The children were separated, some eating lunch, many not. Faces of hungry children looked away, trying not to notice, not to care. Later in the afternoon, little girls would drop their heads on their desks, unable to stay awake. Little boys responded irritably to teacher's questions.
"But it's a private school," you say. "Fees are paid for education! How can a child's family/caretaker not afford lunch fees? Why doesn't the school do something?"
St. Augustine's English Medium Primary School has enrolled 650 students of all faiths: Christian, Muslim and indigenous religions. But being private does not mean exclusive or elite -- just better than the norm. The majority of private schools in Tanzania are more like a poor public system in the United States, a daunting and disturbing reality.
Dozens of public schools I have visited are impoverished beyond understanding. Children, taught in deplorable conditions, have no resources, have few texts and are overcrowded. What teachers they have often are inexperienced and minimally paid.
Yet, I also have met devoted instructors who are committed, caring and giving in trying to accomplish what they can. In rural areas, students often walk long distances, arriving late and leaving early if they come at all during harvest seasons. Girls are especially challenged. Urban students literally fight for places on daladalas (commuter buses) for transport and often are mistreated in despicable ways.
Staff at St. Augustine's described the lunch inequities to me. Many parents or caretakers sacrificed and saved every available cent just to send their child(ren) to school. After buying uniforms, which must be purchased in private and public schools, and providing daily transport money, there were no funds left for lunches. Because the school was unable to budget any lunches, the poorer classmates suffered.
Two hundred unfed?
Can 200 children without nutrition have energy to follow their lessons, be attentive, learn? I discovered that many of those beloved children did not have breakfast and, other than a snack, would have scant supper. Almost everyone in Tanzania has only one main meal a day and chai midmorning.
Let me give you some context: She was 10 years old and tiny. School volunteer Angela Turner identified her as one of the more malnourished and needy students through the health-assessment program she helped develop. Collapsing one morning, and later testing positive for malaria and worms, the child was treated at the Buguruni Health Centre. In spite of successful treatment, the problems inevitably would return -- the cause had not been rectified. Hers was a common story.
Ernest Barra, principal of St. Augustine's, talked with cooks who already provided hot lunches prepared on premise daily for paying students. They agreed on a substantial reduction of price for needy children and made accommodations for the increased numbers. They planned balanced, nutritious meals. Academic Mistress Nipaela Mkumbwa and an education and health NGO director, John Gao, were brought in to work out the details and administer funding. The word went out: every student not able to pay would be fed.
Today, 200 precious children joined classmates at the table and did not turn their heads in shame. Alert, eager students could attend afternoon classes. Tomorrow, and at least through December, all children would be fed a substantial meal. The love of God, through the loving outreach of U.S. Episcopal churches and caring individuals, has blessed the children and families of St. Augustine's School. Feed my sheep (John 21.15-17).