09/01/2017 13:51 EDT | Updated 09/01/2017 13:59 EDT

Famine Lends Back To School Grim Significance In Africa

Being the oldest child, Joseph was plucked from class and sent to work picking coffee for a few neighbours.

Mark Nonkes/World Vision
Joseph is a child from Ethiopia who won't be going back to school this fall.

Next week, my six-year-old nephew in Guelph will enter Grade 1. He's already got his first day of school outfit picked out: a blue T-shirt and an orange pair of shorts. He's got a new pencil case, a new lunch box and a new pair of shoes.

The place my nephew was born in enables him to get excited about lessons of math and reading, about lunchboxes with sandwiches and fruit and playground games of tag.

In other corners of the world, children are not so lucky.

Two weeks ago, I met 11-year-old Joseph in the southwestern part of Ethiopia. Although he enrolled in Grade 1 a few years ago; he never completed it.

Mark Nonkes/World Vision
Joseph, his mother and his little brother.

Drought hit Joseph's community. His parents, who are coffee farmers, were affected. The coffee trees had just a few ripe coffee cherries when it was time to harvest.

The money the family normally earned from the sale of their coffee wasn't enough to buy food. Instead, Joseph's mother and father had to take construction jobs, building mud walls in the nearby town.

When Joseph's mom became pregnant, she wasn't able to work in the final months of pregnancy. Being the oldest child, Joseph was plucked from class and sent to work picking coffee for a few neighbours. He climbed trees, picking the little red cherries of coffee from sunrise to sunset. For his work, he earned US$0.30 per day, money he gave to his parents to buy beans or flour so that his family of five could eat.

The health staff were worried he might die if he didn't get immediate nutritious food.

Shortly after Joseph's mom Heirut gave birth, she was able to go back to work as a farm labourer. Instead of picking coffee, Joseph was tasked with looking after his little brother while his mom was away.

"I play with him, I help my mom take care of him," Joseph says.

But Joseph hasn't been able to figure out what to do when baby Maluken cries. The baby gets too hungry during the day when his mom is away. He won't stop crying and there is little Joseph can do about it.

Maluken is now nine-months old but is only 3.4 kilograms. He can't sit up. A recent trip to the health clinic revealed that Maluken was far too small for his age — he was identified as severely malnourished. The health staff were worried he might die if he didn't get immediate nutritious food.

Joseph has already lost a younger brother. His mom says the one-year-old boy died due to diarrhea and vomiting.

When the health staff identified Maluken as malnourished, they quickly put the baby on an emergency nutrition programme. Maluken was given packages of Plumpy'Nut, a peanut-butter paste that has rich proteins, minerals and nutrients included in it to help children quickly gain weight and end the risk of death.

Marke Nonkes/World Vision
Joseph and his brother Maluken.

Baby Maluken has started taking the paste and smiles when he eats it. But his brother is still worried.

"I want him to be a healthy boy," Joseph says.

Back in Canada, concerns like Joseph's are far from the minds of children.

Spencer is the same age as Joseph. Because he lives in Canada, he's already thinking about what he'll learn this year.

"I like to learn about new things every day, but I like math, science, gym, art and media the most," he says.

Education is important for his future, Spencer says. He's not sure what he wants to be yet, though he says veterinarian or engineer are possibilities. "I just need to prepare for my future," Spencer explains. "You know, when I am all grown up."

Grandison family
Spencer in his family's garden, where he has spent much of his time this summer.

While Spencer looks forward to lunchtimes of grilled cheese sandwiches, Joseph is hoping this year's coffee harvest is better. Perhaps that will mean that his family can finally afford enough food, so that he might be able to go back to school.

"I see them getting ready for school," he says of other children. "They are learning but I'm not learning anything."

World Vision is responding to the hunger crisis in this part of Ethiopia, along with similar crises in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. More than 1.4 million children are out of school due to the hunger crisis across the Horn of Africa.

With your help, we're helping deliver food assistance to thousands of families who are in crisis. World Vision nurses are also partnering with the local health workers to provide training to local nutrition workers so that malnourished children are given the best possible care and treatment.

To address the situation for the longer term, World Vision is also helping mothers with children under age five form gardening groups and savings clubs so that families are no longer relying on a single crop to provide for their needs and have enough money set aside during times when weather creates havoc.

Mark Nonkes/Grandison family
Joseph and Spencer are the same age, but worlds apart.

Still, I find myself worried about the children who I have met. I wish they too could be excited about the upcoming school year, about lunch boxes full of food and about playing with friends, instead of worrying about how their younger siblings will survive.

You can help families struggling with this burden. Donate to the African Hunger Crisis Response today.

Mark Nonkes is a Canadian humanitarian worker and writer currently based in Nairobi. He has worked in 17 countries for World Vision and is focusing on a hunger crisis affecting 25 million people in eastern Africa.

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