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Eating to live or living to eat?

When I was at school, I was one of those kids who would go to a lot of trouble to make their sandwich before the start of a long school day – especially as a teenager, knowing that that sandwich would probably be the highlight of my day. Between the two slices of bread I would put a bed of lettuce, tomato slices, pickles, fresh pastrami or pieces of chicken left over from the previous day, and finally mayonnaise, to hold the whole thing together inside the transparent plastic bag.

Today, when I live in an area that has one of the world’s highest rates of children suffering from malnutrition, I’ve come to appreciate that magical sandwich that accompanied my childhood, keeping me well-fed and active throughout the day.

In Uganda, and especially in Karamoja, children don’t bring a sandwich or lunchbox to school, and it is up to the school to provide food. For children staying in boarding schools and sleeping in the school dorms – like most of the children in our scholarship program – the school must also provide breakfast and dinner.

In reality, does this always happen? Unfortunately, not.

According to law, government schools in Uganda are supposed to be free; but because the funding they receive from the Ministry of Education is insufficient, they are unable to feed hundreds of children, and certainly not thousands of children in the case of larger schools.Therefore, to be able to survive, schools charge tuition fees at the beginning of each term to cover the costs of food, firewood, chalks, paper and other basic supplies... Sadly, this solves one problem and creates another – children from the most disadvantaged sectors of society inevitably drop out, because their parents cannot afford the tuition. This deprives hundreds of thousands of Ugandan children of the chance of success, further increasing social inequalities.

This crisis is here to stay – the prices of food and fuel are rising all over the world, and many schools in Uganda try to keep up by increasing their tuition fees, despite knowing that this will result in many more children dropping out. On the other hand, when schools keep their tuition fees affordable the children remain hungry, which undermines the success of those who make an effort to attend school.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is well-aware of this long standing problem, and regularly supports schools in Karamoja by supplying food. But such a large, widespread organization, which is involved in relief operations in every corner of the globe, hasn’t been able to properly accommodate and feed everyone: following the wars in Syria and Ukraine, the supply of food to schools in Karamoja has been reduced to 75 grams per child per day – an amount that doesn’t even provide one full meal a day, and which is mostly made up entirely of empty carbohydrates and a handful of beans.

This insufficient amount of non-nutritious food simply cannot support a child’s healthy development, nor can it sustain schools for an entire term. Schools that fail to grow or obtain food from other sources regularly close their doors ahead of schedule, resulting in low quality of education and further reducing the children’s chances of succeeding and building a better future for themselves.

What does this mean for us?

Two years ago, Shiri and I showed up at Naitakwae primary school in Moroto, Karamoja with a group of 60 barefoot, raggedly clothed children. The school headteacher, Joseph, listened to our long and elaborate lecture about Shanita’s scholarship program, and after much persuasion he agreed to work with us. His school became the first government school in Uganda that was not afraid of our idea: to enroll children from the most disadvantaged sectors of society and give them an equal opportunity.

Joseph has become a valuable friend and partner to Shanita. From the very beginning he was completely honest with us, explaining that his school had little to offer: it was on the verge of closing and could not function effectively for the children due to insufficient funds, and above all – food. Determined, we confidently declared that “where there is nothing, anything can be done.”

Here’s a spoiler: we had no idea what was waiting for us.

We were faced with a year-long tsunami of challenges and problems, but we held on – mostly thanks to friends of Shanita worldwide. We tackled one challenge at a time: turning two classrooms into improvised dorms for the program’s children; incorporating our matrons into the school system; strengthening the school’s overall security system to reduce thefts and class skipping; hiring highly qualified teachers to improve the level of education; improving the water infrastructure; acquiring school supplies; and much, much more.

Although we prefer to work quietly and without making a fuss, rumors about the support we were providing to the school began to spread and reached the Head of the District, who summoned me for a conversation – at the end of which he wrote a supportive recommendation for Shanita to continue to expand its activities in Karamoja.

In the beginning of the 2023 school year we became an official partner of Naitakwae school, which has given us full control over the school dorms to allow us to grow and expand. After renovating, painting and cleaning the dorms, our numbers have grown from 60 to 112 Shanita children, with room for more children to join and with our own dedicated team on site 24/7, caring for all their needs.

We solved these problems not just for the children under our responsibility. We solved them for the entire school, as an organization that aims to provide a solution for every child in need. Even the greatest challenge of all, and the only one we haven’t solved yet – food – we intend to solve with and for the entire school. Because when schools close due to lack of food, they interrupt the educational process for everyone. They remove the children from the safety of the educational institution and mess up with our financial planning, forcing us to channel resources into creating logistical and educational alternatives for the scholarship program’s children.


How can we solve this challenge?

The Naitakwae school has 1,032 students.

Our aim is to supplement the basic amount of food given to each child by 115 grams per day, including corn and beans alongside greens, to improve the children’s nutrition and support their development. This means a total of 30 tons per year.

Step 1– Growing food. In preparation for the rainy season, we are working together with the school to cultivate every free piece of land around the school. From a 1.5-acre plot located just behind Shanita’s dorms, which we have plowed and cleaned and used to sow maize and beans, to small vegetable gardens around the school for growing tomatoes, onions, cabbage and greens. We recruited the program’s parents, who were happy to join us and lend a hand. Once we harvest, we’ll have an idea of the potential for growing food and the amount we need to grow every year.

Step 2 –Finding food partners. Any food we manage to grow will be a wonderful addition, but there are things we cannot grow or produce ourselves such as rice, salt, cooking oil, etc. Therefore, we still need to find permanent partnerships. I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to our friends in Innovation: Africa, who have donated food for the entire school for the coming term.

Step 3 – Intergenerational program. Many of the mothers of children in Shanita’s scholarship program survive through small-scale crops and agriculture. We launched a program in which those mothers who work in agriculture will be able to come and learn useful farming techniques and tools which will help them to increase their crop yield, expand their gardens and produce food not just for their own survival, but to generate income – food which we will purchase from them. In doing so, we will provide direct financial support for families of the program’s children, while helping the school to remain open.

Dear friends – I, Shiri, and everyone at Shanita would like to thank you for your continued support and generosity. In the past few months we have had many successes. This could not have happened without you. Providing solutions and support for children in need is our mission in life, it’s what makes us feel whole. Therefore, no challenge is too great and giving up is not an option. As we continue our work here in Uganda, we would like to wish you all a very happy Passover and Easter and send you a big hug from us and from the children.

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