Feeding children’s imaginations, keeping them in class

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 • George Arende

Emukutan,Kenya

Welcome to Emukutan primary school, a place of learning that besides moulding and educating future leaders provides 160 children living in a drought-hit area their one and the only meal of the day.

Opened in 2006, this school located in a town at the southern end of Kenya’s Rift Valley, is close to the main road making it easy for students to reach, doing away with the need to walk miles to the nearest school.

But the school has only one government-funded teacher. Parents have to dig deep to hire seven teachers besides, on top of finding money to buy books and school uniforms for their children. Two years ago, a dry spell led to the region’s most severe drought in years. Numbers of children attending school fell.

Attendance only improved last year when ACT member, the Anglican Church of Kenya, started trucking in essential food: maize, beans, cooking oil and porridge flour.

Children improved their score

The school enrolled 114 pupils in September 2011 and three months later the role had reached 160. “Pupils’ health has improved and many children concentrate during the afternoon classes,” head teacher Joyce Ntiati said.

Children in class four improved their mean score from 177 before the feeding programme to 258 mean within just a few months. The school’s academic gains cannot be ignored. Success is attributed to feeding programme and may wither if axed.

The daily ration needed to feed the 160 children is 16kg of maize, 5kg of beans, 5 packets of porridge mix and half a litre of cooking oil but school rations fall well below this level. “We know we are underfeeding the children but it is better than starving [them],” said Ntiati.

No food - no attendance

It is feared that the number of children attending the school may fall significantly if the feeding programme is scrapped.

“We have distributed food to the school since September 2011 and have run out of resources to sustain the feeding programme,” said Rose Muthama, ACK emergency and disaster management programme officer. The school, built with support from the Kenyan government and African Medical and Research Foundation, faces enormous challenges just keeping children in class.

“Some [pupils] stay far from school. Their parents’ livelihood was affected by drought and they do not cook at home. We want to plant assorted crops that will feed all the children,” said Joshua Kasaile, the school chairperson.

Damaris Susaika, a mother of five, has no doubt of the value of education. Despite the difficulties brought about by cyclic drought, she is hopeful her children will get the chance to learn. “My first [three] children didn’t attend school, but the other two are in school. We need vision to educate our children because their knowledge will re-shape our future lives,” Susaika said.

She lamented the fact that women knew little of what goes on in the world outside their homesteads and wish they could be taught how to do things differently.