ARUA, UGANDA—In July 2009, a famine had students at Ociba Primary School clamped tightly in its jaws. On my visit there, the place seemed listless, and strangely empty, even though hundreds of kids milled about. Like the hot air in this dusty place, you could almost breathe in the famine, the suffering, and it would scar your insides.
I have walked through some of the world’s most awful slums, fought back tears while visiting with victims of war, and spent an overcast, drizzly day at a former Nazi concentration camp. Nothing left me as shaken and depressed as my 2009 visit to the Ociba Primary School.
Thus, it was with palpable reservations that I recently returned to Ociba. What I discovered was that today, thanks to two Rotary Club chapters half a world apart, life is very different for the school’s 1,019 students.
The turnaround at Ociba began in the fall of 2009 in, oddly, Parkville, Missouri, where the local Rotary club heard a radio story from July 2009 about how a famine was ravaging school kids in remote northwestern Uganda. In the story, the kids, in their own voices, described how they were hungry, and ate perhaps only one small meal per day. At that time, School Administrator Ezale Kennedy estimated that about 100 youngsters a day missed school because they were too hungry or sick from malnutrition to attend. He said some even skipped school to scavenge or steal food. Even when they did attend, Kennedy said the students couldn’t concentrate on the simplest tasks. The school had no lunch program, and students went home for lunch. The problem, however, was that for many, there was no food at home, either. The famine that year at the school merely reflected the hunger in the community, where at least 26 famine victims were confirmed dead by a local official.
Upon hearing the famine story, Parkville’s Rotarians quickly raised $1000, which was sent to their Rotary brothers in Arua to start a school lunch program. The Arua Rotary Club received the money, and used it to buy bulk foods (beans, grain for porridge, cooking oil). Then, using their own resources, the Rotarians here bought and donated cooking utensils and a stove to Ociba.
The school lunch program was launched during the three month spring term (February-April) in 2010, and was a huge success, thanks not only to the Rotarians but to a handful of parents who were also able to make small contributions to the lunch program. The $1000 went a long way, paying for three months of school lunches for almost 1,000 kids.
Kennedy gushes when asked about the effects of having lunches at school, even if it was for just three months so far. He noted that absenteeism dropped to almost zero while the quality of the students’ school work soared. The kids I talked to agreed, noting that they now feel like they can conquer any academic challenge.
Arua Rotary Club President Alex Matua said the lunch program showed the students that people cared, thus giving the kids “hope for a better life.”
The worst of the famine ended last year, although hunger continues to stalk these impoverished kids. Kennedy said 40% of Ociba’s students still don’t get enough to eat. Hunger is a problem throughout Uganda, where 9-million (28% of the population) people are “food insecure” (un.org).
Though the first installment from Parkville ran out last spring, Parkville’s Rotary has recently donated $1000 more for school lunches. Of course, the school’s boosters hope that this latest donation won’t be the last, and indeed Parkville Rotary’s Don Breckon, who spearheaded the original aid package, said he is looking for ways to expand the funding for the school.
It’s a new sense of confidence that made Ociba School feel so different this time. I could see it in the kids faces, and even read it on a hand-made sign posted in the school’s spacious courtyard—“We have plans and hopes for the future.” I noticed the same sign in 2009, but thought it seemed sadly unrealistic. Today, thanks to two Rotary Clubs, hopes and plans seem within reach for Ociba’s students.