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Lack of food stunts Chad children, damages minds

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This delay in the maturation of the nervous system imposes a stunning price on society. The World Bank estimates that individuals stunted as children lose more than 10 percent of lifetime earnings. The countries in which they live lose between 2 to 3 percent of GDP per year due to low labor productivity.

The lasting damage that this causes inches across a community, leaving behind a population that struggles with the most basic of tasks.

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Teacher Guidigui dismisses the class for recess on a recent morning. Then he sits on Achta’s bunk and puts his head in his hands. The new school year started two months ago, and half his class is repeating the lessons he first taught them in 2011.

Instead of the lessons going more smoothly, the children struggle with the same simple tasks they did a year ago. "They’ve forgotten everything," he says, dejected. "Really, it’s not easy. You need to be courageous to do what I do."

When recess is over, Achta runs back in. She piles into her bunk. Youssouf climbs over her. Nasruddin and Mahamat wiggle into place in the bunk they are now sharing for the second year.

It’s time for the math lesson. Guidigui wants each child to get up and count to 10 out loud.

The teacher goes bunk by bunk, pupil by pupil. When it’s his turn, Achta’s older brother, who is several years her senior, counts as far as eight before getting tripped up. He is around 9 years old, and he sits in the back of the class with the older children. The performance becomes more and more muddled as the instructor works his way to the front, where the youngest children sit.

Once he gets to Achta’s bunk, Youssouf stands up, looks at his feet and mumbles his way up to five. Achta is last and by the time the teacher calls on her, she’s heard 40 other children repeat the sequence. She stands and smiles shyly at her instructor.

Even the number one escapes her.

A gust of wind sweeps into the schoolhouse. It comes in through the spaces between the dried grass, blowing a horizontal shaft across the bunks. For a second it fills the awkward silence, as the 7-year-old girl struggles to perform a skill normally attained by the age of 4.

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Progress on reducing stunting has been painfully slow, in part because the phenomenon does not rise to the level of an emergency. Globally, the percentage of stunted children fell from 39.7 percent in 1990 to 26.7 percent in 2010, according to a report by Save the Children.

It’s Africa, though, that is paying the highest cost. The continent has seen an overall reduction in stunting of just 2 percent in 20 years, and today more than 38 percent of kids in Africa are stunted, says the report. In fact, slow progress combined with population growth means that by 2025, 11.7 million more children will be stunted in Africa than are today, the London-based charity found.

Two decades ago, Asia and Africa had nearly the same rate of stunting, but Africa has stagnated while Asia leapt forward. Experts say there is a direct link to progress in agriculture. In Africa, the yields of staple cereals are now one-third of those in Asia.

The parents of Achta and her bunkmates live off the land exactly the same way as their forebears did. What’s changed is the sky above them.

The village of Louri is located on a ledge of sand, a seven-hour drive from the nearest paved road. The sun is so bright, it bleaches the landscape white. Almost nothing takes root here.

For generations the people of this bone-dry region lived off their herds. They drank their milk for protein and sold what was left to buy the many things that cannot be produced in this village, starting with vegetables.

When the rains were plentiful, the wild grasses around the village stayed green for months at a time. Now they are only green for a brief flash, right after the short-lived rains. For the rest of the year, the fields are the dull color of cream of wheat. The village’s animals are in sync with the land, giving birth and producing milk only when the grass is at its most nutritious.

"When I was small, we had milk all year round. And we didn’t get sick," says village chief Abakar Adou, the father of Achta’s classmate, 7-year-old Nasruddin. "Now we’re lucky if we’re able to get milk two months out of the year."

Without milk, the villagers are forced to sell their actual animals, usually a calf or a foal, for cash to buy basic staples.

The families of Achta, Nasruddin and Mahamat had no baby animals to sell in recent months, so their kitchens are bare. The flour they eat day after day lacks folic acid, iron, zinc and Vitamin A, micronutrients that are crucial to a child’s development.

Only Youssouf’s family had a goat that recently gave birth. They sold the kid at the market for $15. His mother used some of the money to buy dried okra and sun-dried tomatoes.

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