Behind the scenes: Dadaab refugee camp

One of the “countries” profiled in my upcoming book, What’s for Lunch? is not a country at all. The Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya (near the border with Somalia), however, are home to some 300,000 displaced people, mostly Somalis fleeing violence and lawlessness in their homeland. The vast, overcrowded, under-serviced complex may not be a country, but it is a world unto itself.

Built in the early 1990s to house less than a third of the current number of refugees, Dadaab (actually 3 separate camps) lacks pretty much everything, including adequate infrastructure (proper sanitation, water, etc.). Will Storr’s harrowing story in The Independent this summer called “No Way Out: Inside the Worlds’ Largest Refugee Camp” paints a vivid picture of what this means for hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis.

For children–some of the most vulnerable people in the camps—life in Dadaab can be incredibly difficult. Education is a right but less than half of the kids attend school. For those who do, there is fortified corn-soy blend (CSB) porridge served in the cup at left. Provided by the World Food Program as part of its food for education program, this school meal is intended to increase enrollment and attendance.

In this segment of Behind the Scenes, my ongoing series about the making of the book What’s for Lunch, a WFP worker in Dadaab offers some insight into why, despite the meal, enrollment continues to hover around 50%. It is part of an email sent to me when I requested more information about the school experience. I have edited it for the sake of  brevity:

An average refugee school has an enrollment of 2,000 to 2,500. The physical structures are tin-walled classrooms that were constructed during the emergency phase [the 1990s]. The structures are in a dilapidated state and need urgent renovation. The area is arid and semi-arid region where temperatures range above 37 celsius. Learners & teachers endure high temperatures inside these classrooms. Due to space constraints, lower primary runs two shifts per day and overcrowded classrooms contribute to a high drop-out rate among students and a low completion rate. Classroom to pupil ratio is 1:103 students (whereas the UNHCR standard is 1:40). Book to pupil ratio is 1:7 and minimum standard is 1:1; desks pupil ratio is 1:6 and minimum standards is 1:3. If every child wanted to go to school, they could simply not be accommodated.

It’s important to note that the WFP’s school feeding program has increased enrollment— but the poor conditions and limited facilities mean that these efforts can only go so far.

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