"It's a sign of love" - sharing porridge at school in Ethiopia

School feeding programmes run by WFP in some of the most remote and rural parts of Ethiopia encourage children to pursue their education. Icelandic journalist Sigríður Víðis Jónsdóttir visited some of the participating schools, and came back with plenty to think about.
"What are you doing?" I shout at the driver as he turns straight off the main road and heads down a hill.
"Aren't you coming with us to the school?" he asks. I nod and look at him confused. "Well, this is the way," he says.

I'm sitting in a jeep with WFP workers. We are visiting Ethiopian schools where WFP, in cooperation with the local authorities, is running school feeding programmes. The project covers some of the areas affected by chronic food insecurity, and aims to promote education.


The jeep drives up and down hills, along fields, between huts and houses, across a river, among donkeys, goats, oxen, cows and people herding cattle. The sky is blue and the scenery extraordinary.

"Maybe you haven't seen a road like this before," one of the passengers suggests as the jeep bumps up and down.

"Umm... seen a road like this? To be honest, I don't see any road!" I answer as I try to keep myself steady inside the vehicle.


A little less than an hour later we reach the school. The students are just finishing their meal and gather around the visitors.

I meet a 17-year-old boy who walks an hour every day to and from school. He enrolled when the school feeding programme began, and is now in the first grade. His friend is 20 and studies in the third grade.

When I was 17 I was in my 12th academic year. I got my driver's licence and drove everywhere - including to school, even though it was only a block away.


Since the programme started, the enrolment figures at the school have gone up dramatically. Last year there were 339 students; now there are more than 500.

"This programme is very good. Food is by far the best motivation for families to send their kids to school," a teacher explains and shows me around.


"In this area there is great food insecurity. Many people do not have enough to eat. In these circumstances it's common for children not to go to school at all. They'd rather help at home.

"But if children get a nutritious meal during their lessons, the families have a good reason to send them to school. They get food and they learn. And we all know how important education is. It all starts with education."


I nod my head. The children learn how to read and write, they learn maths, they learn about agriculture, the environment, health and hygiene.

In addition to an increase in the number of children attending school, there has also been a significant decrease in the dropout rate, and children attend lessons on a more regular basis. They are also healthier.


In the kitchen, a little house made of tree branches and corrugated iron, three women gather around a stove and a fire. One has a young baby tied tightly to her back. It looks like the baby doesn't know what to think of this strange foreigner.

The women smile and show me the big pot they use for cooking. The children receive porridge made of a special blend of soybeans and corn.

Every portion has six grams of oil and three grams of a special salt. It's very nutritious and contains both protein and essential vitamins and minerals.


Later that day we head towards another school. The situation is the same as before - no road, no electricity, no phones and no running water.

It's 2:30 p.m. and the students have formed two lines and wait patiently for their food. These children begin school at midday and will finish just before 5 p.m.


They wave to the guests and are excited to have their picture taken. With the sun brightening up their colourful clothes and the blue sky and the fields behind them, the moment seems somehow unreal.

I fall silent when I find out that this is the first meal of the day for most of the children. Yes, this is unreal. How bad would I feel if I hadn't eaten anything by 2:30 in the afternoon? How miserable would I be?


A little girl takes her bowl and, with a big smile on her face, walks over to her friends. The girls sit down in a small circle and pour all the porridge into two bowls. There are eight of them. They put one bowl at a time in the middle and eat together from it.

If I were extremely hungry I'm sure I would run into a corner with my meal and finish it as quickly as possible. I'd want to be sure I was getting my full portion.

"Why do you do this?" I ask the girls.

"It's a sign of love," they whisper shyly and put their spoons into the bowl with the porridge. In Ethiopia it's customary to eat from the same plate.

I feel ashamed and realise that the girls could just as well ask me: Why not? Why not share? A Westerner with an individualistic view of the world can certainly learn a lot from tiny little girls in Ethiopia.


When I return to the capital, Addis Ababa, in the evening, I feel I have learned a lot, and I have plenty to think about. Food, drink, my health, all the luxuries I have - I must not take these things for granted.

But at the same time, I must not take for granted, or accept as an unchangeable fact, that poor people will always remain poor.

It is possible for children from poor families to attend school. Things can be changed for the better. The school feeding programme is a perfect example of this.