Father Nigel Johnson, SJ, is a Jesuit working in Zimbabwe. He discusses the famine’s impact on children in the country, and what the Jesuit Relief Fund there aims to do.
How best can we ensure that our children get a good education? The obvious answers are to send them to a good school. Have competent, skilled, dedicated teachers. Provide the best books, modern facilities, up to date equipment, the latest technology. But in some parts of the world there is something more fundamental – to feed the children.
However magnificent the facilities, and however brilliant the teacher, a child who cannot concentrate will learn nothing. A hungry child will fall asleep or faint from exhaustion. That is the situation for many children today, and especially those that have to walk up to 5 miles each day to school.
In the UK we take it for granted that the school will have a kitchen, cooks and a dining room for lunch at midday. Unfortunately in Zimbabwe, the government is bankrupt, so no state sponsored meals at school. The parents have to provide what they can.
But then the economy is so bad and unemployment so high that most parents can provide very little. Indeed many parents struggle to find £10 a term school fees. Their children go to school hungry and so, however dedicated the teachers, the children are unable to develop to their full capacity.
This year, the El Niño weather phenomenon has brought drought to Southern Africa, thereby impacting even more on the economy and the supply of food in the rural areas.
Food shortage can impact on children in other ways. If they have a long distance to walk, they may completely drop out of school. Out of school young girls are then forced into early marriages with older men who will then pay school fees. Others sell their bodies in exchange for food.
Zimbabwe is still in a chronic state of vulnerability and like most countries in the region will require food and other humanitarian assistance during the current farming season. The prevailing food security and economic situation has put immense pressure on the social and humanitarian services in the country.
Ordinarily the months of January to March are critical for food security since many people would have used up their cereal reserves. This year is different and there is an early onset of the peak hunger period due to poor harvests in the previous season.
The government alone cannot cope with the situation, hence the need for sustained humanitarian and recovery support programmes to which the Jesuit Relief Fund seeks to contribute. Due to limited funds the proposed target groups for now are orphans and vulnerable children from selected parishes and institutions.
The Jesuit Relief Fund in collaboration with some Jesuit Parishes and institutions seeks to assist some 2000 identified vulnerable children and orphans with basic supplementary food assistance. It is envisaged to do bi-monthly food distribution until the end of the year. Resources permitting the programme will also cater for other vulnerable groups and not just orphans and vulnerable children.
The Holy Father has proclaimed 2016 the Year of Mercy. But mercy is not only shown by God, it should also be shown by us. We who have experienced mercy must in turn grant it to others. Our efforts at the Jesuit Relief Fund may be a drop in the ocean, but as Blessed Mother Theresa said, without that drop, the ocean would be much less.
This article appears in the summer 2016 edition of ‘Jesuits & Friends’.
Posted on 25th May 2016