Abidjan- Côte d'Ivoire (PANA) -- The pangs of hunger at schools for beginners have no doubt led many to turn their backs on the classroom, sending some of Africa's best brains down the drain.
"My elder brother dropped out of school because he could not bear hunger.
This has had a profound impact on me.
As for me, I had to walk six kilometres every morning to go to school.
"At midday, I felt obliged to share the small bowl of rice my mother would prepare for me with my mates who did not have anything to eat.
" These were words of Mrs.
Odette Loan Lago Daleba, who perhaps by divine providence has become director of school canteens in Côte d'Ivoire since 2000, to continue sharing food to needy pupils across her homeland.
The programme she heads feeds some 400,000 kids attending 4,000 of the 8,000 primary schools in the West African nation for the trivial sum of 25 FCFA a meal.
And this goes on throughout the school year.
"We do not necessarily need to go into a church to say that we are looking for God.
We can met him everywhere," affirmed the practising Catholic, who made this biblical concept her foothold with a project she virtually piloted since 1989.
Because she precisely knows what "hunger at midday" is all about, Mrs.
Loan fully threw herself into an undertaking, which she is inclined to considering as a sacerdotal duty, and even a divine mission aimed at "saving the greatest possible number of children from this terrible midday hunger.
" A social worker and sociologist, specialised in strategies aimed at integration the population into development, the director of school canteens in Côte d'Ivoire is a willing and determined woman who holds the view that the Africans should not wait for others to bring everything to them.
When in 1997 the World Food Programme (WFP), which had assisted the school feeding project since 1989, announced it was going to withdraw, Mrs.
Loan, who at the time was merely an agent working at the School Canteen Division, mooted during a seminar the idea of closely associating village communities in the operation of the canteens to make them sustainable.
"This programme must be made sustainable.
The people should be made to play a part in its development.
The rice we have is produced in other countries and sent to us by our partners.
Can we not produce rice in Côte d'Ivoire? Can we not breed cattle in Côte d'Ivoire?" she asked participants at the seminar.
Thanks to the support of WFP, which eventually did not withdraw, the technical and financial assistance of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), aid from the Japanese government, which got fully involved in the integrated programme for the sustainability of school canteens, and the unstinting support of Ivorian authorities, Mrs.
Loan is today about to take up her bet.
In her uphill battle to make existing school canteens sustainable and create others throughout the national territory, so that the slogan "One school, one canteen" becomes a palpable reality, she banked on the pride of women organised into village groupings.
"If we want to start real development, which involves the whole society, this has got to be done with women.
Because when you cite a woman to a meeting, you can be sure to have the husband and the children too.
And this is an extraordinary panel to talk about all the problems facing the community," explained Mrs.
Loan, who has already put in place tens of women groupings countrywide.
As a great mixer, who enjoys working on the ground, she does not hesitate to regularly visit the country's remotest villages to hold meetings with the villagers, even at night.
She conjures up, not without a tinge of emotion, the memory of that village head in the region of Gagnoa, in Bété land, who offered a token 5,000 FCFA note in appreciation of her visit.
The village head gesture was prompted by the fact that since 1958 when he was inducted, this was the first time he saw an senior official personally going to the people to sensitise them on worthwhile initiatives.
"In general, they send their agents.
And the agents come to the village in daytime while everybody is in the fields.
So, they don't find anybody.
Remember all your life that you are fighting the right battle," the village head encouraged her.
The efforts and perseverance of the national director of school canteens in Côte d'Ivoire, who describes herself as "having a passion for the canteen", are starting to pay off as the Ivorian model is today being replicated on the African continent.
It is precisely in recognition of her merits that Mrs.
Loan was awarded, and rightly so, the international leadership prize for the fight against hunger and poverty in Washington D.
She received the prize at the same time as Mrs.
Bertini, former WFP Executive Director from 1991 to 2000, in the presence of an audience made up of eminent personalities, including US Senators.