Widespread hunger in rural Zimbabwe means that Kembo Ndlovu, head of Lupaka primary school, doesn’t just have to worry about nourishing his pupils’ minds, but also their bodies.
Children who don’t get enough food at home, won’t have the energy to go to school and if they do, nagging hunger pangs will make it harder for them to learn. The children will also be more exposed to disease and illness, something that could put them in a vulnerable position for life.
“Hunger is counterproductive,” says Ndlovu. “I understand in previous years the pass rate used to be high, but now it has gone down.” Having suffered a devastating economic meltdown in recent years, many of Zimbabwe’s 11 million population are struggling to keep afloat. Nowhere is the scale of this crisis more evident than in rural areas like those around Lupaka, where residents struggle even to feed their families, let alone send children to school.
Seeing the many needs that existed, Caritas stepped in to help the students of Lupaka. It began providing daily meals of highly nutritious porridge to all 535 students. For many it is the only meal they can count on each day.
The effect of the meals, prepared each day on site by a rotating group of volunteers from the local community, has had a startling impact on attendance and concentration.
“Quite a number of students didn’t want to come to school before because of a shortage of food,” Ndlovu said. “But when the food was introduced you saw mothers bringing their children to school and attendance greatly increased.”
Before the students were provided with meals, recalled one teacher at the school, many teachers took to sharing their own limited meals with students just to keep them awake enough to learn and participate. Also, malnutrition was not uncommon among students. “Now, they are highly motivated,” says Ndlovu. “As long as a student has enough food they are more energetic and healthy towards their studies.”
Caritas is reaching more than 88,000 pupils across Zimbabwe with school meals, all aimed at providing critical nutrition to school children while also keeping them in school.
In addition to the school feeding element of Caritas’ ongoing efforts, more than 164,000 people are also receiving monthly food rations. Among them are also teachers like those at Lupaka, most of whom are critically underpaid and struggle to feed themselves – a serious problem facing the nation’s education system, says Ndlovu. Now, each of Lupaka’s 14 teachers receives a monthly ration of beans, mealie meal and cooking oil.
And while the food provided by Caritas has been a major boon the students of Lupaka, they still face many challenges in today’s Zimbabwe. Even the most basic school necessities are in critical short supply. It is common for 30 or 40 students to have only 4 or 5 text books. Though there are 14 teachers at the school, there are only 10 classrooms, forcing several to teach outside each day. During the rainy seasons, Ndlovu says, they crowd together in classrooms, which disrupts the learning process even further.
“We are relieved – we have food,” Ndlovu said. “But we need furniture, and we need text books so that each child has a book. Without that it is going to be very difficult to get rid of this problem that is with us.” “If the food had not been introduced,” Ndlovu said. “There would have been big problems.”