Empty desks as famine deepens

23rd June 2000 at 01:00

Drought means children are sent out to work instead of to school

TWO million of Kenya's 6.5 million pupils have dropped out of primary and secondary schools as a result of famine.

In 30 out of 62 districts primary schools are almost empty, the ministry of education said.

The World Food Programme estimates that 75 per cent of Kenya's families are finding it extremely difficult to feed themselves. Many pupils have been withdrawn from school and joined their parents in search of pasture for their livestock. Others have left school to work in coffee, sisal and tea plantations, fishing, mining and prostitution.

The famine, which follows two-and-a-half years of drought, has since last year made inroads into traditionally highly-productive agricultural districts.

Last week, president Daniel Arap Moi made a plea to the local and international community for pound;100 million to assist more than two million people faced with starvation. The government estimates that 22 million people - 80 per cent of the population - have been affected by the drought.

President Moi said some 221,000 metric tonnes of maize, beans, and vegetable oil will be needed in the next six months to feed 3.5 million people, mostly schoolchildren, through expanded feeding programmes in schools.

The World Food Programme has agreed to extend its curret school-feeding programme in arid areas to cover 1.2 million schoolchildren. The WFP also said that it would help to improve health and nutrition for schoolchildren in areas that are wholly dependent on relief food supplies.

To stem the tide of school drop-outs the ministry of education last week told headteachers not to turn away pupils who may not have paid tuition fees.

"As the drought has continued to bite, many families are left with no alternative but to withdraw their children from school simply because they cannot afford to pay," said minister of education Stephen Kalonzo.

In one district, Laikipia, about three-quarters of pupils have dropped out of school in the past two years.

A study carried out by the ministry of education in 11 severely affected districts showed that children are attracted to school when feeding programmes are operational and drop out when the programmes are suspended.

Even in traditionally productive agricultural districts where enrolment is relatively high, absenteeism is rife in schools located in pockets which are experiencing food shortages. This is leading to poor performance in exams.

The mass drop-out is expected to be short-term: once the rains return and food becomes available pupils are likely to trickle back. But the prolonged drought has severely disrupted education.

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