Dadaab Kenya: Porridge + Classroom = Girls' Education


“I like empowering girls with education”, Daud says enthusiastically while standing in the middle of a narrow alley that leads from the school courtyard to a small place behind the principal’s office. We are at Juba primary school in Dagahaley, one of the five refugee camps in the Kenyan town of Dadaab which lends its name to the biggest settlement for refugees in the world. 

The Dadaab camps were set up in 1991 when the outbreak of civil war in neighboring Somalia lead to a sudden and large influx of refugees into neighboring Kenya. The camps were initially planned for 90,000 people, but this temporary solution has turned into a permanent abode for hundreds of thousands. Babies are born in Dadaab, marriages are celebrated, losses are mourned in the camps that do not feature on any map. Today, 23 years later, Dadaab hosts close to 370,000 refugees, the majority of them from Somalia. There are also small groups from Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda, countries which have seen conflict at one point, forcing families to flee across the border. CARE has been working in Dadaab since 1992, providing food and water as well as education and community development support.

Back to Juba primary school: It is mid-morning break time for the girls and the air is buzzing with chatter and excitement. Dozens of girls wearing a hijab in matching colors as their school uniform queue in the narrow place behind the principal’s office and receive one bright red plastic cup each. With this in hand, they make their way to a big bowl of porridge. It is one cup a girl, every school day for break, meticulously poured by a female teacher who also tries to re-establish some order. The excitement of course mainly stems from the fact that today there is not just lunch, but also a visitor with a photo camera. Girls laugh and then shy away; a few courageous ones step forward and ask for the visitor’s name. It is rare to see foreigners here in Dadaab and like everywhere around the world, a distraction from the school routine is more than welcomed by the girls. 

The porridge is provided by the World Food Program and consists of a corn-soya blend plus sugar, vegetable oil and dried skimmed milk. This composition ensures an intake of 440 kilocalories per child per day and is easy to prepare for the kitchen staff who heat up the mixture with water. “We’ve seen the attendance of girls being raised by the meals, that is for sure”, says Daud, who works as a school meals monitor for CARE. Currently, Juba primary school teaches around 1,050 boys and 770 girls. “Parents don’t necessarily see the need to send their girls to school. But receiving a meal is a good incentive.”

Daud Abdi Shire is 31 years old and has lived in Dadaab since 1992. He himself has gone through the CARE education system in Dadaab. After finishing his secondary education, he switched places in the classroom: “I’ve worked as a teacher for six years and sometimes I still teach today when there are gaps, especially in math and science. But I really enjoy working for the school feeding program. It is such a blessing for the girls.” And where does he see his own future? “I want to go to a safe place to continue my life there”, he replies without hesitation. As much as Dadaab has become Daud’s home, as much as he is committed to work and invest in its children here, this harsh place will always remain a temporary solution. “This is not a good environment.”

By now, break time is over and the female teacher herds the giggling group of girls back to their classrooms. With their stomach filled and the visitors gone, they will surely be able to concentrate on their lesson now. It is pretty simple math: take a cup of porridge and a classroom and see the number of girls attending school rise. And see them shine, amidst all the hardship that comes with growing up in a refugee camp.

by Sabine Wilke


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