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Early childhood development in Kenya: empowering young mothers, mobilizing a community.

This article explores recent early childhood and community development work in rural Kenyan communities. We begin with a brief history and contemporary overview of early childhood care and education in Kenya, and then use examples from the Mwana Mwende (Treasured Child) community development project to illustrate some of the roles played by early childhood programs and community development centers in Kenya. In particular, we focus on how early childhood development (ECD) has mobilized the community on a range of issues affecting children and families, and then briefly describe Mwana Mwende's work with young mothers, youth, community health workers, teachers, parents, and community leaders. Finally, we link these examples to the broader theme of increasing democratic participation of communities on behalf of their children.

Contexts of Early Childhood Care and Education in Kenya

Kenya is a primarily rural, agrarian, neocolonial society consisting of numerous ethnic and racial groups, with over 40 distinctive language groups and diverse religious communities. Until recently, child care and early socialization of preschool-age children were governed by "powerful family/community structures and traditions" (Woodhead, 1996). Although these indigenous, precolonial traditions remain deeply entrenched in the values of many Kenyan families, few communities have been unaffected by the rapid social, economic, and cultural changes brought on by urbanization, dislocation, globalization, and austerity measures associated with structural adjustments, increasing poverty, and the impact of HIV/AIDS (Swadener, Kabiru, & Njenga, 2000). The demand for early childhood development (ECD) services has increased considerably in Kenya as a result of changing family structures and lifestyles. The number of extended families continues to decrease, and more parents are working outside the home. Many households are headed by single parents, primarily mothers or grandmothers; one third of rural households are headed by women (1) (Adams & Mburugu, 1994). These rural households, as well as those on agricultural plantations and in some urban areas, have the greatest need for alternative child care. Mothers are away from home most of the day, often having no choice but to leave their children without adequate care (Njenga & Kabiru, 2001).

Most parents in Kenya are interested in ECD services not only for the custodial aspects of child care, but also as preparation for their children in advance of primary education and for socialization. Having a "head start" for formal education is extremely important in Kenya, where the education system is highly competitive and examination-oriented. Hence, preschool curricula in Kenya have become increasingly skills-based and academic, in order to prepare children for the high-stakes Standard One interview (the 1st-grade entrance screening test). Also, although primary education in Kenya is public, it is no longer free; getting a "good" primary school has influence on later educational opportunities/outcomes.

A Brief History of ECD in Kenya

One of the things that distinguishes Kenya from other sub-Saharan African nations is its well-established system of early childhood education and care, which continues to thrive. Prior to British colonization, traditional forms of education often were associated with rites of passage and transmission of cultural values. Raising children was typically a collective, community responsibility, with grandmothers playing a critical role. Formal preschools were introduced as early as the 1940s, mainly on the large plantations and in several larger towns. During colonial rule, lasting from 1895 through 1963, schools were segregated; different types of preschools existed--some served children of British and Asian families, mission programs often included feeding programs for children in some rural areas, and early custodial child care centers could be found on the plantations. Many more child care centers opened during the Mau Mau wars of independence (19531960); these centers included more traditional activities (e.g., singing, dancing, and stories) for children.

The greatest expansion in early childhood programs came shortly after Kenya's independence in 1963, in response to the late President Jomo Kenyatta's call for Harambee ("pulling together"), which promoted community participation for accelerated education development (Kabiru, 1993). The motto of Harambee has been evident ever since in the development of many self-help projects, including community-funded, community-built preschools and other services (Swadener, Kabiru, & Njenga, 2000). Such community-supported preschools still far outnumber those built by the government or donors; approximately 80 percent of Kenyan preschools are run by local communities. There are now 26,463 preschools enrolling 1,107,276 children. About one third of the children under 6 years old are enrolled in preschool; there are 42,609 preschool teachers, just under half of whom are formally trained.

Preschool teachers are not hired through the Kenyan government, as are primary school teachers, although their training is facilitated by the DICECE (District Centers for Early Childhood Education), which are government-supported centers. Most rural preschools, for example, function on a Harambee basis, with a local community taking responsibility for hiring the teacher, constructing the building, and providing other needed resources. One of the major constraints in the program is that the government spends only a small proportion of the education budget on preschool education.

Initiating the Mwana Mwende Child Development Project

The Mwana Mwende Project was started in the Machakos District in 1997 by the Mwana Mwende Child Development Center, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), in response to concern about the care of children under 3 years and the welfare of teenage mothers, its primary funders have been the Bernard van Leer Foundation (of the Netherlands) and the International Child Resource Center. Several studies carried out in this district in the early 1990s found that the family structure was changing considerably, with fewer extended families and more teenage parents (Gachukia, Kabiru, & Beauttah, 1992). The studies also noted that most children under the age of 3 were not admitted to preschools. When parents went to work, therefore, they sometimes left young children at home without adult supervision, due to the lack of care options. Parents in this district, as in other parts of Kenya, tend to spend long hours away from home in informal or formal employment, including casual labor. (2) They also engage in petty trade (3) in order to supplement family income and meet basic needs for food, medical care, clothing, housing, and school levies (Bali & Kabiru, 1996; Gakuru & Koech, 1995; Swadener, Kabiru, & Njenga, 2000).

The Mwana Mwende project initiators were particularly interested in teen mothers, whose numbers have been rising steadily (Gachukia, Kabiru, & Beauttah, 1992). In earlier research (Bali & Kabiru, 1996), it was found that many teen mothers were shy and lacked self-esteem. This study also noted that many teen mothers did not interact closely with their babies, even when breastfeeding, and they did not talk to their children or actively try to elicit any responses from them. This observation gave rise to the interest in starting a project to establish a support system for teen mothers, addressing their living conditions and childrearing issues. The project initiators also believed that they could build the self-esteem of teen mothers through various training programs.

The project team proposed to develop a parent support and education program that could be replicated in other areas of the district and nation. Such a program could help improve the care of young children, particularly the under-3s. Many other older preschool children (3-6 years) also would benefit, since only about 35 percent of children of this age group overall attend preschools in Kenya. In the project area, however, about 60 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds attend preschools.

Setting and Participants

The project began in the Mung'ala sub-location and now covers the whole of Mumbuni Location, which has five sub-locations. Part of the location is a low-lying plain, with most of the land cultivated by small farm holdings. The hilly eastern side of the location is intensively cultivated, with only a small portion of indigenous forest remaining. The densely populated area extends in about a 10-kilometer radius from Machakos town, the administrative and commercial center in the District.

The majority of the population (total population: over 40,000) is Akamba, a Bantu-speaking group. Many other ethnic groups reside in the area. Machakos town is a busy administrative and commercial center located on the high traffic road between Nairobi (the capital city) and Mombasa (the second largest city and a major seaport). Many small market centers contain shops selling groceries, fruits and vegetables, and clothing. Carpenters, dressmakers, and basket makers sell their wares. The majority of residents, however, earn their living by subsistence farming.

Poverty is high in the area, and most people over 35 years old have families with at least four children. The younger generation of parents, however, have been having smaller families, as they say that the cost of meeting a child's education, health, clothing, and housing needs is too high (Swadener, Kabiru, & Njenga, 2000). Unemployment also is high up to 80 percent nationally, particularly among school drop-outs and many other young people in the community. Communities are concerned about this issue, as they see many unemployed youth turning to idleness, drinking, and drugs. There is also a high incidence of HIV/AIDS and a growing number of AIDS orphans, greatly stressing families' ability to care for and educate children. A preliminary survey conducted by the Mwana Mwende project has identified nearly 1,000 orphans in the area; this estimate is likely low, as data collection is still underway.

Initial Project Objectives (1997-1999)

One of the goals of the project was to improve young children's cognitive, psychosocial, and physical development. The other goal was to build the self-esteem of teen mothers and help them develop self-reliance. The initial objectives were to:

* Explore the ways of using family attitudes, knowledge, and intergenerational support to build the self-esteem and self-confidence of young mothers and their children

* Investigate existing community resources that could be better used to improve care for the under-3s

* Develop the outreach potential of existing services to mothers and children

* Support and promote the development of small-scale business enterprises for young mothers

* Develop strategies for reducing the incidence of teenage pregnancies

* Influence policies and advocate for integrated services for children.

Self-Help Groups for Young Mothers

When the project started, there were no self-help groups for young mothers or youth. Members of both groups were isolated and had few, if any, opportunities for coming together to share ideas and experiences, or to support one another. The project identified self-help groups as a way to support young mothers, and so the first of three such groups started in 1998. Since 1999, the project team has mobilized the community to form Child and Youth Development Committees (CYDCs), which are responsible for encouraging young mothers to form self-help groups in their villages. To date, the groups have a membership of over 300 young mothers, ages 15 to 26, who are recruited by members and project staff (mainly young local women, working with a Community Motivator). Some of the young mothers are married, while many are single.

Project planners anticipated that empowering young mothers and providing support and skill development would enhance children's healthy development. Self-help peer groups of mothers have been very popular with older women in Kenya since the country gained its independence. The mothers were trained through participatory approaches, which engaged them in sharing experiences, dancing, reciting poems, demonstrating cooking techniques (e.g., using locally available, traditional weaning foods and high nutrition foods), and role playing to help them reflect on their lives, identify their potential, and recognize possibilities and opportunities available in the community and beyond. All these activities have the ultimate goal of enhancing the participants' lives.

Over 150 of these young mothers report that their lives had changed as a result of their participation in the Mwana Mwende-initiated groups and workshops. Based on annual project evaluations (which used self-reports, observation, and life history interviews), it is evident that most of these mothers are now relatively confident and self-reliant, with some running small business enterprises. Some have pursued further training in computers, dressmaking, or tie and dye making, and a few are now trained as preschool teachers. All of the children of these mothers have attended preschool, and some are now in primary school and are doing well. The young mothers report that they have been able to guide their children well and then follow up with the teachers as a result of their participation in project activities. They are aware of the great impact parents can have on children and are proud of their achievements. To quote one mother, Mwikali, "I found an identity ... with other young mothers who had experiences like me.... I am now happy as a mother and I am convinced that I have done my best" (Mwana Mwende Child Development Project, 2000, p. 30).

Several young single mothers described how they had been made to feel ashamed and abandoned by friends and family when they became pregnant; now, they were no longer shy and had regained confidence and were appreciated by their family and community. As Kamene, another single mother, stated, "I am not shy; I can talk in front of people.... I am more confident in whatever I do.... I do not hide that I have a child. I understand my daughter's needs as she is growing up" (Mwana Mwende Child Development Project, 2000, p. 32). Several mothers also expressed a vision for the future and have a far more engaged and participatory membership in the larger community. In other words, the mothers' support groups contributed, at least indirectly, to the democratization of community life by empowering them and strengthening both their maternal and civic voices.

The Project Evolves: Phase Two Activities (2000-2003)

The project worked with teenage mothers during its first phase, then began to shift some of its objectives, based on community needs, to include the following:

* Many young mothers in their 20s expressed interest in the training programs and wanted to join support groups that had been formed for the teen mothers

* The community requested that the program provide outreach to younger children in the primary schools to prevent teenage pregnancy

* There was great demand to expand from the initial sub-location to the larger location

* The growing prevalence of HIV/AIDS required that the project initiate programs to encourage non-risky behavior, particularly among pre-adolescents and youth

* The need arose to train community leaders, health workers, and committees so that the project activities could be sustainable, and to encourage community planning and ownership of programs

* The community expressed the need to train youth in self-reliance.

This current phase of the Mwana Mwende project emphasizes community empowerment and capacity-building (strengthening infrastructure, including local governance structures and community resources that focus on assisting children and youth, providing training, and encouraging local leadership of project-initiated programs). The particular emphasis is on the involvement of the entire community in efforts to better the lives of children and youth. The project employs a number of strategies to achieve these objectives, which have been influenced by the needs and characteristics of the target groups and the social environment. While the brief format of this article does not permit a full description of all the project's current activities, an overview of the activities of the Child and Youth Development Committees will illustrate how a community can mobilize for the empowerment of youth and young mothers.

Child and Youth Development Committees and Self-Help Groups for Youth

Important considerations of any community-based project are sustainability and local ownership of and identification with project activities. In an attempt to ensure sustainability, Mwana Mwende, with the assistance of local leaders, mobilized the communities in all the villages of the Mumbuni location to form Child and Youth Development Committees (CYDCs), including the Self-Help Groups for Youth. These committees were formed at the village and sub-location levels. The main objective of forming these committees is to strengthen the management capacities of the communities, in order to enhance ownership and sustainability of project activities and, in doing so, strengthen the democratic/civic participation of youth in the area.

The respective communities elect members of CYDCs. Elected community representatives organize a community meeting, and local elections are carried out. All members of the community who are present are allowed to participate. Often, a pre-election meeting is held to explain the roles and responsibilities of the committee and give people time to consider the candidates. The members of the committee typically are representative of the different segments of the society, including youth, young mothers, preschool teachers, primary teachers, community health workers, village elders, and religious leaders.

In order to help the CYDCs carry out their community work effectively, the project staff organizes a series of training workshops for members. The topics covered in these workshops include review of project goals and objectives; the needs and characteristics of young children, youth, and teenage mothers; and leadership training in community mobilization, management of community groups, and life values. Following this participatory training, CYDCs organize similar workshops for community members and are also responsible for translating project objectives to the communities. They raise awareness of the needs and rights of children, youth, and young mothers, and educate community members about HIV/AIDS. Project staff also regularly present workshops for the young mothers and youth groups, and they monitor and provide constant support to the CYDC.

In addition, the CYDCs mobilize youth and young mothers to form self-help groups. CYDCs also have been coordinating a survey in all the villages to determine the number of orphans in the community, and to learn more about who cares for them and the problems they face. In some areas, these committees have started organizing meetings for the guardians who care for the orphans. These meetings provide opportunities for the guardians to share their experiences on such issues as child care and discipline, and to describe the challenges they face in fostering children. Recently, the CYDCs have been instrumental in starting two Community Resource Centers, located on the grounds of primary schools in rural communities. These centers serve as a meeting place for all community groups, including youth and young mothers. It is also a health site (e.g., for child and maternal health screenings). The communities have collected or bought books, games, and learning materials, and libraries have now opened. Plans also are being made to open community pharmacies.

Finally, the Self-Help Groups for Youth have been extremely important in finding adult guidance for youth in need and in analyzing and forming strategies for improving their lives. Prior to Mwana Mwende's involvement in the area, there were no youth groups--now, there are seven. Most communities had not addressed issues such as smoking, substance abuse, and idleness, particularly among out-of-school youth. To date, the youth groups started by the CYDCs have been instrumental in challenging members to lead more responsible and productive lives; some of the youth are emerging as future community leaders. Topics covered in youth group workshops include self-awareness and self-esteem, conflict resolution, active listening, stages of group formation, HIV/AIDS prevention, and adolescent growth and development. The groups are also engaged in income generation initiatives such as merry-go-rounds (4), planting seedlings for sale, and supporting the new Community Resource Centers. The groups also organize seminars to give members opportunities to share ideas and experiences, and they also organize games and dances.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Among the many lessons learned through the diverse activities of the Mwana Mwende Project, a central one relates to the importance of training and youth development. Training is one of the most important ingredients in initiating community development and for building self-esteem and confidence, creating group cohesion, and encouraging positive behavior and attitude change in participants. When youth and young mothers are empowered and equipped with relevant skills and knowledge, they are more willing to take on new initiatives that can provide them a better income and quality of life. When youth and young mothers are valued as critical resources, they can change their attitudes and behavior and influence others, thereby contributing to the well-being of the entire community. Mwana Mwende staff and project participants also have noted that the community has a very important role to play in supporting the welfare of its children. When community members understand the benefits of a project and what constitutes community development, they share their time and resources willingly. They also work well among themselves and with the project when they are kept informed about how the resources are being utilized. Training a core group of people within the community and encouraging them to share their knowledge and skills with other community members can result in significant positive changes, within both families and communities.

Many collaborative partners are needed in order for such initiatives to succeed. For example, in the project described here, we have worked with a cross-section of community groups, including different age groups, and with departments of agriculture, health, education, and social welfare. Community participants have included children, youth, teen parents, elders, preschool and primary teachers, village health workers, and local officials. Everyone has something to contribute, and we all have learned from each other.

Our experiences with ECD projects, such as this one in the Machakos District, cause us to reaffirm that yes, the African village still does raise the child--if it has sufficient support, resources, and partnerships. In Kenya, the role of early childhood development has moved far beyond providing child care and preschool education to expanding community contexts and strengthening the practice of direct democracy and civic participation.


(1) The growing number of single parent-headed households is associated with a number of factors, including husbands taking a new wife or mistress and the first wife leaving the children in the care of a grandmother, women becoming pregnant while their husbands are working away from home, and single women becoming pregnant. These factors are also associated with the high rates of HIV/AIDS (e.g., Weisner, Bradley, & Kilbride, 1997).

(2) Casual labor in this region includes clearing the bush for small farmers, cultivation and planting, digging pit latrines, construction work or picking coffee.

(3) Petty trade refers to microenterprise (e.g., selling secondhand clothes and shoes, vegetables and fruit, paraffin oil, or firewood in local markets).

(4) A merry-go-round is a system through which members of the group support one another. At the end of a given period (e.g., week or month), each member pays an agreed-upon amount of money. All the money is given to one member. This process continues until all members have received the money due them, and the rotation starts over.


Adams, B., & Mburugu, E. (1994, June). Women, work and child care. Paper presented at the Second Collaborative Early Childhood Seminar, Nairobi, Kenya.

Bali, S., & Kabiru, M. (1996). The influence of maternal age and employment status on mother-infant interactions. In collaboration with Marc Bornstein. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.

Gachukia, E., Kabiru, M., & Beauttah, P. (1992). A proposal for the development of a curriculum and support materials for meeting the basic learning needs of adolescent girls. Nairobi, Kenya: Unpublished proposal to UNICEF, Innocenti.

Gakuru, O. N., & Koech, B. (1995). The experiences of young children: A contextualized case study of early childhood care and education in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: Kenya Institute of Education/NACECE.

Kabiru, M. (1993). Early childhood care and development: A Kenyan experience. Nairobi, Kenya: UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office.

Mwana Mwende Child Development Project. (2000). Mwana Mwende project: Phase one report 1997-1999. Nairobi: Author.

Njenga, A., & Kabiru, M. (2001). In the web of cultural transition: A tracer study of children in Embu district, Kenya. The Hague: Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Swadener, B. B., Kabiru, M., & Njenga, A. (2000). Does the village still raise the child?: A collaborative study of changing childrearing and early education in Kenya. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Weisner, T. S., Bradley, C., & Kilbride, L. (Eds.). (1997). African families and the crisis of social change. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Woodhead, M. (1996). In search of the rainbow. The Hague, Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Margaret Kabiru, Anne Njenga, and Beth Blue Swadener

The first two authors served as the past Coordinator and Deputy Coordinator, respectively, of the National Centre for Early Childhood Education (NACECE) in Kenya and now conduct action research, offer preschool teacher diploma courses, and do community mobilization through the Mwana Mwende Child Development Centre. The third author has done research in Kenya for the past decade, including collaborative work with the other authors, and she works with nonformal schools for street children and mothers' self-help groups in Nairobi.
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Title Annotation:Mwana Mwende Child Development Project
Author:Swadener, Beth Blue
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Sep 15, 2003
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