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Tragically, more than 200 million children under five years of age in developing countries will never reach their developmental potential. Lustilla Mathew and her team of caregivers are determined to ensure that this won’t be the case for the children of Mbachundu, Malawi.
We meet Lustilla Mathew and her charges gathered at the heart of Mbachundu village between a clay church, a school room and a sprawling tree. A warm and vibrant presence, Lustilla is one of the government-trained caregivers in Mbachundu’s Community-based Childcare Centre (CBCC), established to ensure that the children of her village can thrive, physically, intellectually and socially.
With her wide-eyed daughter Clara strapped to her back, Lustilla energetically leads 30 children – including her own four year old son McDonald – in song and dance activities throughout our afternoon together. The young troop bask in her attention and praise, trailing her around the school yard and following her lead in the Malawian version of “Hand, shoulders, knees and toes” and chants about why it’s important to go to school, wash and clean well and eat nutritious food.
The activities may look like simple games but all of the singing, dancing and language practice is stimulating important cognitive and social development, setting strong foundations for later life. The brain’s neurons and synapses develop rapidly in these early years, shaped by stimulation from the environment. However not all young brains receive the necessary encouragement or sustenance, meaning that more than 200 million children under five years of age in developing countries will tragically never reach their developmental potential.
Lustilla and the CBCC team are working hard to ensure that this won’t be the case for the children of Mbachundu. And Concern is rowing in behind them to help provide the nutritional and hygiene support necessary for growing brains and bodies.
The water that we see Lustilla and the other caregivers pour over each tiny set of hands as they line up for lunch is guaranteed to be clean – because of a water filter that the Concern team provided. The children’s lunch, which is doled out to the hungry waiting queue, is also more nutritious than the maize-only mixture they were eating previously, thanks to seeds and training sessions provided by Concern.
Once hands are washed and bowls filled in Mbachundu, the children scatter to gobble up their lunch. Lustilla says: “The food that they’re eating now is a mixture of soy, ground nuts and maize. The Concern team brought the soy seeds and instructed us on harvesting a few months ago. They then showed us how to make this mixture and we’ve been feeding it to the children for a month now. It gives more diversity to their diet which is better for their health than eating maize only. The children also much prefer it to the other mixture!”
And Concern is working in this way with CBCCs across Mchinji. Apart from the ground nuts, soy beans and cassava cuttings, we provide orange flesh sweet potato vines, and seeds for kitchen gardens, like carrot, cat whiskers, mustard and amaranthus. The aim is to ensure that communities, and particularly their most vulnerable children, have access to a diverse diet to stave off malnutrition, which remains a huge burden in Malawi.
The children use their clean hands to keenly scoop the mixture into their mouths. Lustilla looks on. “The reason they are particularly excited today is because it’s graduation day”, she says. Before we arrived, the older children had been presented with named certificates to mark their participation in the CBCC programme. A proud day for the young graduates and the CBCC team.
It’s clear that Lustilla enjoys her role and that she’s gifted at it. As lunch concludes, the children begin to flock around her again. They’re eager for another outburst of song and Lustilla dutifully begins a chant about the about the joy of bathing to avoid sores and scabies. Before she is swallowed by a swarm of mini-fans, she shouts over to me, “I like working with the children of the village very much.” And there’s no doubt that the feeling is mutual.