Page last updated at 19:13 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 20:13 UK

Kenya school battles huge drought

Children gather at the lunch pot for more food, St Kizito Primary School, Kenya
As Kenya's devastating drought continues, food supplies have started to dry up and prices for what remains have soared

By Will Ross
BBC News, Nairobi

Ask most students what they would like to do during the school holidays and it is highly likely that the response "More school, please" would be at the bottom of the list.

Not in Kenya, however. The country is in the middle of a drought and there are food shortages, so the offer of a free school meal is, for some, too good to pass up.

"Nowadays there is no rain and that is causing us a lot of problems," says 15-year-old Hanan Sirat.

"There is no pasture for the animals and people are not getting enough food at home."

She is one of about 200 pupils attending lessons during the August break at St Kizito Primary School, in the hot and dusty town of Isiolo, about 300km (186 miles) north-east of Nairobi.

"Here there are so many poor families and so people enjoy coming to school and receiving food," adds Hanan, who, like many of the students, is from a family of pastoralist farmers in this Muslim-dominated part of the country.

"Some do not come - maybe because they are from rich families."

Time for lunch

A social studies lesson was interrupted at noon when a young boy walked over to a spot under a tree, picked up a metal pole and banged the living daylights out of the rim of an old car wheel.

Children queue up for lunch at St Kizito school, Isiolo, Kenya
Some children save the food they get at school to take home to their families

St Kizito's improvised school bell might well have been heard in all the other schools across the district.

It signalled time for the all-important lunch. The students grabbed their plates and headed to a shed behind the classrooms, where the food was being prepared over firewood in two of the largest cooking pots I've ever seen.

Using an enormous wooden spoon, the school cook mixed up wheat and split peas - provided by the United Nations World Food Programme, the WFP.

The result was a stodgy concoction which was served up to the students amid pleas of: "More, more."

The UN is currently feeding more than one million Kenyan school children.

"For some of them this is the only meal they will get all day," said Rose Ogola, of the WFP.

"In fact, you find in some places the children do not eat all the food. They hide some of it away and take it home to share with their families."

Killer drought

The drought and subsequent lack of pasture is estimated to have killed more than 100,000 cattle across Kenya. And, as herds become emaciated, it is getting harder for people to sell them.

A Maasai with dying calf, Kenya
Thousands of cattle have died and the remaining stock fetches little at market

In July, Maasai herdsman Lesakut Perewan left his home in Dol Dol with 120 head of cattle and, in a desperate search for pasture, scoured the slopes of Mount Kenya.

Only 56 cattle remain, as the others in the herd succumbed to cold-related diseases. Carcasses litter the pine forests and newborn calves stagger around bewildered, as their weak mothers die.

"I will continue to try to take care of them and when they all die I will return home to my six camels," the herdsman said, adding that although he did not know his own age, others had told him he was born in 1952.

In Kenya's markets food prices have increased, as the poor harvests have led to a shortage of staple foods like white maize.

And due to the shortage in the region, prices are likely to climb higher, despite the fact that on the world market prices are much lower than last year.

In some of the markets across Kenya the maize price has doubled over the past year.

Kenyan farmer in maize field
It's all up to God. We need water
Halima Kinyua
Kenyan farmer

There are parts of the country which are arid and prone to regular droughts; however, this year some of the more fertile areas have also suffered.

In the village of Nyariginu, near Mount Kenya, the maize should be head high at this time of year. Instead it is only knee high, frazzled by the sun.

I found Halima Kinyua harvesting her crop just to keep the family's only cow alive.

"We listen to the radio and we are told that maybe there will be rain but we don't know whether to believe them," she told me, after bending to cut the maize stalks with a machete.

"It is all up to God. We need water."

As if to rub salt into the farmers' wounds, these barren fields are adjacent to commercial farms, where vegetables for export flourish behind a barbed wire fence, thanks to extensive irrigation systems.

Little food, higher prices

With many Kenyans spending more than half their income on food, the price increases are hitting people hard. The number in need of food aid has shot up from 2.5 to 3.8 million.

The national grain reserves currently hold enough food for less than two months. This comes after the Kenyan government was accused of involvement in a maize scandal in which grain was being sold to Sudan.

The WFP has just appealed for $230m (£141m) to provide emergency food assistance over the next six months.

Kenyan school pupil in classroon, Isiolo, Kenya
People enjoy coming to school and receiving food
Hanan Sirat

St Kizito pupil

Back at St Kizito Primary in Isiolo, the vast lunch pot was being scraped clean as children sat around in the shade with their rapidly shrinking mounds of food.

I asked teacher Bogori Solomon if he minded coming to school during the holidays.

"It is not a punishment," he replied, rather defensively. "We always come and help the exam candidates revise, so it is normal," he added.

Going to school during the holidays may sound like a guaranteed turn-off for many children but for these students the chance of a free meal is a potential life saver.

For young Hanan Sirat, school during the holidays is no problem, as it provides an opportunity to pursue a dream.

"No, it is not strange to come here," she said. "We form reading groups and get ready for November's exams.

"When I finish school I want to be a surgeon. I will come to our district to help the poor families when I grow up," she added, with a proud smile.

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