Hungry Children

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

A woman's sacrifice sparked and awareness.

'There was a woman at Kolila,' Baba Askofu told me, 'who's children came home from school saying that they were very hungry! The woman made a fire and put some stones in a pot of water and set them to boil. She then went into her house and hung herself! I’m told she could not bear to see her children starve! Mzee, I believe there is hunger out there, you are out in the field more than any of us. Can you collect some information and write a report for me?’

I felt a deal of shame because true, I was out in the field regularly working with school kids and was close to them, yet I did not notice that they were indeed starving! So the next day and following days I carried out a sampling method, much as I would sample a stand of trees. A method that is very accurate.  I planned to sample twenty of the schools I worked with, randomly selecting thirty-five pupils in a range of ages. I asked them a specific set of questions.

Quickly I found that the school rolls were down by as much as twenty percent because the younger children did not have the energy to walk to the school. Some of them had to walk as far as seven kilometres! Teachers told me that some students were falling over in school through lack of stamina.

Loti helped me with the interviews and each child sat beside me in the cab of my truck. We were careful there was no collaboration between interviewees. With the kids sitting right alongside me, I noticed their hair had a ginger tinge, their skin was dry and cracked and some had already developed the potbelly of malnutrition!

Tears still come when I remember those sad, plaintive replies.

‘Did you have anything to eat this morning?’ – ‘Hapana’ (No.)

‘Did you have anything to eat yesterday?’ – ‘Hapana.’

‘When did you last eat?’ – ‘Siku nyingi.’ (Many days.)

I found that on average the kids were going three days without food that meant some went without for 5 days or more. Even then that average meal was a mashed banana mixed in hot water with the ration being half a glass per child. Once every three days! Some ate dry grass or roots to quell the hunger pains.

There were many tragic stories; parents would go off to distant relatives to beg for assistance, leaving the oldest child to look after younger siblings in very desperate circumstances. One Maasai boy cried as he told me that a week ago his family had sold their last remaining goat and he asked me what they could do next – he feared they would all die! All told me of the pain of an empty stomach. I told them that I was going to make a report and try to help them. I had no clue what I could possibly do. It was my way of giving hope. The more I interviewed, the more distressing I found the situation.

I was numbed at Kisimiri, one of the worst schools we sampled. I asked the Head Teacher to keep thirty-five students back for me after class, to carry out the interviews, because I first had an appointment to conduct a seminar at the village office. 'No problem, the students will come to the village office.’ He told me. I tried to tell him that it was easy for us to return. He wasn’t listening, I suspect he wanted to be away after school, sharp.

I was astounded that the kids were made to run the four kilometres – on empty stomachs!

After seminar and after the interviews, I prepared to load the kids into my truck because I was damn sure they were not going to walk all the way home! The village chairman stopped me and told us we could not leave without something and he ushered us inside. There was an oval table laden with food! I couldn’t believe it!  After those interviews, I had no appetite so politely, I spooned a small portion of rice on to my plate. The chairman elbowed me and said, ‘Mzee, mwaga tu!’ Just spill/tip it [on your plate]! As if it was a party atmosphere! I was conscious of the kids waiting around outside, and no doubt they could smell the food! My request to share the food fell on deaf ears! Afterwards, I took them all home, I had not a thing I could offer them!

Back home, I sat, distraught and told Mags about the day – one of my hardest ever!

I wrote my report to Baba Askofu, scouted Arusha and wrote emails, but I found agencies were not prepared to fund food aid simply because the Tanzanian government had not stated that there was indeed a food crisis! I was determined to do something but felt impotent because ‘food aid’ was not within my brief and my lobbying was failing.

I was prepared to try anything and the affable South African manager of Tanzania Breweries provided me with one tonne of cornstarch as emergency assistance. So with the help of our ‘local family’, we filled bags with a few kgs of the powdery starch, which we distributed among the worst affected of the schools. This provided one meal of uji (thin porridge) per child. Hardly appetising with no milk or sugar and probably dietary deficient, but it filled some bellies. The breweries offered me all the spent grain they produced, but delays resulted when we tried to conscript scientists in NZ to work out a way to use it. There was apparently no way it could be effectively utilized, spent grain cannot be digested in the human gut because the correct enzymes are lacking.

I wrote up a funding proposal costing the daily cooking of maize and beans on site at the schools, so armed with that and my report, I called at the Arusha offices of most of the worldwide relief agencies. One of them took a copy of my proposal and report, which actually raised enough money from NZ, but we saw none of it! They told me that they used the funds, as well as our proposed methods, in another badly affected area beyond Arusha. I have no way of knowing the truth of what they told me, but it activated the skeptic button that is lodged somewhere in my brain!

Finally, and due to contacts, MFAT (NZ) provided $10 000 from its emergency relief fund!  With money in my pocket, and lifted spirits, I went to see our ex-neighbour and good friend from Sanawari, Mama Lillian. She had a business in Arusha, which was essentially a warehouse dealing in maize and beans. She sold me maize and beans at cost price, well a reasonable price, and as a contribution to the food aid project, she personally paid for the freight to our house at Makumira. It was a good deal!

Loti and I worked through the issues of targeting the needy schools and we negotiated the pitfalls of delivering the food aid within the villages. The village authorities wanted to take control of the food, but I resisted, explaining that it was part of our official primary schools project. It was important to me to deliver the food assistance to all the kids at school, regardless of religion, tribe, ethnicity or politics. I wanted to fully account for the expenditure to MFAT.

Because polygamy existed in these villages, feeding on a family basis was not entirely straightforward, so we called out the entire school and ask the oldest pupil-cum-family-member from 'behind one door' to step forward. The remaining siblings from behind that door were to stand behind their elder. This gave us the numbers of children ‘per door’, including any pre-schoolers, which we also recorded.

I purchased, cadged and scrounged plastic bags to carry the food, and my nursery staff with Mags helping, measured out the beans and maize by carefully weighing and then counting out as per my list. Loti and I loaded the bags into my truck for distribution to the schools/villages, usually making two trips per day. This way we fed the students of fourteen primary schools. We always took some spare bags because so often we encountered ‘special needs’ during our deliveries.

The Ngarenanyuki trip was a greater distance so we supplied the six schools at once. To do this I hired a large truck from Arusha to help. The truck owners vie aggressively for business and negotiate hard to set the price, but when our guy, an owner-operator, saw the plight of the village people; he discounted the price, which allowed us to purchase extra food. At Ngabobo, the school was closed because of a cholera outbreak, so we distributed the food at the Lutheran church.  One preschool boy could not understand why he wasn’t given a bag of food! The answer was that a good number of kids didn’t attend school. As luck would have it, I had noticed some split maize and beans on the truck deck, so he and I managed to gather almost a bagful. It was a little soiled but that boy grinned from ear to ear as he ran off home!

We warned the village people the dangers of gorging food after near starvation and to utilize the food sparingly. By doing so there was enough food for about a week per household. The food delivery came at the right time because the new crops were just coming on for a possible early harvesting. The lean times were coming to an end.

Some help is better than no help, and the village people appreciated what we had done, and because of this, our proper projects received greater cooperation. It was because of the food distribution that I lost Loti as my co-worker for much of the time, he had gained the trust of the village people and the authorities so was conscripted to carry out work of a similar nature, that too was a good outcome!

The families in the affected areas are all subsistence farmers with scant cash resources. Food was always available in the Arusha markets albeit at very inflated prices, and totally out of reach to these village folk. The thing that sticks in my mind though is that the kids in their school uniform did not at first glance seem to be in need! Unlike those displaced, in war zones or in severe drought situations whose appearance alone screams out for assistance.

After this experience, people who work to provide humanitarian aid have my unqualified admiration!

 

 

 

 


Submitted: November 28, 2016

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hullabaloo22

An excellent story, Moa, pointing out how difficult it is to make sure aid really gets to its targets. And how often those in need go unnoticed.

Thu, December 1st, 2016 5:18pm

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Thank you Mama Hullabaloo you are right appropriate aid is not always forthcoming and then there are issues in delivering it.

Thu, December 1st, 2016 10:40am

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