For children living under the most difficult of circumstances such as those in the informal settlements or the arid and semi-arid regions, a school meal can mean the difference between attending school or not.
These are children whose school lunch is often the only regular and nutritious meal they receive and they will do anything; even attend school on weekends and school holidays, to receive it.
This is the case for the 530 students who attend the Stara Rescue Center in Kibera, a day primary school running from kindergarten to standard eight.
“We are both a school and a rescue centre since some of our pupils are from the streets, others have been neglected and abused,” Mariam Abdu, one of the three founders and directors shares.
She says the school was born out of a support group of 30 members, all of them women. This was in 1997 and the group was basically a merry go round geared towards improving livelihoods for the Kibera residents.
“But in 1998 we faced a major crisis with some of our members dropping out of the group while others died of HIV/AIDS and other illnesses,” she says.
By the year 2000, only three members remained and they went on to start a school that has since changed the lives of thousands of children from very poor backgrounds.
The rescue Centre runs as a registered NGO and started with only six children 15 years ago but has since grown in leaps and bounds.
All the pupils here are underprivileged with 60 per cent of them being total orphans, 30 per cent coming from single parent homesteads, 10 per cent of them have been neglected and abused with all of them having one thing in common, poverty.
“There are also others with very special needs and we must tailor our responses to those needs. We recently had 400 of the pupils screened and it emerged that 48 of them were HIV positive,” Abdu explains.
It is against this backdrop that the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has partnered with the Australian government to provide lunch to the pupils who attend school at the rescue Centre.
On the heels of this partnership Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja, has been in Kenya to not only promote bilateral cooperation on gender equality, but to also meet some of the children benefitting from the school feeding programme.
Since her work largely involves ensuring that the empowerment of women and girls is a central focus of Australia’s diplomatic, development and defense concerns, she was also here to discuss women’s leadership and political participation in the country.
Having been the youngest woman ever to enter the Australian Federal Parliament and the longest serving Democrat Senator in the party’s history, she remains very passionate about women and girls’ rights.
“We have to empower girls and women through education and must remove the obstacles that keep girls out of school and a regular meal can be a significant investment in the girl’s future,” the Ambassador explained.
“But this is not to say that boys are to be left behind. Boys too need an education and the school feeding initiative is one way of ensuring that children access an education regardless of the background,” she added.
Despoja was also interested in meeting with the parents and teachers at Stara to discuss some of the other challenges that the pupils faced.
She encouraged them to work with the Center to ensure that their children stay in school and was moved when she met several aged grandparents who were acting guardians to many of these children.
Diana Ingosi, a 63-year-old grandmother is one such guardian, she says that she has 17 grandchildren who she hopes to see go through school.
“I am also a member of the Stara support group for people living with HIV/AIDs, we work closely with the school to enable them to provide the best support for the children who are also HIV positive,” she said.
Josephine Mumo, also a founder and director at the school says feeding the children has solved a multitude of problems.
“It has improved school attendance, concentration and the behaviour of the pupils. Absenteeism has dropped and their grades have improved. We have many students in strong district high schools and several in national schools,” says Mumo.
Some of their former pupils are now in the university, five of them are currently at Strathmore University and they have been a source of encouragement for the 30 staff members at Stara.
The rescue Center is not the only beneficiary of WFP’s school feeding programmes. The humanitarian NGO is the largest provider of school meals worldwide and continues to work with the government and other stakeholders to support education, reduce malnutrition and to promote development.
Kenya is also just one of the seven beneficiary countries of the 10 million dollars grant given by the Australian government to the WFP to support school feeding programmes.
According to WFP, school feeding programmes are a primary incentive for children to attend and stay in school. But they have also been known to provide the significant role of protecting vulnerable children especially from negligent guardians.
“In fact at times guardians have been known to put the children in harm’s way,” Mumo observes.
“We used to have many cases where a relative would encourage the husband to, instead of having extra marital affairs out there, to keep the situation in the family and take the young girl under their care as the mistress,” she explains.
Mumo says the school does everything possible to stay in touch with the status of the children even outside the Center.
“We are committed to fighting early marriages, unwanted pregnancies, drugs and substances abuse by engaging this children as much as possible,” she says.
Towards this end, the school has established a band, provided material to play chess and football for the boys, while the girls are engaged in beadwork to keep them busy on weekends and school holidays.
The greatest challenge they face is ensuring that the children live within the principles that the school stands for since being a day school; they have to go back to the difficult challenges that characterise life at home.
As a result of the many success stories the school has had over the years, it remains a beacon of hope for the residents around who live right in the middle of one of the largest informal settlements in Africa.
Tidbits on the feeding programme
- From 2009/2010 to 2014/2015, Australia provided $13.5 million towards the school feeding programme in Kenya.
- On average it reaches 650,000 children per year. About 560,000 of these children are in the arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya.
- Australia’s support in 2014/2015 ($1.5 million) will benefit pre-school and primary school aged children in at least 92 schools in Nairobi’s informal settlements.