LOURI, CHAD: One morning, a little girl called Achta sat in the front row of her village’s school and struggled mightily with the assignment her teacher had given her.
She grasped a piece of chalk in her tiny fingers. Her face tense with concentration, she tried to direct the chalk clockwise across her slate. She’d been asked to draw a circle. What she drew looked more like a lopsided triangle.
After half a dozen tries, her teacher took away her slate and tried to hide his frustration as he wiped it clean with the palm of his hand. He held her miniature hand in his and traced a circle, then a second, then a third. “Like this,” he said. “Like an egg. See?”
Children who are developing at a normal rate can trace a circle by age 3, and Achta doesn’t look much older. But Achta isn’t 3. School records show she is 7 years old.
In this village where malnutrition has become chronic, children have simply stopped growing. In the county that includes Louri, 51.9 percent of children are stunted, one of the highest rates in the world, according to a survey published by UNICEF.
Stunting is the result of having either too few calories, or too little variety in the types of calories consumed, or both.
When a child doesn’t receive enough calories, the body prioritizes the needs of vital organs over growth. What this does to the brain is dramatic. A 2007 medical study in Spain compared the CAT scan of a normal 3-year-old child and that of a severely malnourished one.
The circumference of the healthy brain is almost twice as large. Presented side by side, it’s like looking at a cantaloupe sitting next to a softball.
The struggle that is on display every day in Louri’s one-room schoolhouse reveals not only the staggering price these children are paying, but also the price it has exacted from Africa. Up to two in five kids across the continent are stunted, researchers estimate, which means that they fall short physically and, even more devastating, mentally. It’s a slowdown that creeps across a community, cutting down the human capital, leaving behind a generation of people unable to attain their potential.
“We have a habit of focusing on mortality, because the photographs are more shocking. But there is a silent phenomenon that is going on — it’s stunting,” said Jacques Terrenoire, the Chad country director of the French aid group, Action Against Hunger. “It poses a fundamental problem for the future of a country.”
Elementary School No. 1 in Louri is a reflection of the village’s modest means. It’s made entirely of dried grass woven into a lattice held together by branches. To enter the school, you bend down, tuck in your head and slip through a hole.
The school is organized into two rows of bunks. The smallest children sit in the front.
Last year, 78 boys and girls enrolled in the equivalent of first grade in Chad’s school system. Of those children, 42 failed the test to graduate into the next grade.
Among those held back this year were Achta.
Achta’s birth seven years ago coincided with a major drought. Climate change has meant that the normally once-a-decade droughts are now coming every few years. The rains that failed to fall over Chad when Achta was born failed again when she was 3, when she was 5 and when she started first grade last year.
Most days, Achta leaves home without eating anything.
“They come to school having had nothing more than a glass of water. They can’t make it till the end of the day,” said their teacher, Djobelsou Guidigui. “Some fall asleep in class. Others vomit.”