26 August 2011
It’s Ramadan, so most people in north-east Kenya are fasting. It’s also the school holidays. But because of the severe drought impacting this part of the country, many schools are open and many children are eating.
“We started giving our students Unimix porridge just two weeks ago and already I can see signs of improvement in the children,” explains head teacher of Raya primary school, Mr Omar, referring to the high energy food supplement.
Children in this part of Kenya have very limited supplies of food at home, so the Kenya Red Cross is making food available to 52 schools in the Garissa region. “Thanks to funding, we will soon extend the programme to all 153 schools here,” says a delighted Kontoma Abdinasir, Kenya Red Cross relief manager. “Some of these parts haven’t had a good rain for four years,” he says, shaking his head.
Screening children for malnutrition
At Raya primary school a nurse screens the children for malnutrition and refers the most serious cases to the local health clinic. Before the food supplements arrived, over 100 of the school’s 370 children were malnourished. Now Mr Omar says that figure is much lower. “We’re giving them two meals a day: a porridge made with Unimix in the morning and then a meal of bulgur wheat and beans in the afternoon.”
“The sad thing is, I think this community could be food secure, if only they had the training. There is a river not far away, so if they knew how to farm they could at least grow some crops,” he adds.
Kenya Red Cross nutritionist Amina Mohammed agrees. “We need to change the mindset of these pastoralist communities, to show them that farming could be a good option for them too.”
Teaching children to plant
Mr Omar is doing his bit. “I’ve started farming at my home, so I’ve learnt a lot about what works in this kind of climate. We now teach farming at the school and have a club with some land where the children can get involved and plant things themselves.”
He says if there was an irrigation system to pump water from the river a lot more families would try their hand at farming. “Perhaps they’ll be encouraged when the next rains come in November,” he adds optimistically.
Keeping children in school
The school feeding programme also has the benefit of keeping children in class. Often during drought parents find tasks for their children, such as fetching water or firewood, preventing them from attending school. But with meals being offered to the children through the holidays, Mr Omar is confident there won’t be many drop-outs when term starts again.
Nutritionist Amina is hopeful too but admits more work needs to be done. “You look in the fields and you see boys of five years herding the goats, you see young girls fetching water. We need to help parents understand the importance of education.” Reflecting back on her childhood she says, “I used to learn under a tree. At least now there are some classrooms and books.”
Energised from their porridge, the children of Raya Primary school race into the classroom and start reciting the English alphabet to impress their visitors.
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