BARINGO, KENYA — Wind twisters swirl around in the dust here, and the anthills are as tall as mud huts. No rain has fallen in the Baringo region for more than a year, and the cattle are all dead or dying.
Young married women in brass-and-bead neck collars sit under the Loma berry trees peeling their poisonous fruit - which must be boiled 24 hours to kill the toxins - and talk about finding water, while the men lie around on the parched earth nearby doing nothing much.
But the children, at least, are having lunch, thanks to a foreign aid program that is nurturing great societal change, one tiny pea at a time.
In a country where most children are underfed even in the best of times, and where only an estimated 30 percent of youngsters from pastoralist tribes make it through grade school, the World Food Program project is working both to check starvation and keep the next generation, especially girls, in classrooms.
The program, being copied in Tanzania, southern Sudan, and Somalia, started 20 years ago in Kenya's arid and semi-arid regions. Using food provided primarily by the United States, WFP, in conjunction with the Kenyan government, now serves free lunches today to approximately 1 million children in 12 different districts.
Where food cultivation has proved impossible, schools get food year-round. Other schools are included on an emergency basis. The current drought has almost tripled the number of free meals needed.
Lunch is the same every day at every school: peas, corn, and oil.
"If they ever ask for seconds, we suggest they go look for a well and fill up on water," says Jane Amos, the deputy headmistress at the Nginyang primary school, as she shoos away a little girl lining up for another bowl of mash.
For many children in the drought-hit areas of Kenya, the WFP lunch is their only meal of the day - and they gobble it up.
"Some of them get some porridge for breakfast at home, or perhaps some ugali [a corn cake] for dinner, but I would say most get nothing," says Ms. Amos, who herself attended the Nginyang and knows hunger firsthand.
For many parents who often cannot afford to feed their children, the free lunches are the only reason to pack them off to the schoolhouse. Girls, in particular, benefit from the lunches.
Traditionally, pastoralists have not seen any reason to send females to school. On the contrary, the belief here is that the sooner girls are married off, the more useful they can be to the family. Pokot, Masai, Samburu, and other pastoralist tribes circumcise girls as young as 9, and then immediately find them husbands - usually much older, with some wealth.
"In good years a dowry will be something like 30 goats, 20 cows, a camel or two, and even some donkeys," says Mohammed Abnidur, the WFP field monitor for Baringo. "Putting this off even as you are asked to pay for a school uniform and books and chalk seems somewhat crazy around here."
In years of drought, however, school attendance in the arid areas rises dramatically, especially among girls. With livestock dying of thirst and starvation, the typical dowry price is forced down, making marriage a less attractive proposal for parents.
Amos has seen the number of pupils at her school double in the past year, with almost equal numbers of girls and boys.
Taking advantage of the sudden high enrollment, many schools have quickly set up boarding facilities so that when times get better and the pastoralists begin migrating again, they will have the option of leaving their children in class.
Several schools have also begun awareness campaigns to explain the importance of education. A school choir from Nginyang, for example, goes around nearby villages performing what might be considered the Pokot version of a pep rally:
"Animals may die. Rain might disappear and people will suffer ... but educated people will always be on the safe side. They will be employed and earn a living."
Although there are no reliable statistics on student retention, Simon Sirebong, headmaster of the small Chesirimion primary school some 12 kilometers away from Nginyang, says some of the parents are getting the message. "They see some students going on and getting jobs as teachers and making money, and they realize a new era has come."
Some of the children are beginning to dream of better things than a nomad herder's life. A fourth-grader at Chesirimion, Nelson Kakuku, says he wants to be a pilot. Seventh-grader Grace Chelob wants to be a nurse. "Even if my father tells me to get married right now, I will refuse," she says.
Hendrica Kondo, WFP regional gender officer coordinating the school lunch program, says that while most of the children will stay within the traditional pastoralist structure even after going through school, their education benefits them immensely.
"Research shows that even four years of education can make a big difference," Ms. Kondo says. "The girls, for example, can read, and they have a better sense of themselves. Also, the little they learn about family planning and nutrition helps them become better mothers and wives."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society