Last Updated: 12 March 2009
A Primary Seven candidate, 15-year-old Ocitti Walter Obote starts moving from home in Amuru IDP camp at 6a.m. to be able to get to Amuru Reckiekech Primary School, several miles away, at 8a.m.
Yet at 1p.m., he has to find his way back home for lunch because the school doesn’t provide a meal for the pupils.
He usually borrows a bicycle from his friends at school to ride home. However, on days when he can’t get a bike, he goes hungry the whole day.
A unique initiative championed by the World Food Programme (WFP) aims to end Ocitti’s misery. Indeed his single mother, Milly Aol, is one of the parents that signed a commitment form to send their children to school with lunch daily.
But the onus is still on the parent to provide the food. All that WFP is providing is sensitisation and a food container.
Supported by the Ministry of Education and Sports, the ‘Primary School Packed Lunch’ initiative was launched at Amuru District headquarters recently.
Under UPE, schools do not provide lunch to pupils. The government banned lunch at school after it emerged that the schools were charging lunch fees and thus locking out pupils who failed to pay. This was seen as undermining the essence of “free” education.
However, going hungry to school has lately emerged as one of the major reasons pupils are dropping out. It is also cited as raison d’etre for poor academic performance.
“In the last Primary Leaving Exams (PLE), we (Amuru) were among the worst districts in the country. Yet in the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE), we were the best in the Acholi sub-region, says Richard Irwenyo, the acting Inspector of Schools. “There is a problem in the primary section that needs to be addressed.”
In 2003, President Museveni told the ‘UPE Stakeholders Conference’ that parents should pack food for their children, noting that as a child, his parents gave him entaanda (packed food) whenever he was going to school.
But this has not really worked.
WFP, which had been providing lunch daily to some 380,000 pupils in northern Uganda since 2001, discontinued the programme last year –limiting it to only Karamoja.
In a brief interview with The Weekly Observer, Stanlake J.T.M. Samkange, the WFP Representative and Country Director, explained that the UN agency may have changed strategy but would not abandon the communities it has been supporting.
“In close collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Sports, we are devising sustainable ways in which to help parents and guardians feed children in school in line with stated government policies, and as a safety net for vulnerable children,” he said.
“The policy of the Government of Uganda now is that parents should be responsible for making sure their children come to school fed. Our effort is to help them achieve that by working with communities interested in making sure that their children have food and have them provide food to their children,” he explained.
According to the event’s guest of honour, Minister of Education and Sports, Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire, “the overall objective of the campaign is to enhance quality in the teaching and learning process of the children.”
The campaign will extend to other districts, starting with Amuria and Nebbi.
“Traditionally parents in Amuru sent their children to school with abu abu (locally baked potatoes). Other options are roasted maize, cassava, millet and odi (peanut paste),” Samkange noted.
WFP and Ministry of Education hope to sensitise and educate parents on the importance of food in the process of learning and developing.
“If parents understand this better, then they will be more than ready to do something themselves to make sure their children have the support needed,” Samkange said.
According to the UNICEF and Micronutrient Initiative 2004, hunger in childhood can lead to irreversible mental stunting, lower intelligence quotients (IQs), and reduced capacities to learn.
It is estimated, for example, that the average IQs of populations in over 60 countries are 10-15 points lower than they could be because of iodine deficiencies alone. However, in hunger stricken northern Uganda, where getting food for the home is hard enough, let alone food for the school, it is hard to be optimistic about the success of this programme.
Nevertheless, Samkange’s hopes are in a two-pronged strategy.
“First, we are sensitising parents, leaders and all people about hunger and learning. Second, by working with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, and other partners to provide seeds and farming equipment,” he said.
“We will support parents and guardians to grow enough food.”
According to Samkange, implementation will vary from place to place because of the differences in communities.
“We are starting in Amuru because everybody there is more or less in the same situation. They don’t have the kind of disparities we have in Kampala.” Kampala will need a different kind of approach, he disclosed.
“May be you would use cash incentives or may be the school would provide something similar. Our approach will be able to look at each situation and tailor the best response to that situation,” Samkange said.
In Karamoja, school feeding has turned schools into feeding centres with students turning up in big numbers after WFP has delivered supplies to schools, and staying away when the supplies have dried up.
According to Samkange, there is need for a multiplicity of interventions.
“You need to be sure that the schools have adequate teachers. That you have other facilities needed, so that children can benefit from the fact that you have brought them to school. If there are no teachers, then students cannot learn anything. It is just a feeding centre.”