Teachers Ekai Benedictus and Mark Lumusingu give a tour of Kaitese primary and Tiya nursery school, where they work near the town of Lodwar, in Turkana, northern Kenya. Although basic by British standards, the schools are incredibly well organised and the teachers are justifiably proud of what they’ve accomplished there.
Despite this being the August break, the schools are buzzing with hundreds of children, all waiting patiently as community volunteers cook porridge in massive cauldrons over fires in the school kitchens – outdoor huts built from acacia branches.
Mark explains: “Six weeks ago many of these children weren’t even in school. We go to the village and try to tell their parents the importance of education. Now we have food to give them, they come to school. They’re no longer scattered in the bush.”
Food is a huge incentive for local families to send their children to school instead of sending their girls out to gather water and their boys to walk hundreds of miles searching for pasture for their goats. Education is an opportunity for these children to break the cycle of poverty their nomadic parents are stuck in, and give them a chance at a future with a more sustainable livelihood.
Eighty-eight per cent of people in North Turkana now live in absolute poverty. The same percentage live in food poverty.
Flora Kyondo, a Kenya Red Cross relief officer, says: “We’re currently serving 275 schools in Turkana, feeding between 77-78,000 pupils. In some cases the parents send them to school early. Some of these kids have never been to school. I’ve been told that in previous droughts young children were sent out to herd animals, but now there are very few stray children because they’re in school getting food.”
One of the Kenya Red Cross’ community volunteers, Suzanne Ekarang, cooks a nutritious corn/soy porridge called Unimix at Tiya nursery school. The children here should be between the ages of three and five, but many are toddling around on unsteady legs, young enough that they’ve just recently learned how to walk.
And the meal Suzanne dishes out for them is likely to be the only thing they’ll eat all day.
In May, a survey found that 37 per cent of children under five were malnourished in North Turkana. The World Health Organisation’s threshold for an emergency is 15 per cent. North Turkana has the highest malnutrition rate in Kenya.
The Kenya Red Cross, with support from partners like the British Red Cross, is working tirelessly to change that. Children under five are among the most affected by Kenya’s food crisis, and feeding these children is one of the organisation’s biggest priorities.
Donations to the British Red Cross’ East Africa Food Crisis Appeal have provided 65 metric tonnes of Unimix for schools in Turkana.
But the operation is not without its challenges. Flora says: “One of the biggest challenges is communication, with such huge distances – sometimes hundreds of kilometres – between schools. You sometimes can’t communicate with the schools; it’s hard to tell them we’re even coming. Sometimes they don’t understand the rations, so we have to explain.
“We’re also feeding the elderly in some centres because they are left behind by the men, who herd their animals long distances to find pasture but leave women, children and the elderly behind without access to the animals’ milk.”
Children have life again
Despite the challenges, Flora has seen a startling difference in the children the Red Cross is feeding – not just in schools but through mobile health clinics and special feeding centres for severely malnourished children. “Six weeks ago, you’d go to a community and people were literally dying, lying on the ground,” she says.
“Once we went to a distribution and a child died while we were there. I’ve never seen anything like that. You don’t see those sights now. Within two weeks, the difference was amazing. They have life again. It gives you such inspiration, no matter how tired you are.”
But the emergency is by no means over. The next rainy season should arrive in autumn, in just a couple months’ time. The last two rainy seasons have failed, though.
Flora says: “If the next rains fail, it will be a disaster. I think this community’s just about had enough. We will have to continue giving them food at least until the end of the year.”
Read about the East Africa Food Crisis Appeal