... “Every day, I have to walk long distances just to be in school. And by the time I am on campus, hunger starts to kick in. My morning breakfast is a piece of cassava that I have to manage on the journey,” says 14-years old James.
It is recess time at the Doris G. Holder Public School but Kermu James, like many students, is unhappy and bowed his head down silently, as he struggled with hunger.
James’s struggle is a daily fight and, on his hungriest days, he says he sees only darkness when looking at his teacher’s chalkboard while taking notes. Listening at that moment also becomes difficult, according to the 14-year-old, who schooled in Holder town, Todee District, Montserrado County.
“At this point, it becomes harder to concentrate. Your teacher’s voice will sound like someone howling in your ears. Many of us in Todee are from very impoverished backgrounds, so we come to school hungry and leave hungry. It is a daily battle and it is very hard.”
“Every day, I have to walk long distances just to be in school. And by the time I am on campus, hunger starts to kick in. My morning breakfast is a piece of cassava that I have to manage on the journey,” says the 5th grader. But it is barely enough to end the walk to school. I am not alone, many of my friends here face the same struggles. For this reason, when we are too hungry to go to class, we stay home.”
One of Liberia's poorest rural settlements
James’s plight, which is shared by many students of Doris G. Holder Public School in Todee, one of Liberia's poorest rural settlements, makes it difficult for them to concentrate in class, especially for hard subjects like science and math. According to the World Bank, food insecurity across Liberia is acute, particularly in rural areas, where 2.3 million people cannot meet their basic food and non-food needs.
Rural areas are home to 71.7 percent of the poor compared to 68 percent of the total population. This makes the situation worse for students of Doris G. Holder Public School in Todee, which has an estimated population of more than 32,695 residents across 475 towns and villages, suffering from decades of neglect — lacking access to basic services — while opportunities for employment are scarce.
Surviving is a struggle of the fittest, say residents. Subsistence farming and coal burning serve as income for nearly all of the inhabitants of Todee district, one of the oldest settlements in Liberia. The incomes are too little for James’s mother and that of other parents in Todee to buy enough food for their children. Only one meal per day is the goal — breakfast is ruled out.
However, the impact of the lack of breakfast worries many Todee parents. They have seen firsthand how their children, after spending a long day in class, come home complaining about the situation and are reluctant to go to school the next day. This feeling is something many experts agree on, as countless studies have shown that it is more difficult for children to learn without adequate food and nutrition.
Hunger, according to experts, affects learning by curbing a child’s physical development, inhibiting their ability to focus and perform, and limiting their future achievements. The World Bank even estimates today’s generation of students in low- and middle-income countries is at risk of losing about US$10 trillion in future income due to low school enrollment and achievement.
And Liberia is not an exception. Being a low-income country, school meals have become critical to increasing students’ retention and learning, paving a pathway for alleviating future poverty even as poverty itself presents a fearsome obstacle. The World Food Program (WFP), Save the Children, Mary’s Meals, and Zoa, in collaboration with the government, have school feeding interventions in some schools across the country but the vast majority of schools remain untouched.
But Doris G. Holder Public School is a different case. Missing out on school meals has led to low enrolment and poor performance of students. The meal problem is then exacerbated by the fact that James and other students had to walk every morning from Nyehn Town, which is two hours away, to be in school. They have to stay in class for about eight hours.
Those who are unable to endure are forced to drop out of school and venture into other activities. According to UNICEF, Liberia has the world’s largest number of out-of-school children, with 56 percent of primary-school-age missing out on education. 15-20 percent of children 6-14 years old are out of class and 54 percent of children complete primary school.
In Todee district, the easy way to a destination is either on foot or by motorbike taxi. But the prohibitive cost of the latter means the former is the best option for families, who have to send their children far away to school — desperately to ensure that their children get an education, which they see as a lifeline from poverty. Roads in Todee are not easily accessible by vehicles and the lack of visible commercial activities means, it is not easy to see one.
The introduction of mid-day meals would mean economic relief, says Martha Sonqoh, a beginner teacher at the government-operated school. By this, students’ performance and retention will increase — achieving positive results in child development, Sonqoh noted. Students at the Doris B. Holder Public School, according to the teacher are only active in class during the morning hours — and after that, learning is not possible.
“The lack of food during the long day has contributed to the reduction of class sizes in some cases and has negatively impacted the student's learning abilities,” Sonqoh, says as she watches helplessly, many of her students sitting sadly during recess hours. “Most parents stop sending their children to school because they cannot afford to see them complain of hunger every time.
“Some children do not even end class due to the discomfort of not eating during an eight-hour day. When they are hungry, they do not pay attention. We want the government to ask other partners to introduce a feeding program in the school.”
While the problems of hunger are not limited to only students at Doris B. Holder Public hard school, which is run by the Bridge Liberia Educational program: the situation is what many students in poor communities across Liberia face daily. But worst in rural Liberia.
However, few parents in Todee can afford the cost of feeding their children in the morning. The vast majority cannot, have to bear the pain of seeing their children returning from school hungry and joining them on the family farm, where they would have plantains or cassava as their lunch during mid-day.
Most families in Todee District cook one large meal at night and don’t have access to containers to pack lunches for their children to bring to school nor the financial means to afford it. While an extended school day provides more class time for students, says Sonqoh, the absence of the promised feeding program has led to a high rate of dropouts.
Doris B. Holder Public School which is run by Bridge, in partnership with the Government of Liberia as an Early Child Education (ECE) program — keeps students to stay in class from 8:00 am to 3:30 pm — with the aim to make elementary students taught through a technology-based system.
Melody Kettor, Bridge Liberia’s Public Relations Officer, said her organization is not into feeding programs. Therefore, the school should seek out assistance from other partners.
“As per the agreement with the Ministry of Education, we are supporting over 312 schools across the country. All of these schools support them with learning materials, books, chalks, teaching tablets, while helping schools that are in need. We are not into a feeding program,” she explained.
According to her, Bridge Liberia supports government-run schools with books, chalk, and teaching tablets for teachers. “Supervisors can use the data from the tablets to track the teachers’ activities and attendance to ensure that they are following the lesson plans.
The students are suffering
Samuel Taylor, the school’s principal, said due to the distances many of the students cover to come to school, they are unable to stay in class up to the afternoon hours. Taylor noted that the distance means most of them are already hungry before the lessons begin, saying “a child cannot stay in school that long without food and still be expected to learn. You will hear them, ‘Principal I am hungry ooh’. Before you look, the classes will be empty.”
Students stay out of school for weeks or months because they are unable to cope with the stress of hunger, and the next time you see them, they are on the farm, says Taylor. According to him, parents are stopping their children from coming to school because they cannot afford to see their children stay in class up to that time on an empty stomach.
Enrollment has dropped drastically since the school compelled the students to stay on campus up to 3:30 pm, Taylor noted.
Sharing Taylor’s concerns, Doris Weah, a K-2 teacher at the school, noted that the government must step in to assist the school with funding to initiate a feeding program that would keep students in class. “When students are full,” she reasons, “they will not be able to escape from class. Our students are not learning well.”
Meanwhile, Albert Washington, Todee's Acting District Education Officer (DEO), described Bridge’s intervention as pathetic, blaming the Ministry of Education for initiating an agreement that is harming students.
“Partners go directly to the ministry, so they are not answerable to us. The students are suffering. Imagine staying on campus for that long without food. Nobody learns in such conditions.”