ARUA. On the 4th May 2018, all attention was turned to Awalio primary, a little known school in Ajia Sub County, Arua district; Uganda’s first lady and Minister for Education and Sports Janet Kataha Museveni was there to commission new class room blocks.

However, what caught the attention of many was her emphasis on the need to feed the school children calling on parents to take a central role in government’s new drive to ensure that pupils get food while at school.

“I use this opportunity to emphasize to the parents their responsibility of providing food to the children so they can have proper mental health; We should no longer be fighting over the responsibility of feeding the children because these are your children; you see them going to school every day on empty stomachs and claim to be surprised when they don’t get grade one?” An amazed Mrs. Museveni wandered.

She said this at a time when the 1,126 pupils of Awalio go hungry just like their colleagues in most of public schools in the region, no wonder the head teacher Mr Benson Edroma said the school had gone 5 years without a single first grade.

Local leaders speak out

Mr Ismail Tuku, the prime minister of the Lugbara-Kari cultural institution commenting on the new campaign by the first lady said the message had come at the right time.

“Studying at Owaffa primary school in the early 1960’s, we used to carry food from our homes and the schools had cupboards where it will be guarded and kept until break time and each pupil would pick their food and eat, schools were far but the system worked well” he said

He continued “the problem I see these days, people send their children to stay with uncles, aunties especially in the urban centres, at the end they can’t sustain feeding them”

Even during his adult life, he introduced an idea that was adopted by the school of his children so other parents could join in.

“I had 10 pupils at Arua hill primary and being far from home I requested the head teacher to allow me hire a cook for my children at school, the idea was shared in a PTA meeting, over 100 parents joined and today the kids have completed university after a good performance”

Tuku IsmailTuku Ismail, the prime minister of the Lugabara cultural institution.

Mr Tuku said the first lady has seen the children as her own and she “feels for them” that’s why she is reminding us to take responsibility.

Asked about what can be done to avert a problem that has been dragging for time immemorial, Mr. Raymond Ombere, Arua municipal senior education officer said based on his experience from other places only little would have to be done to feed the child at school if stake holders are serious.

He said in Rwanda, parents are asked to contribute fingers of Matooke so it can be prepared in a common pool at school; Mr. Ombere said West Nile could easily adopt a similar method which can include foods like maize, Potatoes etc.

In the same occasion of the first lady’s coming, a lamenting Arua LC V chairman Mr Sam Wadri Nyakua suggested that the education ministry comes up with stricter policies directing parents to provide food or face “action”

Mrs Gertrude BadaruMrs Gertrude Badaru, the district Agricultural officer making a presentation during a recent meeting.

Speaking on the general food situation in the district, Ms Gertrude Badaru, the district agricultural officer said a recent multi stake holder food and nutrition program to try to rally stake holders to take on the challenge is being implemented in 100 schools across Arua district; Yumbe and Maracha districts have the same.

Under the program, foods rich in iron and vitamins are grown but Ms Badaru said the biggest problem is attitude and life style.

“We (West Nile) are rated next to Karamoja in Mul nutrition across the country, the important food is always taken to the market and the parents have no time for their children, they are either in the market or in the garden, the eating habit doesn’t suit the growing child and yet the parents eat when they are at the market place otherwise how would a place like Logiri sub county that provides most food for Arua town have the highest rate of Malnutrition in the district? She wondered.

Past experiences

In September, 2005 while presenting a paper on school-based feeding and child nutrition/performance at hotel Africana, in Kampala, Mr Aggrey David Kibenge, secretary/public relations officer, ministry of education and sports underlined the importance of a school feeding program, he highlighted that school feeding was first implemented in Uganda after the 1979 war, covering all schools but recognizing that Karamoja had the worst social indicators of any district in Uganda, government and the Food and agricultural organization(FAO) in the consequent years started a school feeding project in 1983, to be followed by subsequent ones between 1993 and 1998.

However, these were government projects and the end of these projects spelt doom for regions like Karamoja which probably explains why in 1999, only 44% of the 68,468 girls and 68,325 boys of school going age were enrolled in school, figures contained in Kibenge’s paper which are further plagued by high absenteeism and dropout rates.

Raymond OmbereRaymond Ombere, the Arua municipal Senior Education officer (Photo by Rimiliah Amandu)

Another move by the ministry of education and sports was the formation of a 25man team to spearhead sensitization campaigns through a Netherlands’ Development Organization (SNV) and the ministry of Education and sports partnership in 2017.

In all such quest to find solutions to a problem that is threatening to cripple the education system across the country, the West Nile region will need to answer whether the governments switch from providing food under “projects” to rallying the parents to take full responsibility is the much needed answer to a sustainable program that will perpetuate school feeding for the thousands of the regions children, if yes which method can then be adopted, the Rwandan module, the Demonstration gardens, the parked food or the action against incompliant parents?

Perhaps one of these many could be long waited solution at last.