Like most children born into poverty, I grew up innocently believing that hunger was an inevitable part of life. My family and I lived in the lower eastern part of Kenya, a region with that experiences many droughts and famine crises. Ironically, despite the recurrent droughts and famine in my home region, our only economic activity was rain-fed agriculture. My mother, who still remains one of the most hardworking, caring and focused persons I know, was jobless. Nonetheless, she remained strong and supported my dad in raising my five brothers and I. She has a difficult story to tell, so emotional that it will leave any caring listener in tears. Her story will be for another day.
My father was and still is a primary school teacher. This is one of the lowest paying jobs for Kenyan professionals and he earns very little. While teaching is a noble profession, his net salary was insufficient to meet our food requirements or to support the daily needs of a family of eight. To make matters worse, he would spend at least half of his salary in the village liquor dens drinking local brew. This habit only escalated my family’s hardship.
Due to famine and our general financial situation, we knew our parents would be unable to finance tertiary schooling. My mother often reminded us to work hard in school with the promise that God would provide a means of paying secondary school fees. We used to live on a single meal per day that consisted of a boiled dry mixture of maize and beans. Beans were scarce and expensive; therefore the proportion of beans in the mixture was extremely small. To aggravate the situation, the available beans would be reserved for the youngest of my brothers. The rest would then be mixed and served after adding salt. My family suffered from malnutrition and we were all emaciated.
It was even harder for families who did not have a source of income, even the dismal sum my family had. My friends and classmates were dropping out of school left and right. Some moved in with distant relatives who had the means to buy food. Occasionally, my mother would narrate with sorrow the tale of how a child in the village succumbed to a deficiency disease. The usual culprits were either marasmus - a form of severe malnutrition resulting in depleted strength - or kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency. The most difficult period during that time was when a classmate of mine and his entire family of six died from food poisoning. The maize they ate had been poisoned with aflatoxins.
Occasionally, the government would provide relief food. Often it was rations of maize and beans and occasionally cooking oil. The food would be distributed at the chief’s camp -the representative of the office of the president at the location level. It was inadequate and the distribution was tainted by nepotism. Sometimes it would be stolen and sold by corrupt village officials. However, my mother was a beneficiary and she received a share proportionate to the number of her kids.
I later learned that this food was a donation from various countries and distributed by the WFP.
The ‘hunt’ for food
Like food, finding water was equally as challenging. We would, after school, make a trip of about 15 kilometers to draw water from a well located on a hillside. Occasionally, we would get home as late as 10 p.m. as a result of long queues for the little flow of water. Walking in the night, along the dark narrow paths was dangerous as my region is home to some of the most venomous snakes of the tropics.
During class breaks we would rush to the nearby baobab tree to harvest fruits. However, this was occasional since baobab trees are in season only once a year. Other children would go to the nearby bushes in search of wild fruits.
Over the weekends my brothers and I would follow small herds of goats in search of pasture far from home. While herding, we would go hunting squirrels and birds. We would roast this for our lunch. Sometimes we would be unlucky and we went hungry.
We lived in a two roomed, mad walled and grass-thatched house which would leak terribly whenever the scarce rains fell. All of our clothes were in bad shape; they had patches everywhere. Mark you, they were not like the designer patches we see today. We slept on animal hides and sacks.
The short unproductive rains brought with them the Anopheles mosquitoes which transmitted malaria. I was the most vulnerable to malaria infections in my family. Much of the family income would be spent paying my hospital bills; I would be taken to the clinic once every month. My sickliness meant I often missed school but I was once allowed to progress to the next class without taking any exams. I vividly remember once praying to God to take my soul while lying in the hospital bed.
This was abject poverty. Believing in the possibility of a future was only for those who had known a better life.
I experienced all these challenges by the age of 10 and while in class three.
Despite the challenges, my siblings and I were industrious and very bright academically. I was exceptionally bright; I scored very high marks and always topped my class. We would share one textbook in a class of ten. A desk was shared among three or four students and some would sit on the floor. We had a single teacher for all the subjects. To make it even more unbearable, we studied on empty stomachs all day!
WFP school meals introduced
I didn’t realise it then but many things would change in short order. While in class 4 the Nguumo Primary School, Makindu Division, Makueni District was established.
The headmaster informed us that our school as well as all the other schools within our region would benefit from a school feeding programme. It would be spearheaded by the WFP in collaboration with the Government of Kenya.
Under the programme, all pupils received a cup of nutritious porridge for breakfast, a meal of corn mixed with dry peas or lentils and fortified vegetable oil for lunch. In addition, we received five pieces of nutritious biscuits after leaving for home in the evening. This was the best thing to happen to me and all my classmates. It was a relief that not only changed our lives but affected the lives of the teachers – who also shared the meals with us- and unburdened our parents of worry.
As students, we now had an increased motivation to attend school and take our studies seriously. The teachers also used the school meals to enhance competition among the pupils. Pupils who came top in their class would be the first to be served. Those who improved in any of the subjects would also receive their meals first. I was keen to never relent and worked hard to be served first. Our teachers reminded us that the food was a donation by people who worked hard in school, people who were kind enough to share what they had with us. They asked us to learn how to help each other, how to share. In the spirit of helping others, I helped most of my classmates, especially those struggling in mathematics.
The impact of the meals was great: more pupils joined school, drop out level were reduced to almost zero, pregnancy levels among the adolescent girls reduced, class performance improved, performance in sports improved, cases of sick pupils reduced, cases of pupils coming late to school reduced, the mood of pupils and general interaction was better and parents were now able to replace torn uniform.
The school meals programme was sustained through to class 8. I maintained the top position in my class in every exam, sometimes in every subject. When we took the final national exams I scored the top mark ever in my school to date and scored 100% in Mathematics.
This provided an opportunity for me to join one of the best performing secondary schools in Kenya. Life was easier in high school; we had boarding facilities, food and water. I emerged among the top students in my school and also among the top in the entire country. As per tradition, my name appeared along with other top students in the local newspapers.
In 2007, I enrolled in Moi University’s Engineering School and graduated with an Honors degree in Chemical and Process Engineering in December 2012. I am currently working with an Agrochemical and Fertilizer Development and Distribution Company located in Nairobi, Kenya as a product development manager.
I have carried out research projects in agriculture and environment as well as food processing projects over the years. Currently, I am investing in greenhouse farming as a way of enhancing food production.
I also actively play a role in spreading the message about WFP activities on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks.
Through the spirit of giving back inculcated in me, I take pride in giving young people motivational talks and encouraging them to remain focused on achieving their goals despite the hardships they face. I support the education of youth by paying school fees for my brothers in high school and the university. In addition, I have taken part in various social activities aimed at alleviating poverty in Kenya.