The wandering lifestyle of Niger's nomads need not rule out a steady education for their children thanks to WFP's school feeding programme. Marcus Prior reports.
“You do know it’s not term time?” asked my colleague Nafiou Issiaka as we piled into cars at the WFP office in Tahoua.
Not term time? Not term time?!
How on earth were we supposed to show our French journalist visitor the dramatic impact on attendance rates and learning of WFP’s school feeding programme in Niger if there were no students at all at school? What were we going to show him? An empty classroom and a disused kitchen? My heart sank.
For the nomads, if there were no school meals for their children, there would be no schools
But the primary school at Akarana, a tiny hamlet of mud and straw dwellings set in a sea of sand some 60 kilometres off the nearest decent road, was unlike any other I had visited.
As we arrived, a crowd of children lined up to one side of the car, all screaming ‘PAM!* PAM! PAM!" and clapping their hands in welcome.
School, it seemed, was very much in. Except it was out.
Akarana is a school for the children of families who continue to pursue a life of nomadic pastoralism.
For nine months of the year, the children are quite literally left behind to attend school, while their parents attend to the business of managing their livestock, often many hundreds of miles away in the bush.
During the long holidays, the pupils rejoin their family in their nomadic existence.
Heading to the desert
Even the head, Abdullahi Hamed Ibrahim, profits every year from the three-month break to gather his own family together on camel and horseback and venture out into the desert to join his wandering brothers.
We arrived during the Easter school holiday, but at least 60 of the 133 students were still being looked after by the head and his small team.
A rudimentary dormitory was home to those who were not housed with local families.
Success among girls
Almost half the students are girls and all pupils wanting to go on to secondary education were successful in their exams.
A proper education is clearly highly prized within the community.
Crucially, parents are able to leave their children at Akarana for lengthy periods for one reason, and one reason alone – WFP provides the school with enough food to ensure three hot meals per day to every child, term-time or not.
School meals decisive in attendance
For the nomads, if there were no school meals for their children, there would be no schools.
“All the food we distribute here comes from WFP,” said the head, pointing out spoons, plates and two large cooking vats which are also provided by the organisation.
The children wolfed down their lunch before gathering under the shade of the schoolyard trees to play traditional games of ‘catch’ using small stones or simply to idle the time away.
Teetering on the edge
It was the holidays and everyone seemed content. But Akarana is poor – very poor.
Last year the villagers received a general distribution of food from WFP because they had been driven right to the edge by the impact of drought and the locust invasions of 2004 which left their traditional grazing lands stripped bare.
Cattle and other livestock simply keeled over and died.
Prices on the market for their enfeebled animals plummeted.
The distribution was a welcome answer to their prayers.
Concerned but confident
This year, with pasture more plentiful, their animals are stronger and likely to fetch a better price on the market.
The villagers remain very concerned that the hunger season will again be tough, but they are more confident about prospects than at the same time last year.
Amidst the annual struggle to make ends meet, the school at Akarana is a symbol of hope; a starting point from which education and knowledge offer the best chance of escape from the cycle of poverty.
PAM – Programme Alimentaire Mondial, the French title by which the World Food Programme is known in some countries.