Rebecca and Yusuf are grade 3 and 4 pupils at Sosobora primary school, about 45 minutes west of Malindi town in Kilifi County. Despite living behind their school, they have not set foot in the classrooms for seven months.
The U-shaped school compound is deserted, save for a guard and his friend, whiling time away. The classrooms are shut. It is a ghost ‘town’.
Rebecca and Yusuf tell me that they miss their friends, but they also miss the books.
“We would like to go back to school because we want to continue learning,” they both explain.
In March, when the first case of coronavirus was detected, the Kenyan Government took the decision to close schools and colleges nationwide, sending more than 17 million learners home indefinitely. A gradual return to physical learning started in October with the government citing a slowdown in the rate of infections.
Keen on reopening, but for different reasons
Francis and Loise Thuva, Rebecca and Yusuf’s parents, have five other children. Francis is not formally employed and Loise has a chest problem that makes it hard for her to do heavy work. Their children help her herding goats and planting maize in their small farm.
Even though she needs their help, Loise would like to see her children go back to school so she does not need to worry about what they will eat for lunch. Many parents around the world can relate to her thoughts, but for Loise its not because of fatigue of constantly having to cook but that she simply does not have enough food to feed her seven children.
“Yesterday I gave them sima [maizemeal] with black tea,” she says. “We will have some maize today — plain maize,” she adds.
Skipping meals or poor diets
Ironically, Sosobora means good soils in the local language. Despite the name, droughts are recurrent in this part of Kilifi, forcing many to abandon farming for charcoal burning.
Loise’s family is just one of the estimated 739,000 Kenyans in the arid and semi-arid areas are severely food insecure and need immediate humanitarian assistance, according to a government-backed assessment.
“Many people here do not have jobs,” says Dzombo Lewa, the head teacher at Sosobora school. “They either burn charcoal for sale or grow crops such as cassava.”
For seven months, Loise has had to stretch her husband’s meager wage to try to feed her children, but it is often not enough and some days she is forced to watch her children go hungry. She is not alone, for hundreds of thousands of mothers across the country face the same choice.
The closure of schools is putting at risk the futures of millions of children globally, affecting not only their ability to learn, but also their access to nutritious food and health support schemes.
Across Eastern Africa some 10 million schoolchildren are now missing out on school feeding and school-based health and nutrition services from WFP and the government because of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some children, the meal they get in school is often the only meal they will get in a day.
“When they get lunch in school, it means my only worry is what they will have for dinner,” she says. “That is a big relief for me especially during these difficult times.”
As a parent, Dzombo too has benefited from school meals first hand.
“My children ate the school lunch at Viriko primary school,” she says. “That was a relief to me because I did not have to budget for their lunch expense.”
Danger of dropping out
Affording a nutritious lunch at home is not the only thing worrying teachers and parents in Kilifi.
Sarah Lugo, the Chairlady of the Board of Management at Viriko primary, which neighbours Sosobora, is worried at the effect of the prolonged closure of schools. She says that many parents are struggling to keep their children home safely.
“I’m concerned especially for our girls,” she says. “They have started going to town centres looking for work — including riding boda bodas [motorbike taxis]. I see pupils in Baolala [a township near Viriko] dressed in stylish clothes and wearing fancy hairstyles and I wonder whether they will ever return to school.”
Said Bwoe, the teacher in charge of school meals at Sosobora is equally concerned. School feeding programmes act as an essential safety net, particularly when shocks and disaster occur, as they prevent children being exploited due to hunger.
“Children are walking long distances to farms to pick mangoes or coconuts to go sell in the markets,” he explains. “This leaves them exposed to exploitation — especially the girls. Men can take advantage of them,” he says, adding that such children are unlikely to return when schools reopen, “because they have already tasted the ‘sweetness’ of cash.”
A meal on opening day
“We want to resume lessons for the children, but only if it is safe,” says Dzombo. “But if there will be no food by the time we open, many children may not report to school.”
Primary schools in Kilifi receive cash transfers from the Ministry of Education to buy food for the school meals from the local markets. The Home Grown School Meals Programme is seen as a major boost to local agricultural production and trade. Dzombo says that delays in cash disbursements is one of the challenges to the smooth implementation of the school meals programme. Often, this means that schools cannot buy food in time which affects the enrollment and attendance.
“If I had a chance to speak directly to the lawmakers who decide on school meals budgets, I would urge them to increase the funds so that each and every child in Kenya can benefit from school meals,” says Dzombo. “I would also urge them to budget and disburse the funds early so that by the time the new term starts, the food is already in the school.”
In the rural areas of Kilifi and in many arid and semi-arid areas, parents struggle to provide enough food at home. A school meal is therefore critical in ensuring that children go to school and can learn without interruptions.
Continued technical support
As part of ensuring that the school meals programme runs smoothly, with US Department of Agriculture McGovern-Dole programme’s support, the Ministry of Education, World Food Programme, and county government officials have continued training school meals managers each year.
“We conduct regular trainings because we know that the teachers and parents mandated to oversee the school meals need to refresh their skills every so often. New teachers are being recruited, other are being transferred to new locations while school committees are electing new officials after every three years — hence the need to train every year,” says Harrison Muriuki, Kenya’s School Health, Nutrition and Meals Coordinator.
“This year, the trainings were cut short by the Covid-19 restrictions. But we are happy to be able to resume now, especially in preparation for the reopening of the schools.”
Anne Wachira, a school meals teacher from Kafoloni primary school, 40 km from Kilifi town, is attending the training for the first time.
“I will now be more involved in the day-to-day running of the programme because I understand my role better,” she says. “I’m going to actively participate in the procurement process. I have also learnt how to calculate the food rations and refreshed my knowledge on food safety, food quality and hygiene. I feel that I will be a better school meals manager.”
WFP handed over the day-to-day management and implementation of school meals programme to the Government of Kenya in 2018. With the support of the US Department of Agriculture, WFP has continued to provide technical support to the Ministry of Education.
In the last quarter of the year 2020, the Ministry of Education and WFP will train 1,400 school heads, teachers in charge of school meals and chairpersons of school boards in Kilifi, Kwale, Taita Taveta and Tana River counties.
Schools are expected to fully re-open in January 2021.The Government is investing in more desks and classrooms across the country in order to meet the social distancing requirements. However, what many are hoping for is that there will be a hot lunch waiting for them.