Early Child Development

Sauti Moja supports Montessori classrooms and child nutrition activities in two villages in order to foster healthy development of pre-schoolers and subsequent achievement of Maasai children in school.

The challenge

Healthy development among children can be greatly influenced by good nutrition and opportunities to go to schoolOften, malnutrition combined with poor schooling opportunities early in life can inhibit children’s physical and cognitive development for many years, thereby jeopardizing future opportunities.

a)  Health challenge:
Poverty has escalated over the past several decades for many Maasai families.  Their access to the land they’ve depended on for years is shrinking.  Droughts are increasing in frequency and severity.  Livestock herds are getting smaller.  As a result, diets are changing and consumption of milk, the nutritious staple for children, has decreased;  children are getting less and less of their nutritional requirements.  This is having a debilitating affect;  in one classroom, our 2008 assessment showed that about one-half of the children were malnourished!  This was undermining their physical growth and negatively affecting early development.

Malnutrition isn’t just related to diet, but often due to health problems, such as diarrhea and malaria, and associated lack of good medical care to treat childhood illnesses.  If a young child is frequently sick but isn’t getting medical attention, this will greatly undermine his/her growth and development.  For many Maasai, a combination of issues related to distance to a clinic, low quality health services, the discrimination commonly confronted at health clinics and language barriers  discourage parents from taking children to clinics.  These frustrations with the health care system indirectly constribute to child malnutrition

Many Maasai children are malnourished due to inadequate diet and/or disease prevention and inadequate health care.

b)  Education challenge:
In the communities of Northern Tanzania, there has been insufficient education efforts and institutional development for the  Maasai to understand and benefit from educational achievement.  Typically, Maasai children enter First Grade at age seven without prior exposure to classroom-based teaching, without basic skills, such as counting and writing, typical among other Tanzanian children, and without an understanding of Swahili, ,which is the only legally permitted language, other than English, in schools.  They are set up for failure from the beginning; not surprisingly, many drop-out before the end of Primary School,and almost half do not pass the Grade 7 exams, which are critical to entering Secondary School).  Consequently, as compared to other communities throughout Tanzania, the Maasai have far less children succeeding at all levels in school. 

The result is that the Maasai are poorly represented in jobs of influence; for example there are relatively few Maasai teaching in the local schools, and there are even fewer working in local health clinics or conducting social services.  Maasai are also under-represented in local governing bodies; many District levels positions related to land, livestock, natural resources, etc. are filled by non-Maasai, who sometimes make decisions on behalf of the community with little knowledge about and/or prejudice against it!


Oltepesi is a remote, impoverished community where we support a pre-school.  When we first arrived, the community had already begun providing early education to their children: volunteers met with children under a tree, and helped them write letters in the sand and learn songs.  While an admirable start, they desperately wanted to increase their capacity and enhance their initiative.

Now, with Sauti Moja’s support, there is a basic classroom constructed with local labour, and with the exception of a cement floor, it’s constructed in a traditional manner with local materials.  Volunteers from the community have been trained, a Montessori teacher provides support, a healthy meal is provided every day, and the malnutrition that characterizes up to half of the attending children is being addressed.. 60 children from this community are getting an opportunity for pre-school!

Serarwa, one of the first volunteer teachers from the community, is remarkably progressive, as he’s a male youth of the Maasai “warrior class”, who would normally have no role in childcare or education. Now, after receiving a scholarship, he is attending a two-year Montessori Early Childhood Education program. He’s setting an unprecedented model for other old and young men about the important role that they can play in child care and education. We’re incredibly proud of him and his example to others!

It’s well-recognized that early education opportunities, such as pre-school, contribute to educational development and enhance school achievement later.  If  Maasai children get pre-school opportunities where they can learn some Swahili, gain exposure to a classroom environment, and learn basic skills, they’ll be be better prepared for Primary School, their families will be more supportive of formal education,, and the children will stay in school longer and do better!

Healthy children and achievement in education is essential for building strong communities, capable of confronting contemporary challenges and managing change!


Our Response

  • Longido Early Childhood Education (LECHE) Classrooms. In 2007, Sara Ilmollelian, a retired kindergarten teacher, approached Sauti Moja asking for help in providing early childhood education in her Maasai communities.   Sauti Moja loves to ‘jump on board’ of such initiatives led by local, impassioned indigenous people.  Now, two Montessori classrooms, with children from ages 3-7 years, have been started in two villages with plans to expand to other villages as funds become available. 
  • Training community members.  Sauti Moja has supported the training of community members, so that they can gain the skills required to assist and teach in the LECHE classrooms.  Recently, Sauti Moja secured scholarships for two community members to get certified in Montessori Early Childhood Education, which will tremendously build the capacity of their communities to prepare young children for formal education.
  • Classroom feeding activities.  Sauti Moja is ensuring that every child in the LECHE classrooms is being provided a noon meal that will contribute to enhanced nutritional status.
  • Assessing nutritional status of children.  Children are measured for height and weight every three months; this information is used to assess their nutritional status and growth.  The teachers follow-up with home visits and/or medical attention for those who are malnourished or not growing.
  • Family counselling and support. When a child is identified as malnourished, support workers develop relationships with their families in order to understand the reasons for the child’s status and help the families address the problem.  Addressing the problem includes simply providing some advice, helping parents access medical services, and in extreme cases of poverty, providing livestock to the families, which means more milk and potential income for the family.

Our Achievments

  • Children are getting early education.  The children in the classrooms are learning to speak Swahili, developing important cognitive skills, such as counting and memorizing the ABCs; developing important motor-skills like using a pencil; and learning how to behave in a classroom.
  • Community members are getting involved.  The communities where the classrooms are situated are getting involved and taking ownership of the classrooms.  They’re volunteering their time and providing support to the classrooms.
  • Community members are gaining skills.  Several community members are being trained in Montessori early education in order to assist the classrooms.  Two gained scholarships to attend a two-year Montessori Early Childhood Education training program!
  • Parents are growing to appreciate and support education.  Primary School teachers are reporting that children who have participated in our pre-schools are performing better upon enterning First Grade.  Parents are pleased with their investment and proud of their children’s progress.  More-and-more people and supportive of early childhood education, and interest in formal education for children is increasing.
  • The nutritional needs of children are being met. Every child a healthy meal every day, which will contribute to enhanced nutritional status.  Children are monitored for height and weight on a quarterly basis, and teachers provide support in addressing cases of malnutrition and chronic illness.
  • Families are being supported to address malnutrition.  Support workers have met with all the families of malnourished children to identify the cause, provide counsel, and in extreme cases, provide support, such as accompanying parents to health clinics, providing additional food for the child, and sometimes, paying for medical treatment.
Did you know?

Sara is one of those people who makes us all of us ask, “What have I done for my community?”  At age 58, after a long career as a teacher, Sara went back to school to gain a Montessori Early Childhood Education Teaching Certificate.  Two years later, in 2007, she was ready to pursue her goal - start early education classrooms within Maasai communities to help early child development and, specifically, to enhance educational achievement among her people.