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Responding to the orphan crisis
Innovative pilot field school teaches children farming, life skills
Chimoio, Mozambique - The group of orphans talking shyly to the visitor all have one thing in common, besides the loss of one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. They say they learned nothing at all from their parents about the principal livelihood open to them, farming.

"Before, I didn't know how to do anything. I didn't even know how to sow the seeds. Now I know you have to plant them a certain distance apart and you have to plant in lines," says Paulo Filipe Renza, 17.

Ermelinda Manuel, 12, has a similar story: "My parents died when I was 8. I didn't learn anything from my parents, although I remember mother used to go to the field to till the land."

Her brother Francisco, 15, adds: "You can study and still not find a job, but if you can farm, you can go and do something for yourself."

The children learn their farming and life skills through an innovative pilot project, made possible by a partnership between FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and a local Christian centre.

New teaching method

FAO has combined its popular teaching methodology, called the Farmer Field School, which was developed to teach adult farmers about the ecology of their fields through firsthand observation and analysis, with the Farmer Life School, which uses similar analytical methods to teach about human behaviour and AIDS prevention. The version for children is called the Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools.

The pilot project in and around this central Mozambican city involves 100 orphans and other vulnerable children living in four locations.

The Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools are led by volunteer facilitators who three times a week help the children learn by observation, using the cropping season as a "living classroom". In the end, the children will be able to perform their own field research and draw their own conclusions about the performance of various farming methods. The children also enhance their self-esteem and learn life skills by taking part in theatre and dance performances on such themes as children's rights and the equality of men and women.

AIDS-proofing the future

One of the most important things any child in southern Africa, the region with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world, can learn is how to avoid contracting the virus that causes the fatal disease.

Asked if he knew what AIDS was, Paulo replies: "HIV is a disease that is transmitted by sexual intercourse or razor blades as well as needles at hospitals. It is very, very serious because it can kill any person. To avoid it, you should not get involved in sexual intercourse, or if you do you should use a condom. I learned this in school as well as at the farmers' school."

Successful partnership

"It's a very interesting project. It addresses livelihood and food security issues. We can feed the children to keep them alive, but this is one project that looks at their future," says Lynne Miller, head of WFP's central Mozambique programme, which supplies 1 400 orphans in the region, including the project children, with maize flour, peas and cooking oil through its school feeding programme. The Mozambican government estimates that over 600 000 children have been orphaned by the disease.

Jose Madeira, pastor of the Free Evangelical Assembly Christian Centre, looks after the 29 boys and girls from 12-17 years of age who live in dormitories on the premises, attend centre classes and take part in the FAO project. Another 350 Chimoio orphans live with families in the neighbourhood but come to the centre for classes or food. Other children without a family live in the many orphanages in the city, which lies on the Beira Corridor, a major trucking route linking the African interior with the coast. Truckers frequenting sex workers along the route are blamed for spreading the virus that causes AIDS.

"When the children first come here, they are afraid and withdrawn," explains Mr Madeira. "Little by little, they start to interact with other children. Now, they share what they learn at the FAO field school with the congregation. It is marvellous to see."

The big picture

Even though the 29 children have only attended the field school for five months, they have started to dream again. "In the beginning, a major part of them wanted to be drivers when they grew up," says Mr Madeira. "Now, they are saying, 'I want to be a farmer, an extension worker, an agronomist, a teacher or an engineer'."

Rogerio Mavanga, an agronomist with 25 years' experience in the district who is coordinating the FAO project, explains the impact of HIV/AIDS on local agriculture and why the orphans are so crucial to agriculture's future.

"The main impact is loss of labour, so those who are left work smaller areas," he says. "Income goes down and so does food security and nutrition. The adults die before they pass on practical farming knowledge to their children."

Can the field school pilot project be expanded? Where will all the facilitators come from to teach a million orphans, the UNAIDS projection for the country in 2010?

"From the very same children we are training we can get the future facilitators," says Mr Mavanga. "Some of them are very bright."

"We are relying on our own resources, the facilitators are from the community itself," he adds. "That's why all the community leaders participate and the whole community is involved."
FAO/G. Bizzarri

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Responding to the orphan crisis

Photo gallery: Orphaned, but not forgotten


Peter Lowrey
FAO Information Officer
(+39) 06 570 52762

FAO Media Office
(+39) 06 570 53625

FAO/G. Bizzarri

Children use a tape measure to plan a new vegetable patch at the Free Evangelical Assembly Christian Centre where they live.

FAO/G. Bizzarri

Project coordinator Rogerio Mavanga meets with children orphaned by HIV/AIDS who are attending the FAO Junior Farmer Field and Life School.

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