The road is as red as the dust in the air. The dry season has left all rivers as san dunes, few remaining water points are attracting caravans from a far and we see hundreds of camels gathering at a dried-out lake where two people are digging for water at the deepest point for their animals. We continue on the rust-sand road which seems to continue forever. People holding several camels along side the road signal to stop but our security vehicle continued; we are in UN Security “phase 3” areas and this is no place to stop. The people did not want a lift, they did not want money or food they wanted water - a highly valued commodity in this part of the country. We are moving along the Somalia boarder where we reach our final destination about 22km from where the US bombed last week; a school supported by the World Food Program (WFP).
Last week I monitored schools in the totally arid district of Garissa, 6 hours east of Nairobi. This was a monitoring training for me as I was accompanied with WFP’s field monitor for the North Eastern Province, Mr. Ikeny Kapua, a Kenyan from the Turkana region of Kenya where the people live as pastoralists similar to the Masaai. Ikeny taught me every aspect of the school feeding monitoring process and a great deal about the life of a pastoralist. Every day we were escorted by security, including our own driver and the area educational officer of Garissa. Driving through the most remote places of Kenya, I learned all the challenges of the school feeding program and primary education in Kenya.
Our visits are surprise visits and the Head Teacher (Principal) is not informed in advance. This sometime means that the Head Teacher will hide or leave the school immediately when he sees the UN Land Cruisers approaching. On average, the schools are not keeping their feeding records as they are supposed to and both attendance and hygiene are major issues. Attendance records are not kept on a daily basis and in some schools even the Head Teachers haven’t kept attendance records since December. This makes it very difficult to track if the right amount of food is being consumed everyday and it confirms that the national attendance produced by the Kenyan Ministry of Education is not adequate. The good message is that feeding is ongoing, children are being fed, the schools are trying to cope with all of the issues on their level and I think they are doing an ok job. We have to keep in mind that lack of teachers is the overarching issue, with a shortage of at least 60,000 primary and secondary teachers nationwide. One school we visited had over 550 students but only 7 teachers! This factor alone explains a lot. So we speak nicely to them and try to show them respect. The challenge is that there are so many issues we should address: records, attendance, storing of food, measuring food, kitchen cleanliness, the cook’s hygiene and procedures, the feeding of children and more.
The school feeding program is a reason for parents to keep their children in school, especially the girls. The daily feeding is known to increase enrolment, stabilize attendance, and therefore increase learning. Moreover, the food is an essential nutritional supplement for the children. When we are at the school we speak to the students and I had a chance to ask them a few questions. So what did I ask? I asked how many of them where sleeping under a mosquito net, and while only about half of them answered yes there was a definite awareness of malaria among them. Garissa is very prone to malarial mosquitoes and I, of course, was on malaria medication all week. I got about 15 bug bites so I’m really glad I took the medicine! The second question I asked was how many of them children had eaten breakfast in the morning. Not one child raised his/her hand. I realize now how humiliating these two questions were for them to be asked but, in my defense, it is important that I understand the living conditions of the people of Garissa. These people live in huts, some of which are built of clay but more than 75 percent of them don’t even meet this standard. Normally they live in a space with sticks in the ground and very little roof or shelter.
After spending a week in the Garissa I have also become fascinated by camels. They are amazing animals with a constant grin on their faces. They looked to me like they were royalty as they walked in silence moving one row of legs at the time. When they get scared they run in a crazy way moving their legs in what seems to be a completely random way. It looks very funny. And, by the way, camels don’t carry water in the hump. The hump is pure fat, very tasty and doesn’t need to be cooked (spoken like a true vegetarian!). The hump is a real treat for children, so I am told by my Turkanan colleague.
The training from Mr. Ikeny was excellent and I really enjoyed spending time with him. We spent three nights at the Dadaab refugee camp (made up of mostly Somalian refugees) where I played volleyball with our Kenyan colleagues. I was the only white man in the staff camp and they tried to teach me some Kiswahili. I am determined to master this language but it will take me a while to engage in daily conversation. Right now I can only pick out a few words here and there.
My white skin was of particular interest in the schools we visited. I asked Ikeny several times if this attention was normal because all of the children were surrounding us and staring at me. He said that no, they normally pay attention to the car. Some of them looked at me like they had never seen a “mzungu” before, or perhaps it just happens so rarely. The children looked at me as I have never been looked at before. There was an incident where we where interviewing the Head Teacher outside the clay kitchen because water was just delivered by donkey. The cost of the water for the school is close to 10 dollars per day, which is a lot of money in that region especially. Ikeny was asking the Head Teachers questions as I filmed her and during the interview the children had recess. They all came storming to the kitchen and surrounded us. So I was holding the camera with about 300 children starting me down.
I had a great time and I am so happy about DREW BARRYMORE, who donated one million dollars to the Kenyan school feeding program on Oprah last week (I know Lisa already wrote about that). With the rising oil and transportation costs, not to mention the inflating food costs, the WFP is struggling and if we don’t experience a considerable rise in donations we will need to decrease the number of children by at least 200,000 in 2009.
Note to my father: an armed UN convey such as ours hasn’t been hit by bandits in years so I felt and was very safe. We only traveled during the day and reported to the radio office via our huge antenna every 30 minutes.