LOURI, Chad — One morning, a little girl called Achta sat in the front row of this village’s only 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 his 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?”
Drawing a circle is considered a developmental marker. It tests fine motor skills, the use of the small muscles that control the fingers, allowing us to eat spaghetti with a fork or cut a piece of cardboard with scissors. Children who are developing at a normal rate can trace a circle by age 3, and Achta doesn’t look much older.
She is so small that you can hoist her up on one hip easily, as her mother sometimes does when she carries her to school. She is so small that when she sits on her bunk in class, her feet dangle a foot off the ground.
But Achta isn’t three. 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. That’s more than half the children in the village.
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,” says 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, creating a kind of grass igloo. 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, a percentage that almost exactly mirrors the number of children stunted in the county.
School director Hassane Wardougou sums up the reason for the class’ overwhelming failure: “They’re too little,” he says. “When they are this small, they don’t understand anything.”