Analesi Tuicaumia is an early learning practitioner, teacher, and champion for early childhood development. A woman with a mission, Analesi founded Child Benefit Fiji and Mobile Kindy Fiji, championing young children from all walks of life, giving them the best start in life, and developing a model for inclusive, holistic early learning that has been well-received in many countries.
What inspired you to pursue work in early childhood development and early learning?
I was a missionary first. I left Fiji for Ethiopia and felt strongly that the only way to reach a nation would be to reach the little children, [but] I realized I needed an educational background. So I went to Germany to enroll in a degree in early childhood education.
I was the only English-speaking student with my translator among all these Europeans from Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. I [then] went to Hawaii, where I finished my studies before I eventually returned to Fiji and met my husband. When in Fiji, I would visit some of the schools. My heart said to stay in Fiji, and that my mission was about children.
This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ How can digital technology and innovation deliver greater gender equality?
I genuinely believe that technology gives such an excellent opportunity to expose the work being done for women’s benefit. Early childhood education is the only area where gender equality will have the greatest chance of happening, because we allow girls and boys to reach their full potential equally, or at the same time or together?
The early years are the most critical time for girls to be in school because if we provide that for every child, no one is left behind. If we are going out there and empowering girls early, technology can benefit all children, because it is also important for boys to learn to appreciate, value and respect girls early in life. Childhood is the only time when we are all the same; whether rich or poor, and whatever gender.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a leader, and what did you learn from them?
I was blessed to be able to study in Germany. Kindergarten is a German word, and that's where it's all from. I saw how much they invest in the lives of little children, which contrasted with what I knew in Fiji. Children are born here in Fiji, and they are precious, but there is a time when they're two years old and younger; it seems they are not so important. We invest later for their birthdays and other things, but at that early stage in their life, we leave things to nature. Something I have learned is that we must nurture children. That is very important here, in Fiji and in the Pacific.
Another challenge in this field is to start a school. You’re not a ‘school person’, and you're not a ‘business person’. You're a teacher, but you rent a place and trust you will pay.
A personal challenge for me, is teaching myself not to be aggressive, but still be ruthless when I advocate the importance of the early years of life. I'm passionate about this; I believe with all of my heart that this is the way to go - to invest in the earliest time of children’s lives. So I must put myself out there, practice a lot, cry, stand my ground, and be firm about it. It's a long-term investment, but you must start now with children; from when their mothers are expecting.
What are some memorable projects or mentors you've encountered in your career?
The World Forum Foundation invited me to go to Italy to present my work in Reggio Emilia, which is leading in investing in early childhood development; from zero to two years old. We shared what we found out about how to reach out to children in the communities through Mobile Kindy Fiji. It's a holistic approach we've come up with, and that is what we found here in Fiji. The model we use has been well received, and has since tried in Mexico and other parts of the world. It’s about reaching children with less money, but with high-quality and holistic education. I'm so excited about it.
I also had an opportunity to work with the UN and present to the Fiji Government on the Sustainable Development Goals and why investing in the earliest years is essential. We came up with the idea to have the children do a dramatized video. We presented it to the government with the UN, and and one way they’ve invested is to make education for five-year-olds free, so that they can be in school and recognize the work of teachers, so that they can be paid as well.
We also built a strong national advocacy early childhood education (ECE) program called ‘Kindy @ the Park’ during the national Hibiscus Festival in Suva. We reached out to the nation with our messages and ECE slogans during the festival parade with a float of our own. We have reached 20,000 parents in the last 13 years, who have visited our tent at the festival, in which we collaborated with UNICEF and other stakeholders.
What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women are in leadership roles?
Early childhood education is an equalizer because it’s for everybody; from zero to eight years of age. It’s about how we recognize leadership skills at a very young age.
The way to go is to invest heavily, as well, in teacher training. Teachers must have this quality in them to be convergent and divergent leaders. You can pay attention and start nurturing girls to feel recognized and validated, encouraging them and noticing their skills, while thinking way ahead about what they will be. In early childhood, we have portfolios. We write down all the things we see in children and their needs, and pass it up to their grade one teacher. The grade one teacher will be able to see this and recognize and nurture that child through their later development stages.
James Heckman’s work inspired me; he is a Nobel Prize winner and economist. He speaks about human capital and the need to invest in giving children the best chance in life. That means looking after them from zero to eight.
What advice would you give Pacific women still studying or early in their careers?
Know what's in your heart. What are you drawn towards? Spend a lot of time thinking and dreaming about that. It could be something that does not exist yet. But do not limit yourself to thinking that you will do whatever everybody else does.
Be a person that invents greater things. There is no barrier. There is no limitation to what you believe in but you can limit yourself if you think culturally this is not something girls do. Dream out loud. Know your topic and what you want to do in life and continue. I like one of the African proverbs where they say, ‘How can you achieve your dreams? You take it little by little. But you start now.’
Dreams can be accomplished if you start now and start small. Finally, you will find yourself, and it won't be like work. It'll be a privilege, a joy, and an honor to do. I want to see young girls in the Pacific grow up to be inventors and to invent things the world has never seen.
The World Bank is supporting Early Childhood Development projects in Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, with additional support planned throughout East Asia and the Pacific.
**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.