As schools opened for the first term this year, many children in the arid Samburu were overjoyed as it is an opportunity to escape the hunger and drought in their manyattas.
For two-year old Leguto Lemalile, school is primarily a source of food and education is a bonus.
When the rains failed in November last year, Lemalile was enrolled in school by her grandmother because she could not provide a meal for her as famine and drought ravaged the land.
Grandmother Ntimas Lekureiya, is now happy because her granddaughter has a full stomach and no longer cries as she used to do last year due to hunger.
“She cannot feed on the wild fruits like me so I sent her to school,” 59-year old Lekureiya said at her home in Archer’s Post on Thursday.
Education permanent secretary James ole Kiyiapi asked schools not to turn away children like Lemalile despite their tender age.
“Let them relax, play and feed in the institutions. When hunger strikes, it does not select,” Prof Kiyiapi said by telephone.
He said the Cabinet was scheduled to meet next Monday to roll out a plan to alleviate suffering among Kenyans plagued by hunger and drought.
At the Lemalile household, her mother, Lekureiya, had yesterday left for the nearby town to grind maize for flour for what would be their last meal. “When there is no food we drink water and go to sleep,” Lekureiya said.
Last week was Lemalile’s fifth week in school; her mother enrolled her in school in the last three weeks of November. December was a sad month for the family of six because the schools were closed, and so there was no food.
When the bell rings at 1pm, Lemalile rushes to the school kitchen carrying her plastic plate and queues with other children for the only meal she will have that day.
School cook Mary Lenakio, offers one serving of boiled maize and beans to each child. “I serve the young ones first then the older ones in primary school,” Ms Lenakio says.
When Lemalile gets her serving, she sits with her “classmates” and eats the beans first, leaving out the maize.
“The maize is too hard for her so she saves it for her elder brother in Standard Two who in turn gives her his beans,” Lemalile’s teacher, Gladys Lepurdati, says.
The teacher at Lorubae nursery school says parents are sending two- and three- year-olds to the school to be fed.
Teacher Lepurdati says Lemalile spends most of the day in the playroom with toys. “We cannot send her away because she will die of hunger at home,” Ms Lepurdati notes.
Weekends are horrible for the pupils because they go hungry for two days until the next meal on Monday in school. The adults have sent their children to school as most cannot eat wild fruits like they do.
Lorubae Primary School senior teacher Francis Kirimi says more boys in senior classes have been absent from school than boys in the lower classes.
“The older boys in Standard Seven and Eight have dropped out in search of pastures for their livestock,” Mr Kirimi said at the school on Thursday.
The lower classes have reported a higher enrolment due to the school feeding programme. Enrolment increased from 220 last year to 330 this term. The prolonged drought is hurting health and education.
“The schools have some food, but they have no water with which to cook it,” Ms Lanakio, the school’s cook said.
Located in Archer’s Post in Samburu district, most, if not all, households lack water which is only available from the crocodile-infested Ewaso Nyiro River.
“Last year two pupils were bitten by crocodiles. Each pupil is expected to bring at least three litres of water every day to prepare their lunch,” says Mr Kirimi says.
The pupils are also expected to collect firewood on their way to school every morning. The school’s performance in Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination was poor due to absenteeism.
The best student had 283 marks out of a possible 500 while the lowest mark was 116. Of the 24 candidates in last year’s national examination, 14 were girls and 10 boys.
This is because most boys have become herders, Mr Kirimi said. The famine is also hurting the elderly and pregnant women.
Samburu district residents fear their livestock may not withstand the drought and remain uncertain whether the government will cushion them from loss of animals.
After her meal, little Lemalile walks home with her empty plastic plate happy and satisfied that she had an eventful day in school. Tomorrow, the two-year-old will be back to school with her plate.