Many primary school students in Qacha’s Nek District are used to the high altitude and the mountainous environment.
However, that does not mean traversing these mountains is a walk in the park. Every school-day, the students brave this undulating terrain, some barefoot, on their winter journeys to faraway primary schools.
The learners are aware that for them to be educated, they have to endure the agony of walking long distances to school. However, free meals provided at such schools are an incentive that gives them the energy to conquer their mountainous environment.
With the last agricultural season’s yield looking bad in most parts of the district, many students from underprivileged homes have to rely on the food they receive at school.
In villages situated in the Sehlabathebe area, the food situation looks particularly desperate and it is apparent that in just a few weeks’ time, hunger would have badly affected the most vulnerable, particularly children, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and also the sick.
“We are praying for a miracle to survive this year’s drought,” says Makeneuoe Mbi of Mosaqane village. “All our crops were affected and we have nothing, including water, for us to even think of growing some vegetables.” The drought also affected most countries in southern Africa , making it one of the bleakest periods in living memory.
However, the rough road to Sehlabathebe National Park takes a sudden turn to Motebong Primary School, branching into another rough gravel road. More than a hundred of the 128 children at this school are orphans and vulnerable children. Many have lost their parents to AIDS while others tell heartrending tales of how their parents went to work in South Africa, leaving them in the care of poor relatives and neighbours. Providing healthy meals to students at Motebong Primary School has never been more important than it is now, thanks to the drought and unrelenting AIDS epidemic.
Through the Education Act of 2010, the Government of Lesotho made primary education free and compulsory, with the provision of food in all public schools complementing these efforts.
However, last year, government went even a step further by committing to fund the entire national school-feeding programme starting this year until 2017. Under this initiative, the government has partnered with the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), which will manage the programme and also support the development of government’s capacity to manage schoolfeeding as from 2018.
With government’s commitment, WFP is this year providing food to 250,000 students in 1,173 primary schools throughout the country. The students will get porridge for breakfast and lunch of the staple food papa served with either beans or fish. Starting from 2016, a total of 400,000 students in 1,480 primary schools countrywide, would be receiving food from WFP.
According to the Principal of Motebong School, Mantoa Nchochoba, a combination of food and free compulsory education is what has taken primary education to another level in Lesotho.
For more than 40 years, WFP has been providing food to Motebong and other primary schools in the highlands districts, thereby reducing malnutrition among students. In the last two years, with the support from the Government of South Africa, WFP has provided food assistance to 200,000 children in more than 1000 primary schools.
Ms Nchochoba believes families’ renewed appreciation of school-meals and an increased understanding of the importance of educating both boys and girls, might be contributing to an increased number of boys now attending school.
Over the years, trend has developed whereby there are more girls than boys attending school in Lesotho. This has been attributed to the fact that some boys, particularly those from the remote areas of the mountainous regions, tend to drop out of school to herd livestock.
“The number of boys used to be very low but currently in our school we have 59 boys and 69 girls,” says Ms Nchochoba. “The gap is narrowing.”
However, Ms Mantoa Nchochoba is also doing more to make sure that all children eligible for primary education in the area attend school.
She discovered a six-year-old malnourished girl who was made to do some domestic chores in return for food, something that is unusual for a child her age in this neighbourhood. The girl’s mother is a widow struggling to look after her eight children.
Despite the girl’s young age, Ms Nchochoba realised school was her best hope.
“I spoke with the mother about her poor health and explained that if she comes to school, she will learn and also receive food,” Ms Nchochoba says.
Convinced that school and food would do her daughter some good, Teboho started class one last year.
“Since she started learning here, her health has improved,” says Ms Nchochoba. “She is also no longer under pressure to work at home as she has to do her homework.”
Ms Nchochoba says that school is also another way for girls to escape early marriage. The young girl she rescued is enjoying school and would like to continue with her classes until she has completed her primary education. She wants to be a nurse when she grows up.
Similar stories can be heard at Khomo Phatsoa Primary School in Masuoaneng village, which is a few kilometres from Motebong School. Established in 2005, the school has, in recent years, attracted more boys than girls. There are 49 girls and 60 boys at this school, and its football team is one of the best in the district. Unlike in other schools, Khomo Patsoa School is taking matters into its own hands to ensure there is diversity in the food the students are fed. The school has established a vegetable garden and a field where they grow maize, providing more nutrition for the learners.
“The food we are producing is improving our school menu and also helping us raise income, which we use to buy shoes for children from poor families,” says Thenjiwe Mhlozana, a teacher at the school. “This area is very cold in winter; we would like all the children to have shoes.”
On his part, the District Administrator for Qacha’s Nek, Mosiuoa Nthakong, said while providing meals in schools is one of the best programmes the country has ever come up with, there is also need to teach children the importance of agriculture.
“It is important for children to receive early learning about the importance of producing food in order for them to take a lead in agriculture in the future,” he says. “That way, there can be a common understanding of solutions that would ensure that we become food secure.”
He believes the district needs innovations that can help break chronic food insecurity and over-dependency on neighbouring South Africa.
“It is encouraging that the government, WFP and other partners are giving food support to orphans and vulnerable children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and the sick,” he says. “However, for us to be at ease, we need dynamic and determined stakeholders to work with the local communities on solutions that will eradicate hunger and poverty.” He says capacity should be developed for communities to have the ability to produce food and for the district to be self-sufficient.