Early childhood development advocate Faith Ocharo looks at the success of a programme that has benefitted 80,000 young Muslim children.
The madrassa early childhood programme in Kenya assists underprivileged communities in the establishment, development and management of preschools.
It offers professional development and training courses to new and practising preschool teachers and provides tailor-made technical support to preschools, civil society, government and private organisations.
It was adapted after a survey was done and showed many Muslim children drop out and few reach university.
The madrassa early childhood development programme was started in the coastal region in the mid-1980s when Muslim leaders approached His Highness Aga Khan, who used to visit his Nyali home in Mombasa.
They expressed concern that the Muslim community did not like the early childhood education programme in the coastal region - which was of missionary origin.
They wanted an ECD programme which would maintain their beliefs and give their children Koranic teachings until they were six or seven.
Under the old programme, children would transit to class one and were not able to compete verbally with the others who went to preschool. Over time there were many Muslim drop outs and very few Muslims could complete school and enter university.
The madrassa early childhood development programme was initially established as a pilot project by the Aga Khan Foundation in Mombasa in the mid-1980.
The early success and growing interest within the region led to the establishment of the madrassa training and resource centres in Kenya in 1989, Zanzibar in 1990 and Uganda in 199.
Each promotes quality-based, culturally relevant and pluralistic early childhood development for underprivileged Muslim communities.
The Muslim leaders approached the late Bisofia Mohasha, who came from a prominent family. She was educated and had just retired from teaching.
She and her educated sisters took up the challenge and they came up with a curriculum which was to integrate the Muslim religion into the Kenyan government curriculum.
They identified girls in the community who were willing to take up the training to become preschool teachers and places they would use for the ECD centres.
Najma Rashid works for the Aga Khan Foundation East Africa. She is the early childhood technical advisor and she has been working in early childhood development for 20 years.
Previously she was the director for the Madrasa Kenya programme - then she moved over to be the director for Madrasa East Africa. Later she came in as an ECD technical advisor for the Aga Khan Foundation.
Najma says the madrassa programme in Kenya started humbly and leaders from neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania borrowed the idea. In time they wanted the children to get better quality - even if they came from marginalised communities.
That’s when they started working with the Aga Khan Foundation and they took the high-scope curriculum and adapted it to suit the Kenyan context specifically to fit the madrasa programme. Trainers came and trained the Kenyans, who later on went on to train the teachers.
"The curriculum is child-centred," says Najma. "It focuses on hands-on material which are waste in the homes and community. They are recycled, painted to be colourful and used as sustainable teaching materials for children.
The children know where they came from and are passionate about it. They actively participate now in giving back to the community as volunteers to continue to sustain the initiative.
"The programme has been in existence now for over 30 years. It is community-driven in the sense that the school teachers are being paid by the community themselves and the school management community is a composition of volunteers in the community.
"The Aga Khan funding is to provide training for the teachers, mentor them and train the school management committees.
"But the community own the school and the success is for the community. They have a say on what they want in the community and things like fees vary from community to community and the teachers receive a stipend from them."
Over time, the programme across the three countries has established resource centres - over 200 community-owned and managed preschools benefitting over 80,000 children.
There are some great success stories among the early children. Naima Shatu is a renowned doctor, Fati is a banker and Naima sits on the Madrasa Kenya national board as a volunteer.
Najma says: "The whole beauty about it is that this children know where they came from and are passionate about it. They actively participate now in giving back to the community as volunteers to continue to sustain the initiative."
Najma's parting shot is very simple. Every child born has potential and the early years are so important.
The simple things we do for them are the things that create a foundation for later learning and schooling. Simple things like talking to the baby and massaging the baby.
Nutrition is very important. If the child does not have the right nutrients it will not be in good shape. So we need to invest early which means investing in mothers.