Interview: Anne Njenga – champion of early childhood care and education in Kenya
Anne Njenga is a national leader in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in Kenya. She has worked in research and curriculum development for the Kenyan government, published widely, and evaluated hundreds of programmes countrywide and in other African countries. Today she runs the Mwana Mwende organization which trains ECCE trainers to diploma level. She spoke to EduInfo about her experience.
What does Mwana Mwende mean?
“The child who is loved”! “Mwana” means child and “mwende” means loved.
Three-quarters of ECCE teachers in Kenya are trained. What is the most important lesson in ECCE teacher training?
Love the children. Meet their needs, nurture them. Loving and caring is the main thing. This can be taught through life skills programmes which address fundamental questions like: who are children? why are they important? Teachers must believe in what they are doing. You explain that small children are very important and that therefore their teachers are doing a very important job. They are dealing with human beings during their most formative years, giving them a foundation for life.
You helped to introduce a “career ladder” for ECCE teachers…
I consider ECCE teaching as a profession, but the training can also open horizons for people who would never have gone to university. There’s a certificate level that takes two years, and a diploma which takes two more. Some trainees have gone on to degree and even PhD level and I am very proud of that. It raises the status of ECCE as a career and gives it dignity.
Is there a big rural-urban divide in ECCE provision?
In urban areas schools tend to be run by the private sector or city councils or local authorities. However 75% of Kenyan pre-schools are run by parents and communities, the majority of them of them very poor and living in rural areas.
What attracted you personally to working with young children?
After training as a teacher I did a master’s degree in psychology and worked with small children. Then I joined the government and worked on ECCE research and curricula. A turning point was when the government asked me to evaluate an experimental 10-year ECCE programme, so I went out and visited 50 schools all over the country. I travelled a lot!
What aspect of ECCE had the greatest impact on you?
The impact of rural field work made a deep impression on me. Seeing teachers who were happy to give basic care to children in difficult circumstances. I realised one could be happy with very little. I have seen how these teachers improvise, using painted bottle caps to teach colours, making dolls, shapes, numbers from sackcloth because there is no paper. They used their imagination in storytelling and role plays.
What effect has ECCE had on rural communities?
When a community gets involved in providing or improving a school, it raises their confidence all round. I have seen communities transformed by involvement in the local pre-school. You start by transforming the teacher. Then you transform the children, the parents and the whole community.
Is the involvement of parents an important factor?
It is a huge factor. In Kenya parents love education. They put a very high value on it. They will do anything for their children. The school is managed by a committee of ten parents with rotating membership. They provide the land, build the school, buy or make furniture. They pay the teacher a decent wage. They get involved in the everyday running of the school. The mothers take turns with the midday snack – usually porridge. The fathers build climbing frames, swings, see-saws, or wooden building blocks. Both parents teach traditional songs and games, and the children give little concerts.
How did you build public support for this relatively overlooked branch of education?
In 1984-6 we ran a campaign. We went around the country encouraging parents to start up pre-schools. We gave them ideas, we described what a quality school was: one with good buildings, furniture, trained teachers. We gave them examples of other communities who had succeeded in starting pre-schools.
Reaching the marginalized is a preoccupation at every level of education. What strategies did you use for reaching and providing for disadvantaged groups?
In the poorest areas, we found teachers who felt neglected, who worked in poor conditions, who had no materials so just used chalk and talk. First we would train the teacher, then organize workshops for parents. We would say “Look at that dilapidated school - is this what you want for your children?” Then the parents would get involved, collect enough to pay the teacher, make improvements on the school building. A few months later they would send a message “come and see our school!” They were so proud to show you the improvements!
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