The Cameroon Anglophone conflict drove some 855,000 kids out of school, and re-enrollment in the country’s rural areas has been patchy. But a local NGO is solving this problem by tackling an underlying crisis: hunger.
It is a chilly October morning in Fonfuka, a rustic community in northwestern Cameroon. Beatrice swiftly grabs her school bag from the locally-made bamboo chair and struggles to place it on her back under the weight of her books. The 10-year old hurries out the door to get to school. She then returns in a rush to get her forgotten plate.
Beatrice eventually arrives on campus few minutes late on what is her first day at school in four years. What prompted her to return to class after such a long hiatus? She had seen other kids taking plates to school for a free lunch provided by a the Community Vision Group (CVG), a local non-profit organisation founded in August 2017.
But upon her arrival at school, Beatrice experiences yet another embarrassment: the free lunch is not served that Tuesday.
Beatrice is one of more than 855,000 kids who were forced out of school when the Cameroon Anglophone conflict broke out.
It started in 2016, when teachers and lawyers in the English speaking regions of Cameroon threw in their tools in protest over their perceived marginalisation by the Francophone-dominated central government. The peaceful protest later morphed into a civil war when Anglophone militants with a secessionist agenda took up arms in 2017.
CVG is now working to increase enrolment rates in private, mission and state-run schools through its home-grown school feeding programme. “The group was born out of the passion to contribute to a poverty free society, where children can live to their full potential,” Miki Gilbert Ngwane, CVG’s CEO, told FairPlanet.
Food has served as a pull factor for some kids. “My Children were eager to go to class knowing food was coming,” said Nana Hamboy, a Parent/Teacher Association President of Ngodi Primary School who is also the village chief.
In 2020, the Cameroon government declared most of the villages in the crisis-affected areas as food insecure. 11 Divisions in the Far North, South West and North West regions were threatened.
According to the UN, some 3.9 million Cameroonians (about 16 percent of the population) face food insecurity, with 211,000 people in acute situations.
A FIERCE FIGHT FOR SCHOOL ATTENDANCE
Ngwane of CVG strongly believes that food plays a central role not only in addressing the immediate humanitarian needs of the population, but in ultimately ending the crisis.
“There is an absolute need to scale the school feeding programme, especially in the North West and South West Regions where children have been out of school for six years running and have lost the love for education,” Ngwane told FairPlanet.
His crusade seems to be bearing some fruit. In Catholic School Fonfuka and Baptist School Fonfuka, two institutions that benefit from the programme, enrolment increased from 600 in 2022 to about 800 this year. This is despite the fact that some public schools resumed their operations in 2023.
“The population that is in these two schools is very high, and I know many children who are running there because they are following that food,” explained Kimbi George, a Government Inspector in charge of primary education in the area.
George cautions, however, that a scientific study is needed to determine the factors that contributed to the increase in school enrollment, given that politicians and members of the elite in the area had also launched a massive back-to-school campaign in July 2022 with the intention of getting expelled students back to class.
But whatever the cause behind the spike in school attendance, Fred, one of the 1,200 kids benefiting from this programme and who had been out of school since 2017, now has a clear plan for the current school year.
“Even if I don’t come to school on other days of the week, I will always be present on Thursdays when food is available,” the 10-year old said after taking a full meal in September 2022.
CORRELATION BETWEEN SCHOOL FEEDING AND ENROLLMENT RATES
The World Food Programme – Cameroon Country office (WFP Cameroon), which currently serves school meals to some 83,000 school children in 197 schools, has established a clear link between school feeding and attendance rates.
“There is evidence that school feeding programmes have had a favourable influence on school enrolment in Cameroon’s crisis-affected areas,” Wanja Kaaria, World Food Programme Country Director for Cameroon, told FairPlanet.
“School feeding programmes have been demonstrated to enhance school attendance in some crisis-affected communities, as children are more inclined to attend school when they are guaranteed a daily meal,” Kaaria said.
“Meal provision also helps to improve children’s health and nutrition, which can boost their academic achievement,” she added.
Issa Timothe, Director of Ngodi-Mafalgaou, a Government Primary School in the Adamawa Region of Cameroon, which has witnessed an influx of refugees, stated, “In the past, at this time of the school year, I had far fewer pupils because of transhumance activities. Now, thanks to the [school feeding] project, the attendance rate has improved and my students come to school.”
WFP Cameroon also argues that school feeding programmes can help to address some of the underlying reasons of conflict in crisis-affected areas.
“Families may be less likely to send their children to work or join armed organisations to earn money for food, if they are provided meals,” indicated the WFP Cameroon Country Director. “This can help to lessen the probability of children being recruited into armed groups or becoming victims of exploitation.”
MALAWI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC QUEUE IN
In just under a year, CVG has started exporting its strategy to address the needs of kids displaced by the conflict in the Central African Republic.
Violence in this country, which shares a border with Cameroon, surged in 2012 when the predominantly-Muslim Seleka rebel group ousted President Francois Bozize, accusing his government of violating peace agreements.
CVG’s Cameroon Country Director, Julius Ntang Meleng, who on his last birthday had raised some FCFA 211,000 (roughly €323,24) to meet this growing need, told FairPlanet that their strategy is community-driven.
“To be more successful and sustainable, we ensure community ownership by getting the community fully involved in raising funds, procuring food commodities, cooking and serving kids in their study places,” Meleng recounted.
The group has enlisted smallholder farmers for training on utilising sustainable and practical farming techniques and setting up school gardens for a steady supply of locally produced food commodities.
“Since September 2022, when we launched the programme, our main sources of funding have been the community, volunteers and well-wishers who either do one-time or monthly donations,” he said.
CVG plans to expand the programme to neighbouring countries affected by the Nigerian-based Boko Haram terror group, as well as to other parts of the continent. “We are already present in Malawi and will be rolling out plans to start feeding as soon as we get the required funding,” Meleng added.
A WFP Cameroon benchmarking mission to Ghana, a learning exchange at the Global Child Nutrition Forum in Benin and two scoping missions to Egypt have served as information-sharing platforms for home-grown school feeding programmes in Cameroon and Africa.
Actors from across the continent have also been sharing their experiences at the African Centre for Excellence. It is specialised in food security, nutrition and resilience.
But the programme, despite its benefits, faces its share of obstacles. Access to funding has been limited, which poses a threat to CVG’s strategy. And given that the food is home grown, the method has also been limited by the fact that some target communities are not positioned for the cultivation of certain crops that are needed for the meals. Programme leaders thus often resort to buying produce from other cities.
However, some 60 smallholder farmers now have a steady market as they supply food commodities to these schools.
To surmount these hurdles and make school feeding Cameroon’s primary safety net against food insecurity, WFP Cameroon says it is willing to collaborate with local communities and organisations, to support farmers and to build local capacities. It also works to integrate with education programmes and to monitor and evaluate progress.
“Home-Grown School Feeding is an investment for future generations, allowing every child, especially girls, to attain educational and nutritional achievements,” Wanja Kaaria of WFP Cameroon concluded. “[We are] partnering with the government to realise the potential of Home Grown-School Feeding to become Cameroon’s largest safety net.”