YOKAMA -- Just a few kilometers before Yokama school, we came across the shells of three tanks, burnt to a crisp, destroyed by rocket fire. A few kilometers after was an old railway town, with barely a building left untouched by exploded ordinance and shrapnel.
Yokama school is in Pool province, in the ‘other’ Congo – the Republic of Congo. For five years until 2003, a civil war raged across the region, destroying livelihoods and setting back years of progress, particularly in education.
Enrollment rates recovering
The Republic of Congo had one of Africa’s proudest education systems before war and civil unrest began to dismantle it. Enrollment rates for primary schools in the Pool were almost 100 percent. By the end of the war they were down to less than 60 percent. There has been a recovery since hostilities ended, but many poor parents still struggle to send their children to school.
WFP recently started expanding its school feeding programme in the Pool, enabling many more schools to offer a lunchtime meal to their students. For most parents, that is enough to make the difference – their child goes to school instead of staying behind to help at home.
Eudes Mbello, 12, (see picture on left) explained this to me in the most straightforward terms. “There is nothing at home – we depend on these meals. In the evenings, I normally eat the food I have saved from the school lunch – whatever I’ve been able to take home with me.”
"Do well in classes"
Although WFP would prefer the children did not take food home with them, but rather ate it there and then, the reality means that it is almost impossible to control.
Eudes understands how much a good meal can help learning. “When we have enough to eat, we do well in our classes. When you leave home hungry and arrive in school hungry, it’s really difficult to keep up with what the teacher is saying. Even writing is difficult,” she says.
Since the school canteen started at Yokama school last year, enrollment numbers are already up 10 percent. But there are still many empty desks, particularly in the more senior years. It will take time for school meals to draw these students back.
Eudes says that her dream when she grows up is to be a primary school teacher. If things keep improving the way they are now, she’ll almost certainly be teaching in packed classrooms.