegian Church Aid—the Association of Early Child Development (AECDM) continues to implement a number of awareness projects in remote areas which are resulting in communities awakening to the importance of ECD.
Today, children in the remote villages, too, just like their counterparts in the urban areas, are attending ECD training through community-based care centres (CBCCs).
Established in the late 1990s with support from Unicef, CBCCs are community structures created by community initiative to provide a holistic, quality care and support to children. Currently, there are almost 3 000 CBCCs across the country.
However, despite the stride, the journey towards a better ECD system in Malawi is still in its infancy. As of 2013, access to ECD, according to ECD national coordinator Francis Chalamanda, is still at a record low of 38 percent. In a country of 1.1 million eligible children, 62 percent still have not access to ECD training.
Beyond access, adds Chalamanda, the quality of training that the 38 percent gets is poor. And the story of Nsolo CBCC in Group Village Head (GVH) Chiunda, Neno, tells it all.
With only two untrained caregivers taking care of 108 children learning in grass-thatched shack, which also serves as a church, the quality of training, according to Ruth Makwakwa, AECDM project officer, does not meet government standards. The CBCC has poor sanitation, scarce food supply and lacks necessary learning materials.
In Ntcheu, Maria Sulumba is a caregiver at Kapalamula CBCC in Traditional Authority (T/A) Ganya’s area.
“I went for a one-week training two years ago. There are only three of us here taking care of 84 children. My two colleagues have not gone for training either,” says Sulumba, a married mother of six.
She adds: “Although communities try to contribute something to buy food for the children to eat while learning, there is always a limit. Often, we suspend classes because we can’t keep the children without food.”
The stories from Neno and Ntcheu depict the challenges faced by almost every CBCC in the country. Interestingly, communities are not sitting on their laurels.
GVH Mlauli from Neno, during an interface meeting organised by AECDM weeks ago advanced that there had been problem in establishing a CBCC in his area because villagers did not have a starting point.
“However, I advised them to burn bricks and build a centre with the help of other community members. As I am talking, in two areas, structures have been erected, but we are only waiting for the support of the government who promised us they would buy iron sheets,” he said.
Group Village Makanani from the same district and at the same function reported that the Village District Committee in his area meets once a month and they discuss issues of CBCCs.
“The village heads that do have CBCCs operating in their area,” he adds, “get punishment by paying a goat to the Group Village Head.”
T/A Ganya says he advises every CBCC in his area to have a small farm where communities grow maize which they use as food and sell surplus to buy other necessities like sugar, salt, spoons and plates.
However, the community’s efforts are only a drop in the ocean of needs. Their efforts are heavily constrained. And they are calling out.
Three weeks ago, two Blantyre rural chiefs, T/As Lundu and Chigaru, speaking at an awareness meeting held by AECDM, took turns lobbing for extra parliamentary funding in the Constituency Development Fund to cater for ECD programmes.
“The teachers we have for these projects are volunteers who do not commit themselves fully as they have to run other personal errands to earn living. We need funds to pay them so that they get motivated as well as build learning blocks.
“So, it is our plea that Parliament should consider allocating funds for these projects through the CDF [Constituency Development Fund],” said Chigalu, whose area has over 700 children attending ECD nursery schools yet has only five volunteer caregivers.
The question of funding to cater for projects as explained by Chigalu comes out from almost every chief across the country. In fact, even Chalamanda agrees that ECD funding, as it stands, is quite minimal to supplement what communities are doing.
“In 2009, we launched a strategic plan that ends next year. In it, we clearly spelled out that to change the face of ECD in the country, we need not less than K67 billion [about $160m]. This means, at least K13 billion [about $31m] in each fiscal year. But the allocations we get are minimal,” he says.
The global expectation is that each country commits five percent of GDP to ECD, yet in Malawi, only 0.0001 is currently committed.
In the 2009/2010 budget, Treasury allocated K880 000 to ECD and Parliament approved it. The figure rose to K22 million in the 2010/2011 budget. It stands at K110 million in the current fiscal year up from K50 million in the 2011/2012 fiscal year.
Such allocation, says Chalamanda, has had tremendous effects on the delivery of ECD services in the country.
“Although we are upgrading and building some CBCC in certain areas, our budget is restricted. We cannot monitor progress, pay the caregivers and we cannot manage to provide food to the CBCCs. We mostly depend on donors. But the challenge with donors is that they fund specific and strategic areas,” he says.
Is there anything that can be done about it?
Chalamanda says there is little his office can do.
“We make and present the budget depending on the needs on the ground. But those behind allocating funds always tell us that there is a ceiling. So, that is where we end. I think we need to raise a lot of debates with policy makers on ECD,” he says.
The communities now appreciate the importance of ECD and they are doing their part. Now it is government that
is becoming ECD’s weakest link—it must do its part.