Educational nourishment feeding children in Africa

Educational nourishment feeding children in Africa
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
Sunday, October 24, 2004
By Celia W. Dugger
The New York Times

MALINDI, Kenya — More than 200 first-graders, many of them barefoot, clothed in rags and dizzy with hunger, stream into Rebecca Mwanyonyo’s classroom each day. Squeezed together on the concrete floor, they sit hip to hip, jostling for space, wildly waving their hands to get her to call on them. Their laps and the floor are their only desks.

One recent afternoon, the line of wiggly children waiting to have Mwanyonyo check their work snaked around the bare, unfinished classroom walls. Girls and boys crowded around her, pressing their notebooks on her. Some cut in line. Fights broke out. Boys wrestled. Girls dashed from the room. Giggles and shrieks drowned out her soft voice.

Mwanyonyo pulled a boy in front of her and eyed his attempt to list his numbers. "Can you write 1 and 2?" she asked quietly. His head sank to his chest as he shook it no. While she laboriously graded each child’s work, the noise level rose to deafening. "Quiet, keep quiet!" she shouted.

Overnight, more than a million additional children showed up for school last year when Kenya’s newly elected government abolished fees that had been prohibitively high for many parents, about $16 a year. Many classrooms are now bulging with the country’s most disadvantaged children.

Kenya is not alone. Responding to popular demand for education, it is one of a raft of African nations contending with both a wondrous opportunity and nettlesome challenge: teaching the millions of children who have poured into schools as country after country — from Malawi and Lesotho to Uganda and Tanzania — has suddenly made primary education free. Mozambique will join them in January when it also abolishes fees.

The explosion in enrollments has put enormous pressure on overburdened, often ill-managed education systems. What hangs in the balance is the future of a generation of African children desperately reaching out for learning as a lifeline from poverty, even as poverty itself presents a fearsome obstacle.

Near the end of a school year that runs from January to November, Mwanyonyo is still struggling to teach most of her pupils the alphabet and basic counting. She knows the names of only half of them. She estimated that 100 of her 250 pupils — split into morning and afternoon shifts — would have to repeat the grade.

Worried about her inability to give pupils enough individual attention, Mwanyonyo this year removed her own 7-year-old daughter from the first-grade class she teaches and used some of her modest salary to send her to private school.

Powerful momentum

"Nobody can really teach such a mob of children," said the headmaster of her school, Andrew Thoya Muraba. "But what can we do when we are told by the government that the ministry has no money to employ teachers?"

In large measure, the idea of free education has gained powerful momentum because politicians in democratizing African nations have found it a great vote-getter. Deepening poverty had meant even small annual school fees — less than an American family would spend on a single fast-food meal — had put education beyond reach for millions.

"In sub-Saharan Africa, almost all countries are under pressure to abolish school fees for primary education," said Cream Wright, education chief for the United Nations Children’s Fund. "It will spread, especially if we show it works."

But the track record is mixed.

Malawi’s decade-old, underfinanced and largely unplanned experiment is generally regarded as a disaster. The number of children in a first-grade class averages 100. Four of 10 first-graders repeat the year. Children’s achievement scores are among the lowest in Africa.

Uganda, often held up as a model, also found that achievement fell as classes swelled with disadvantaged pupils. But in the past eight years, donors have invested more than $350 million and the government also increased spending. Test results from last year show that achievement bounced back, though more than half of third-graders still performed poorly in math and English.

Some experts worry that the drive to expand enrollment rapidly has overshadowed the push for quality. "Just herding kids into classes and counting that as education hasn’t worked," said William Easterly, an economics professor at New York University who was a research economist at the World Bank for more than a decade.

A legacy of problems

Kenya actually has a decent average ratio of one teacher for each 39 students, but its schools suffer from a severely unequal distribution of teachers. Here in the Malindi district, the most overcrowded in the nation, the teacher-to-student ratio among the 100 schools ranges from 1 to 17 at the least-crowded school to 1 to 111 at the most crowded.

Even within primary schools, teachers in higher grades have much smaller classes than those in lower grades, which are swollen with the huge influx of first-time pupils.

In part, these chasms reflect the difficulty of getting teachers to work in remote rural areas and big urban slums. But the problem is also a legacy of political patronage and mismanagement, experts and officials said.

Money alone will not fix things. It will require political will. Transferring large numbers of teachers to understaffed schools will mean taking on Kenya’s powerful teachers union, as well as communities and their political patrons, who resist losing teachers to other areas.

The World Bank, the largest international donor supporting Kenya’s education initiative, is pushing the country to rely more on teacher transfers than costly new hiring.

But Education Minister George Saitoti said that transferring the women who teach would effectively force them to abandon their families. He estimated that Kenya would gradually need to add 20,000 new teachers.

The Kenya school system is also short of classrooms, books, latrines and water tanks despite an increase in spending on education to 7.6 percent of gross domestic product, more than double the average in sub-Saharan Africa. And the World Bank has provided $40 million for textbooks and other materials.

In thousands of schools where books had been a rarity, millions of Kenyan children now share math, English and Kiswahili study guides. They also have pencils, notepads and other essentials.

As the paperbacks wear out, Kenya will need about $20 million a year to replace them. And there is still little money for classroom construction. The ministry estimated more than 40,000 additional classrooms are needed. The cost will be more than $200 million.

"There’s a real need for our partners to look at ways and means of bridging the gap between where we are and where we are going," said Karega Mutahi, the education ministry’s permanent secretary, "to help relieve suffering before there’s time to turn around economic growth, to take the pressure off democracy."

So far, there are scattered efforts. The African Medical and Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Nairobi with an affiliate in New York, has adopted 10 Kenyan schools and will soon take on 40 more.

Making the effort

Salama Kazungu, a willowy girl of 12, sits among first-grade teacher Mwanyonyo’s multitudes, her small shapely head rising above those of the 6- and 7-year-olds. She failed last year in the class of another first-grade teacher who had 248 pupils. ("If I could have, I would have run away," the teacher confided, relieved he has just 110 pupils this year.)

It is hard for Salama to learn because her belly is often empty. Her mother sells charcoal but makes too little to buy enough food. Salama never eats breakfast. For supper, she often has only boiled greens foraged from the wild.

On her hungriest days, the child said, she looks at Mwanyonyo and sees only darkness. She listens, but hears only a howling in her ears. Yet she is determined to continue. At 12, she has already had her fill of the African woman’s lot: fetching water, collecting firewood and carrying it to market on her back like a beast of burden.

"I was always working and working," she said. "I told myself that the best way to get out of this is to come to school and get an education."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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