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School Lunches Make For Happy Pupils in Congo

Arsène Séverin

BRAZZAVILLE, May 11 2011 (IPS) - It’s noon at Jean-Félix Tchicaya Primary in Pointe Noire, the economic capital of Congo. Students are settling into their chairs, but not to resume their lessons. They are waiting eagerly for the hot meal that’s served in the classroom each day, their plates already laid out on their desks.

Providing primary school students with a hot meal coincided with an increase in attendance between 2007 and 2011. Officials are worried by interruptions to school lunch initiatives due to a lack of food for the programme.

It’s the best moment of the day, after the math lesson,” nine-year-old Garry Makoundou told IPS.

“I love it when it’s vegetables,” says Judicaële Malela, 11.

According to the school’s administrators, the World Food Programme (WFP) provides them with 756 meals each day, covering every grade from grades one to five.

Around the country, the WFP supplies 188 schools with 70,000 lunches, serving mostly green beans, rice, canned tuna and semolina.

“Thanks to these meals, the completion rate is now 92 percent and the dropout rate is only four percent. The food programme reinforces the staff in the schools,” said Alix Loriston, WFP representative in Congo.

Some children have to walk more than 15 kilometres on an empty stomach each day to get to school. The school lunches allow these children to stay in school and study in the afternoon,” Loriston told IPS.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, 42.3 percent of the 3.8 million Congolese lived below the poverty line in 2010. And nearly 22 percent have never gone to school and are illiterate.

In Lékoumou, in the southwest, the U.S. non-governmental organisation International Partnership for Human Development currently serves 10,000 meals in 48 schools in four districts of this district. According to the IPHD, 25,000 meals will be supplied in 2011-2012, as the programme is extended to preschools.

In March 2011, after harvesting of 1,300 tonnes of maize from its large farm in Mouindi in the south of the country, Christian Bana, head of IPHD in Congo, said that much of this produce was destined for school meal programmes.

To add variety to the meals, the programmes in the Lékoumou département have set up school gardens in which the students grow vegetables: tomatoes, carrots and eggplant.

“Contributions from parents, in addition to building a storage shed, cover the cost of water, firewood and condiments,” says Loriston.

“One doesn’t get tired of looking for wood and drawing water to keep these kitchens running,” says one parent.

“it’s not too much to ask of us with regards to what the children eat at school,”says Philomène Mbani, a parent. “We save on sending them to school with a lunch; the child only has to eat in the evening at home.”

Food shortages

But the hope raised by these programmes has been extinguished in many schools, like at Joseph Kéoua Primary in Brazzaville, the capital. Here 890 students have not received school lunches since November 2010 due to a shortage of food.

“We are recording lots of absences from class and there’s little enthusiasm from the students,” said Thomas Richard Meza, director of one of the school’s two streams.

“We fear the exam results at the end of the year will be bad,” says his counterpart, Bienvenue Danielle Mankita. “The meal programme was important here.”

At the “Friendship” school in Brazzaville, 1,200 children disappointed by the disappearance of the programme are slowly returning to class. “It was a shock at the beginning, but after some discusison, most have returned and adapted themselves. It’s a question of poverty,” said Jean Lucien Manganga, a teacher at the school.

The school lunch programmes in these schools began the 2010-2011 school year working with stores carried over from the previous year. They all closed down a month later for lack of food. It was only in April 2011 that food was procured, thanks to a 11.2 million dollar donation from Japan. This gift allowed the programme to be relaunched, Kanji Kitazawa, Japan’s ambassador to Congo, told IPS.

The Congolese authorities plan to make the programme permanent and extend it. “These canteens have had a favourable impact in our schools, because they have contributed significantly to increasing the percentage of children in school,” said Benoît Chrysostom Mienkouono, the national head of primary education.

According to Mienkouono, primary school attendance in 2010 was 114 percent, and could this year reach 117 percent. (The percentages are calculated by counting the number of children in primary school, regardless of their age, and dividing this by the total number of Congolese children of school age according to official statistics.) The rate was just 92 percent in 2007.

“Both in both the city and the countryside, there is poverty. The school meals programme is necessary to increase attendance, and therefore raise the success rate,” he said.

“The government will subsidise the programmes going forward,” says Mienkouono. “We know that one day, our partners will leave.”

The Congolese government has already set aside three million dollars to support school lunches.

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