By Nancy Okwengu in Turkana
Children rush metallic and plastic cups and bowls of varied colours and sizes in front of a makeshift kitchen. Leaving their containers, they quickly run back to an assembly point. They sit and silently wait for that golden roll call, calling them to collect their cups of porridge.
Next to the assembly point is the makeshift kitchen. A middle-aged woman, Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) volunteer, Suzanne Ekarang, is cooking porridge in a big pot. The kitchen is full of smoke and steam as the boiling-hot porridge bubbles in the open firewood stove. Her large, calloused hands and weather-beaten countenance could easily identify this 40-year-old as hardworking. Her job is to cook the daily meal for the children and aptly describes her duty as “A call to keep the children in the school.” She beams brightly at the sweet realization that she is a source of hope for these children.
Hundreds of children peep from a distance through the small door as Suzanne pours the porridge into a serving bucket. She gives it a few minutes for the temperature to cool. Hungry mouths wait, and the eager, innocent eyes of the young ones watch her every move.
The long awaited serving hour arrives. Suzanne takes a look at each cup or container and calls the name of the child. “I have served these children for many months and can match the cups to every child’s name,” she says.
The porridge is made of maize flour and water. “When times are good, the porridge is usually enriched with sugar and lemon, which makes it tasty. However, the tasteless porridge is a blessing during this hard times and sugar is the last care on these young ones minds.”
The children do not eat dinner or breakfast at home. Every morning they come here with empty stomachs. It is unthinkable how they have adjusted to hunger but this is the fate that many children face in northern Kenya.
School teacher, Mark Lumusingi, says the simple meal means everything for these children. “The porridge simply spells hope and survival, and a reason to attend classes for these children during the hard times,” he says.
The school feeding programme is part of the KRCS response to the needs of the drought stricken Turkana population. “We distribute maize flour to primary schools and a nutritious corn/soy blend called Unimix to early childhood development centres. Unimix is 65% corn, 25% soy, 10% sugar,” explains, Flora Kyondo, KRCS nutritionist.
“School holidays were a nightmare for these children and that is why the schools have not closed in 2011. They have attended school every day of the week since the school feeding programme started,” adds Flora.
KRCS is targeting 275 schools and a total of 77,000 children in Turkana, aiming to reduce school dropout rates. “School attendance and enrollment shot up in May when the school feeding program started. School feeding has had an enormous impact on thousands of children and we must keep this program going,” Flora says.