Lost education, lost futures: the hidden consequences of food insecurity

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by John Sparrow

Maria Nkomo, a farming widow with ten children can no longer grow crops. Droughts and floods in in Matabeleland North, one of Zimbabwe’s hungriest provinces, have seen to that.

She has no regular income, no assets, and no livestock other than a donkey that is in such poor shape it is unlikely she could sell it even if she took it to market.

When she wakes up in the morning the question Maria faces is the one she asked herself last night: how will we manage to eat today?

Her province has suffered badly in the food crisis affecting southern Africa, with 1.6 million rural people, here and elsewhere in Zimbabwe’s long-troubled south, now in urgent need of food assistance. Poor rains, structural challenges and consecutive years of drought have caused the country’s farmers to struggle for more than a decade. Last year the drought was catastrophic. Maize production was down 33 per cent and almost half of all that was planted had to be written off.

The outlook worsened early this year as incessant and unprecedented rain triggered devastating floods, and a plague of crop-eating caterpillars descended on the main farming provinces. Matabeleland North – for which the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched a 1.2 million Swiss franc appeal to support Zimbabwe Red Cross Society operations – was one of them. For Maria, things have never looked worse.

It isn’t just hunger that torments her. There is the fear that her plight today will be the plight of her children tomorrow; that the future holds little option for them because they are deprived of schooling.

“I don’t have any help and I can’t send my children to school,” she says. “I have nothing to sell to pay for it. Since 2006, when my husband died, none of them has gone and four of them are now adults.”

Mothers across Zimbabwe agonize over this issue, and even when school is said to be free and compulsory, there are still costs to meet that many families struggle with. In times of crisis these obstacles worsen, and what the aid world terms ‘food insecurity’ hides a multitude of ills that intertwine and interact in ever more complex emergencies. Lost education is one of them and the response so far is inadequate.

As well as their inability to pay the fees and expenses, parents may pull their children out of school to work as casual labourers bringing small amounts of money into the household. Often, though, the children are simply too hungry to turn up.

In the village of Matshuzula, 15-year-old Qhubekani bears testimony to that. A government grant for vulnerable children covers his school fees but for a week and a half he has missed classes. He says he is weak from hunger. “We can go days without food in my house so I am very weak and don’t manage to go to school because of it. The way I am there’s no point in going,” he says. “I would fail. I wouldn’t be any good.”

In a country where chronic child malnutrition in rural areas stood at 32 per cent in mid-2012, the boy’s claim has a resonance, borne out by a headmistress in another village.

At Bethel primary school, Gloria Mhoshina says: “There is such a shortage of food, it does affect the learning of our pupils. Children don’t come because of hunger, or even if they do they can’t concentrate on their schoolwork.”

Schools do provide a little food, and Bethel feeds its pupils in the morning and evening. But the headmistress says it is not enough. She wants to grow maize and vegetables and try to provide some lunch. Only the school has no well, which brings its own range of problems.