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With a full stomach and a growing mind

By Mike Milne

The clean cement-plastered walls of the classroom ring with the rhythmic singing of 50 eager young voices. The children stand at their desks - boys with heads shaven except for a tuft above their foreheads, girls with hair in neat, tightly braided corn-rows, all in uniform blue smocks - as the teacher leads them.

"A, B, C, D, E, F, G.... Oh, how happy we will be, when we learn our ABCs."

The visitors from faroff Canada and nearby Mekelle (capital of Ethiopia's Tigray province, 500 km north of the capital city of Addis Ababa), have already been greeted with welcoming songs. Next, the most eager hand-wavers among the four- to six-year-olds take turns with the teacher's pointer, leading their classmates through the English and Tigrinya alphabets.

Then they are served a hearty lunch - part of the kindergarten program thanks to wheat from United Church donors to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. It's a five-year pilot project for early childhood care and education, in classrooms built by Oxfam Canada, with the Foodgrains Bank's 100 tonnes of wheat per year managed by the Relief Society of Tigray (REST). There are 14 other almost identical classrooms in other villages in the district of Degua Tembien.

We arrive at Hagere Selam on graduation day. Students take turns wearing a homemade mortar-board hat, parents gather outside, discussing the value of the school and community income-generating projects that keep it going, thanking the visitors for their church's help and waiting for the graduation to begin. The six-year-olds will enter an area elementary school knowing their alphabets, basic math and language skills, health and personal care skills.

Like many rural areas in Ethiopia, this village in Tigray's central highlands was without an elementary school of any kind a decade ago. Today, REST is scrambling to respond to requests for similar programs in Tigray's other districts, while working with government to build rural elementary school programs across the countryside.

These days, REST is the biggest non-governmental organization in Ethiopia; in Tigray, it operates a wide range of relief and environmental projects. The organization looks fondly on the United Church as one of the international organizations that helped it feed the people of Tigray - taking food through dangerous back-door supply lines - during the civil war that ended about 12 years ago. Today, as well as helping people survive the current drought, REST is working hard to help build the education system that is a foundation for future development.

In a country where rural children are responsible for many farm and household tasks and food is often in short supply, the promise of a good meal is incentive enough for attending school. Care for young children also means their mothers can work without worrying what they're up to. More than that, the children get a taste for learning. Despite the two-birr monthly school fees (about 30 cents), most parents understand that education is the way to a more secure future.

"We are ignorant but our children will be relieved of the situation we are in," says one mother, after thanking the visitors for their help. "We are happy about it, we have to strengthen it and develop it."

The United Church-backed school feeding program in Tigray is unique. Although the church's African partners use Mission and Service Fund grants to finance a variety of programs, the program at Degua Tembien is the only one of its kind backed by the United Church, with resources provided by church "equity" in the Foodgrains Bank.

The idea of providing food for schoolchildren, however, (familiar to Canadians whose kids often benefit from school "breakfast club" programs), is increasingly taking root in Ethiopia.

The World Food Program (WFP) which co-ordinates the United Nations' food-related relief and development work and provides about a third of Ethiopia's relief needs on average, is operating lunch programs for 300,000 schoolchildren across Ethiopia. These programs are funded in part by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which is contributing $27 million over three years.

"It's crude, but it works," says Al Kehler, a WFP program officer based in Addis Ababa. "We found by putting food in schools, attendance goes way up." As well, school participation by girls - traditionally lower than boys -rises significantly when schooling includes food.

With only about 45 percent of children attending school, food can help promote development through education. And as Canadian parents and teachers already recognize, well-fed children learn better.

While parents are happy to see their children well-fed over the short term, the teachers instil a love of learning that can put them on a personal path of development.

According to Tsegai Asefa, the REST official who oversees the United Church-backed schools, "even if their parents want them to stop their education," at some point in the future, "they won't be able to, once these children have had a taste for learning.... We can work to change the attitudes of the people and the country."

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