Keeping children in school to stave off malnutrition

Published: 23 August 2011 16:16 CET

By Faye Callaghan in Kenya

It’s Ramadan, so most people in north east Kenya are fasting. It’s also the school holidays. But because of the impact of severe drought in 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 Society (KRCS) 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, KRCS relief manager. “Some of these parts haven’t had a good rain for four years.”

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.

KRCS nutritionist Amina Mohammed agrees: “We need to change the mindset of many communities, to show them that farming could be a good option for them too.”

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 teaching 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 like to try their hand at farming. “Perhaps they’ll be encouraged when the next rains come in November,” he adds optimistically.

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, which prevent 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 herding the goats, and young girls fetching water, we need to help parents understand the importance of education,” she says. 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 meal, the children of Raya Primary school race into the classroom, and begin reciting the alphabet in English to impress their visitors.

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