An oasis in the desert
How school meals bring relief in the Diffa region, Niger
WELCOME TO ABOUNGA
On my route to Abounga, the Sahelian landscape unfolds before my eyes and reveals its deepest secrets. Trees here are a few and the sand stretches away around me. We are undoubtedly on the edge of the desert.
Thirty minutes after leaving the city of Diffa, we reach Abounga. It is a city of tents and straw huts, home to people displaced by violence. Where do they come from? From other villages of Diffa region — closer to the Nigerian border — like Grémadi and Tam, which have been heavily affected by the Boko Haram violence, spilling across the border.
The geographical position of the Diffa region is the very threat to its peace. In certain areas, the Nigerian boarder is only two kilometers away. Boko Haram militants can easily cross it to commit deadly incursions. This situation has instilled fear among Diffa’s people, causing them to move further and further away from the border.
The World Food Programme (WFP) started its emergency school meals programme here last November in seven schools, for about 2,500 students. This year, the programme has grown, benefiting 16 schools and more than 6,500 students, of which half are girls. Abounga primary school is one of the schools.
Abounga primary school welcomes nearly 400 students. Last November, Biri Moustapha and Moussa Mai Boukar (above) who were school principals back in Grémadi and Tan, respectively, decided to merge their two schools when their communities fled to safety in Abounga.
“We had to do something for these children. We couldn’t let them fall into the hands of Boko Haram,” says Moustapha (in photo on the left).
If these children are not looked after, they become easy preys for the deadly Boko Haram group. Some of them were kidnapped and forced to join its ranks.
The school is located on a sand hill. Large tents serve as classrooms that range from kinder garden to the 4th grade. In the classrooms, students listen carefully to their teacher. Despite the difficult circumstances, teachers try their best to carry out the academic programme.
AISSA — A HEART AND A SMILE
It’s now lunch time and children run across the large playground, their bags on their backs. Meanwhile, the cooks are busy finishing the meal. As I approached the kitchen, I saw a woman sitting on a mat. Her phlegm and the smile on her face are striking.
I am told by Faroukou, my colleague, that she is the President of the Mother-Educators Association, and her name is Aissa Abba Gana.
She has been the President of the Association for one year now and she has succeeded in creating a dynamic bond among the mothers.
“I consider myself as the mother of these children. I treat them as I would treat my own children,” says Aissa, a smile on her face.
“Many of our children were kidnapped by Boko Haram. I don’t want the story to repeat itself,” she adds.
The association helps to coordinate the distribution of meals within the school. Its members, for example, volunteer to cook lunch every day for the children.
“We have to invest in these children. It is our duty. They are the future of this country,” enthuses Aissa.
LUNCH IS SERVED
The cooks are serving the meals to the students.
“This is one of my favorite moment of the day,” says a giggly Aisha (3rd Grade).
Lunch is a time of communion and sharing. The students get into groups of four or five around one meal.
“School meals are a way to allow students to get to know each other better. We teach them to mutually accept and respect each other, “ says Moussa.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
The dedication of these men and women who have created such a vibrant atmosphere that encourages the development of children is admirable, and a sign of resilience and courage.
The bell signals that the break is over, and students head towards their classrooms. Some of them wave their hands at us. In one year, Abounga has proven that it is possible to turn a hopeless situation into a stepping stone for a better tomorrow.
WFP needs USD 551,596 to continue its school meals programme for the next 6 months. Formany parents and children in the Diffa region, school meals are an oasis in the desert.
WFP wishes to thank the following donors for their support to emergency operations in Niger: Australia, Canada, ECHO, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxemburg, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, UN CERF, United States of America.
FOOTNOTES: Story and photos: WFP/Simon Pierre Diouf