EL WAK, Somalia—In this remote town on the Horn of Africa, about 270 miles south of the capital city of Mogadishu, schoolchildren loiter in the streets in search of food.
“I can’t go to school. I’m feeling hungry,” said 13-year-old Mohamed Azim, who was busy looking for water and food distributed by the United Nations. “I have not eaten anything for days. Our school has stopped giving us meals. I have been forced to leave school and save my life.”
Azim and many other Somali children have dropped out of school because of a continuing drought.
“We cannot keep students in schools because we have no food and water to give them,” said Farah Hassan, a teacher at Bursar Primary School in the El Wak district of the Gedo region. “Many have been forced to leave school in search of water and food. Others have gone to urban centers to escape drought.”
The scale of the crisis is alarming, said Gabriella Waaijman, regional director of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “On average, a staggering 3,500 people per day have fled their homes this year searching for food and water to stay alive,” Waaijman said in a statement. “We are witnessing a mass exodus from rural villages not seen since the deadly 2011–2012 famine that killed 260,000 people.”
Somalia already has the world’s lowest enrollment rate for primary-school‐age children. Today, only 30 percent of primary school students and 26 percent of secondary school students attend courses, according to the U.N. The number of out‐of‐school children and youths between the ages of 6 and 18 stands at three million, a significant increase compared to a 2016 estimate of 1.7 million children who were missing school.
In June, the British nonprofit World Vision International reported that more than 80,000 children in Somalia who had been enrolled in school were forced out of education by school closures and because they were migrating with their families due to the drought.
“In many places, children are on the move, in search of safety and food, forgoing their education,” said Zacharia Imeje, World Vision’s regional humanitarian and emergency affairs advisor in East Africa. “In drought-affected areas of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, we have heard of schools closing because children no longer attend, as they search for food or water to survive.”
More children in Somalia will drop out of school in the months to come if drought conditions persist, Imeje added. “This will limit their opportunities for the future and increase their risk of exploitation.”
The majority of out-of-school children are in relatively lawless central and southern Somalia, according to World Vision.
But Puntland, an autonomous state in northeastern Somalia, has also been hit hard.
Braving the scorching sun and baking-hot sand, 16-year-old Halima Dhool was determined to walk the 50 miles along the coast from the port town of Qandala in Puntland to a refugee camp in Bosaso to obtain food and water. Education was not her priority.
“I’m heading to the camp right now so that I can get some food to eat,” she said, with a torn schoolbag hanging precariously on her back. “Enough is enough. I have been patiently attending school, but I have finally been forced to abandon it and search for food. I have not eaten anything for the past week.”
Several schools in the Qandala area have been closed. Those still operating have few students left in classes. More and more parents say they are ready to sacrifice education and keep their children out of school if the drought persists.
“We cannot afford to let our children die in schools because we want them to get education,” said Abdinasir Hussein, a parent who has withdrawn two of his children from Salama primary school in Puntland. “We will enroll them again when the drought situation gets better. For now, we are busy looking for water and food.”
In El Wak, a divided town on the Somalia-Kenya border, officials pointed out that hunger and pupil absenteeism were major issues contributing to low learning levels.
“The problem in our area is poverty,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a government-appointed village elder official. “Most of the residents here depend on livestock as a source of livelihood. When there is drought they force their children out of school to go and search for pastures for their animals.”
Meanwhile, Action Africa Help International, a regional nonprofit organization, has launched a training program to help citizens cope with the scarcity of water, including training women on good agricultural practices, the safe handling of milk and other skills.
“We are fully supporting the project because it will improve the livelihoods of our people so that they can stay around and ensure the region is developed and children can go to school,” said Ibrahim Adan, the local official in El Wak.
But the training didn’t inspire Azim and others to stay in school. “I will only go back to school when there is food,” he said. “For now, I am looking for anything I can eat.”