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Growing hope for Africa's hungry orphans

Popular field schools teach vital farming, life skills

Photo: ©FAO/Simon Maina
School children compare notes about their vegetable garden's ecology.

19 January 2008, Bondo, Kenya - The province in which U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's father grew up suffers from the highest HIV prevalence rate in Kenya: about one in six people in Nyanza Province are HIV positive. The fatal disease has left a legacy of thousands of orphans, with few farming or life skills, who struggle to get enough to eat and to stay in school.

"The biggest problem is food. They can't get enough food," says primary school principal Odero Walter about the orphans in his school: of 347 students, 176 are orphans, due to the death of one or both parents, mostly from AIDS.

The election of Mr Obama brought a glow of pride to this impoverished province on the shores of Lake Victoria, and anyone will tell you the story of Barack Obama Senior. But the reality for the average person is few opportunities, soaring food prices and a stagnant agricultural sector.

In 2004, FAO chose four schools in the Bondo district of Nyanza to pilot a new approach to both the problem of hunger among vulnerable children, and the problem of young people not knowing how to protect themselves against AIDS. Research suggested parents across Africa were dying before passing on farming skills to their children, another problem the schools address.

School with a difference

Today, impressed by the results in the pilot schools, over 20 other schools in the district have taken up the approach, called the Junior Farmer Field and Life School.

Based on a "living classroom" method, students plant fruit and vegetable gardens in a corner of their schoolyard and, three times a week, break into groups to tend the garden and to watch what the plants are doing. A facilitator helps them, but they build self confidence by forming their own opinions, for example, on what to do about a pest or disease, and defending their points of view in open debate with their peers.

"There are so many things that have impressed me about the school," says Perez Adhiambo Aloo, 16, who lost her mother when she was a baby, her father in 2000 and her sister recently. She is now cared for by her aunt. "I can make my own small garden. I know about drought-resistant crops like millet, cassava and sorghum."

"I think I'll be able to farm. My aunt is old but the land is there that I can use," she says.

She is able to explain what the acronym AIDS stands for and how the disease is transmitted. "I am afraid of getting it but I know how to protect myself."

One meal a day

Are the kids still hungry?

"They are fed lunch on the days they have the school," notes Anne Anam, a charismatic local school teacher who has championed the junior field schools. "Normally, they only eat one meal a day in the evening."

"What I think really attracted the other schools was the fact that the guardians came on board to help the children. Now the children were able to get their meals at school and it was working quite wonderfully."

The performance of the children who were being fed improved, and there were quite a number of them who made it to high school."

What about AIDS education?

"We want to teach them about HIV and AIDS and relate it to farming activities. We discuss protecting the crops from disease, then they relate it to protecting themselves from disease," says Ms Anam.

"Some of my students came up with the idea that it would be better for them not to go to the three nights of mourning we have after a death. The get-togethers have a lot of drinking and dancing. Since it is night and there are youths there is likeliness that the disease is spread. So they said ‘We think we need to avoid such risky situations.' "

Struggle for sustainability

In development projects, the critical moment comes when outside funding ends. Will the baby walk on its own? The 20 primary schools that have taken up the teaching method are having their problems. Their gardens aren't as productive as the older established gardens, which were put near water sources.

Mr Walter, standing in his dusty school garden, explains: "We started by ourselves because we were desperate. We're not assisted but we hope for assistance.

"We want the children to get the knowledge so they'll continue being farmers. We don't want them to beg."

The Junior Farmer Field and
Life School concept, devised and tested by FAO in 2004, is now operating in 12 African countries with more countries starting schools this year. Over 17 000 orphans and other vulnerable children have graduated from the schools.