Happy bellies for brighter futures
When volunteering couple Jan Tomas and Ann Tadeo arrived at the nursery at Cyete Primary School in Rusizi, Rwanda, they were shocked. They were expecting a degree of need: after all they had come to Rwanda to work on improving the quality learning in early childhood education (ECE). But they also found classes where large numbers of children hadn’t eaten enough food to sustain them throughout the day.
That was a huge problem both for a child’s development and their concentration in school. It inspired them to set up an independent initiative- the Happy Belly Project- which has provided nutritious food to almost one hundred hungry nursery schoolchildren since April 2016.
Rwanda has made huge progress in poverty reduction since VSO started work in the country in 1998. Poverty levels have been cut by more than a third since 2000. But millions of people are still living below the poverty line. Today, about four in every ten children under 5 show stunted growth: the result of not enough nutritious food to grow properly.
“In the first school we worked in, the children were falling asleep. They did not have energy. We realised it was because they are hungry,” explains Jan Tomas, 60, an ECE adviser volunteer from the Netherlands.
The volunteers saw teachers, already working in very challenging circumstances with unmanageable class sizes and few resources, struggle as the energy of their 4-6 year old pupils began to flag from mid-morning. In Rusizi, where they work, one in four people are scraping by on 23p per day – or less.
One meal a day
Jan explains, “We hear that many of these children and their parents are eating once per day, in the evening. I also heard about the family of one girl where the mother has HIV and is very unwell, so her daughter goes to neighbours looking for food.”
“Those kinds of stories really affect me because I think ‘OK, what will happen to this family? What will happen to this child when both parents are drunk and the child does not have food?’ There is not an easy solution to that but I wanted to do something.”
Jan and his partner Ann Tadeo, who met on a previous VSO volunteer placement in Nepal, worked together with national volunteers Eusebe Habyarimana and Seraphin Irafasha to voice their concerns. In parents’ and teacher meetings they discussed the issue and explained the importance of a nutritious diet and the effects of malnutrition on learning.
It had some effect. In some schools, they saw more children bringing in a snack to keep their energy up at mid-morning. But in Cyete, the first school they entered, most of the parents simply could not afford this. So Ann and Jan turned to their networks back home with their own proposal: the Happy Belly Project.
Since April 2016, almost a hundred nursery-aged children at Cyete Primary now get a daily hot meal with rice, vegetables and fish at school each day. The impact on the children is clear. “I can see it in their faces – they look so different. They have cheeks now,” smiles Ann.
As part of the project, parents would each contribute 200RWF (20p) a month so that two of them could cook a hot nutritious mid-morning snack every day. The food was paid for by donations from Ann and Jan’s networks at home.
Energy for playing
“Now, we are all seeing the importance of nutrition,” says Early Childhood Education Vice Head Eric Hakizimana. “We can see it is good for learners and how they grow up. Before, some pupils were crying or sleeping in the lessons, or they would go home to sleep. Now, they have energy for learning and playing.
“It is interesting to work with volunteers. They have helped us with many other things also, like managing our children, and how we make teaching and learning materials with items that parents can bring, like old rice sacks. They have also advised us on how we can feed our children after they have completed their placement.”
Growing their own
While Ann and Jan’s placements came to an end just after Christmas they have worked hard to support the school and parents to continue nutritious school meals.
Together they started an akarima kigikoni [school kitchen garden]. The school plans to grow carrots, which it can sell at a profit and buy sosoma to make healthy porridge for the children. They’ve also reached out to local NGOs who were impressed with the commitments the parents have made and want to get involved.
“This school is really special to us. I feel the energy and the commitment of the parents. But it is small steps. These are teachers in classes where 50% of the children are hungry,” says Jan. “I like it that VSO in Rwanda is working more in a holistic way, looking at parental jobs and income alongside education, child health and nutrition. You cannot only look at one side and ignore the other issues.”