In Swaziland, the choice is between education and food

Published: 16 October 2002 0:00 CET

Nadine Hutton) in Silele, Swaziland

To his parents, nine-year-old Nkosingiphile Dlamini was a gift from God. That is the meaning of his name. When he goes to Ngosi primary school, he goes hungry. Come January, his parents will most likely not be able to send him to school at all. They will need the school fees to pay for the soaring costs of food.

"I did not eat anything today. There is no food at home," whispers Nkosingiphile shyly. "When I have had nothing to eat, I have a pain in my stomach. But I try to think about listening to the teachers instead of thinking about my stomach, but it is hard to hear what they are saying."

He clutches the sides of the red plastic chair he is sitting on, swinging his legs back and forth, tilting his toes up to prevent his big, unlaced shoes from falling off. The seams in his khaki school uniform have been done over and over again, the buttons replaced with copper wire.

More than half of the people threatened by he current food crisis in Southern Africa are children, and the food crisis is reaching into their classrooms too.

There are clear signs that the food crisis in Swaziland is also becoming an education crisis. The new report from the Swaziland Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC), published in September, showed that 64 per cent of households were prepared to take their children out of school as a way of coping over the coming months.

Nkosingiphile's eyes are so big, dark and sad that we never manage to ask him how he feels about the prospect of him not attending school next year. He tells us, though, that he wants to go to school so he can work when he is an adult, and that he likes going to school, because he gets lunch there.

Ngosi's is one of a few schools in Swaziland that is running its own food scheme for pupils, but school fees are 58 emalangeni (about US$5) higher per year. The teachers cook the maize porridge and beans themselves, and long before they bring the big iron kettles to the doorway, the children have all already placed their plastic bowls in a long, snake-like row on the ground in the schoolyard.

"We have children crying in school because they are hungry. Before lunch they are tired. They complain and don't pay attention, some even fall asleep at their desks,"says teacher Patience Mthethwa.

"After lunch they are completely different children. Just a little bit of food is enough," she says.

After school this Thursday in late September, around 70 women have gathered in the shade of the long, arching branches of the acacia tree behind the school, the dry valley extending below. Acacia trees are perfect for meetings, and now there are important matters to discuss.

Patience explains to them that because food prices have increased so much in the last year, the money for the children's school lunch has run out. Now they have to decide whether to raise the school fee, or stop giving the children the daily meal. Either way, the result will be that even more children will drop out of school.

"If we stop the lunch meal, even more children will become so weak that they will not manage to go to school. Many of them are starving already. They are getting thinner, looking weaker and tired," says Patience. "If we raise the school fee, even more parents will be unable to pay and will take their children out of school."

The food crisis in Southern Africa will reach its peak between December and March. When the new school year begins in January 2003, Patience is sure that many children will not show up. The sad trend has started already. At the start of the current school year in January 2002, there were 435 children enrolled at Ngosi primary. When the last term began in September, around 390 remained.

Throughout the countries in Southern Africa affected by the food crisis, the majority of vulnerable people have already engaged in distress coping strategies. This behaviour may meet immediate needs but can have detrimental effects on long-term livelihoods. In each country children are being removed from school due to a shortage of cash for fees and/or the need to have the child's labour at home to find food or raise money.

The Zimbabwe VAC-report, showed that 18 per cent of the households had reported removing children from school within the past two months.

"The number of children dropping out of school is getting higher also because of AIDS. Children are losing their parents to this disease and left without anyone to support them properly. However, the difficult food situation that we are experiencing now is definitely increasing the number of drop-outs," says Patience.

In Ngosi primary alone, there are 67 children who have lost one parent, and 13 who have lost both, Patience informs us. These children are often among the first to opt out of school because their school fee has to be used for food.

Lucky Matse (14), in the 6th grade at the neighbouring Hosea primary school, lost his mother in 2001 and his father this year. He now lives with his mother's sister. Lucky is deeply grateful to her, because she has gone round to relatives to scrape together enough money to continue his education.

He wants to be a teacher himself. Next year though, he is sadly aware that his school days will most likely be over.

"My aunt seems to be tired of begging people for money for me. There is nothing I can do. I will just have to stay at home," says Lucky, who had nothing for breakfast today except mahewu, a fermented maize drink.

At Hosea primary school, there are no school meals to be had either, and children who walk the long way to school hungry, have to walk the same way back even hungrier.

"Staying in school without food is hard," Lucky tells us. "I feel weak and sleepy. I try to pay attention, but the teachers shout at me, and it is difficult to get the homework done."

According to the regional VAC-report, the acute malnutrition figures are below the 10-15% level expected in times of severe food shortages, but further deterioration in child nutritional status is feared as the food crisis worsens, as most of the households interviewed have already reduced the number of meals per day, reduced portion sizes and some are even going whole days without proper meals. Delayed food assistance could result in a sharp rise in the number of malnourished children.

An average annual school fee is around 20 USD, whilst a bag of maize that lasts a family for three-four weeks now costs almost 15 USD. Patience understands that it is impossible for vulnerable households to prioritise school fees when the money could be spent on life-sustaining food.

"It's a way of surviving, but it is terrible, because education is so important. This food crisis is going to ruin many children's future," says Patience.

Related Links:

Emergency Appeal: Southern Africa Food Insecurity
More on: The southern Africa Food Crisis
Make an Online Donation
Swaziland: Appeals, Updates and Reports