A United Nations-backed scheme aimed at reducing hunger and the spread of HIV/AIDS among young people in Kenya has brought hope to children from the ancestral homeland of United States President-Elect Barack Obama.
Nyanza Province, home to Mr. Obama’s father, has the highest HIV prevalence in Kenya with about one in six people living with the fatal disease, leaving a legacy of thousands of orphans struggling for food and to stay in school.
In 2004, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) set up a pilot programme in four schools in the Bondo district of Nyanza, an impoverished province on the shores of Lake Victoria, to combat the lack of farming skills and knowledge of HIV/AIDS.
Research that suggested parents across Africa have been dying of AIDS before passing on their agricultural know-how to the next generation informed the FAO pilot scheme, called Junior Farmer Field and Life School.
Based on a “living classroom” method, students plant fruit and vegetable gardens in a corner of their schoolyard and break into groups three times a week to tend to the garden and monitor progress.
The FAO scheme helps students gain confidence as well as crucial agricultural skills as they form and defend their own opinions about how to deal with pests or disease, for example, in open debate with their peers.
“There are so many things that have impressed me about the school,” said Perez Adhiambo Aloo, 16, who lost her mother when she was a baby, her father in 2000 and her sister recently.
“I can make my own small garden. I know about drought-resistant crops like millet, cassava and sorghum,” added Ms. Aloo, who is now cared for by her aunt. “I think I'll be able to farm. My aunt is old but the land is there that I can use.”
Thanks to the new educational approach, she is also able to explain what the acronym AIDS stands for, how the disease is transmitted and how to protect herself.
Impressed by the results of the pilot, over 20 other schools in the district have taken up the teaching method, but their gardens are less productive than those in the older established schemes, which are located near water sources.
“We started by ourselves because we were desperate. We’re not assisted but we hope for assistance,” said Odero Walter, principal of a primary school where more than half of the student body are orphans. “We want our children to get knowledge so they’ll continue being farmers. We don’t want them to beg.”
FAO’s Junior Farmer Field and Life School approach now operates in 12 African countries with more countries starting schools this year. Over 17,000 orphans and other vulnerable children have graduated from the schools.