Walking more than two hours a day to school is a fact of life for most of Lesotho’s children. But what would make a 10-year old walk willingly in sub- zero temperatures for a total of four hours to and from school each day? And why would any parent allow it?
The answer to anyone in the remote district of Thaba Tskeka would be clear: hunger. What lures these children through the mountains and valleys is not just the prospect of learning. At the forefront of many of these children’s minds is what lies at the end of their journey: a plate of warm ‘papa’ (porridge) and beans.
Stunningly beautiful but hidden from the outside world, this impoverished district holds a dubious distinction – it has the world’s highest rate of stunting. An alarming 54.9 per cent of children here are short for their age. A primary sign of malnutrition in early childhood, stunting entails reduced growth as well as impaired mental development and health problems in later life.
Each morning, the 275 students of Marumo Primary School set out on their long trek with a spring in their step. Their teachers all agree that the low absentee rate here – less than five percent – is due in no small part to the school meals provided by WFP.
For many students, including Tsitso Moliso (15), school meals are the only ones of their day. So determined is Tsitso to spend the rest of his life at school that he has come up with a cunning plan - he intends to become a teacher.
“My mid-year holidays are too long”, laments the football-loving teenager. “For two months, I have to look after cattle. Once a day my grandmother gives me porridge and vegetables. But I’d rather be at school.”
Like so many children in Lesotho, Tsitso is being brought up by a grandparent. With an infection rate of 23.2 percent among the general population, the tiny kingdom has the world’s third highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The virus has orphaned more than 210,000 children in the country. Family members here are only too used to taking over childcare duties but, in Thaba Tskeka as elsewhere, guardians often lack the means to provide regular meals at home.
Tsitso shared his dreams for the future during a visit to his school by members of Yum! Brands, the world’s largest restaurant chain. In partnership with WFP and the Government of Lesotho, the American company is this year donating funds for two school meals a day over four months for 110,000 children in Lesotho. And 18,000 of these children live in Thaba Tskeka district.