The hunger of the seemingly healthy and well-groomed school students at Moruthane Secondary School, about 80km south of Lesotho's capital, Maseru, is at first not apparent, but as the morning progresses they become listless and their concentration lapses.
Their teacher, Nigerian national Yemi Ajijedidun, 32, told IRIN, "They are not bad students; they are bright, but they are hungry."
The learners, aged 14 to 16, are enthusiastic about their education, and the packed rudimentary concrete-block classroom, which has a few desks but no electricity, is testament to their desire to learn, but Lesotho's educators acknowledge that the greatest obstacle to learning is hunger.
Mountainous Lesotho, surrounded entirely by South Africa, is experiencing one of its worst droughts in three decades: just under a quarter of the population, or 400,000 people, are food insecure.
"Drought has robbed the children's families of their crops this year. They come to school on empty stomachs. I honestly don't know where or when they are fed. These are the ones who nod off during class; they have no energy," the school's principal Francis Adewale, 39, a Nigerian national, told IRIN.
Adewale recently convinced the community to help build a new school building, as the old one was on the verge of collapse. The living quarters of the four teachers are about a kilometre from the school, but their daily commute on foot is nothing compared to their students' journey of up to 30km a day.
"We build right on the road to make it easier for the pupils to catch buses. One thing we have not built is a kitchen, because we have no feeding scheme for the children. We have only 41 students, and this school is too small," said Adewale. "Our students are good students. They are hard workers; they are just hungry."
The school allows a vendor to sell snacks. "It's just sausage rolls, potato chips and hot cakes - some students pay up to R6 (US$0.95) a day, the ones who have money - but it's not nutritious," Ajijedidun said. The school's borehole dried up about two years ago.
Moruthane Secondary, on the arid plains of southwestern Lesotho, is a textbook example of the troubles besetting rural schools in the wake of the food scarcity crisis this year.
Government has prioritised food assistance at primary school level with feeding schemes for pupils studying in the southern lowlands, while the World Food Programme (WFP) has initiated feeding schemes for primary school students in the mountainous north of the country.
Hassan Abdi, WFP's programme officer, told IRIN, "We have experience distributing food, and the north is a difficult place in terms of accessibility. We are there until government can also distribute food to the primary schools."
Feeding schemes for secondary students have not begun, although the need for food assistance among these students is recognised.
An education department questionnaire sent to students at Moruthane Secondary School, asking them to list their needs, had food as the common denominator in their replies. "Food," wrote one girl, "Food and shoes," wrote another girl, who noted that both of her parents had died. "Food and transport," wrote one boy, "Food and clothing," answered another.
In all, 60 percent of the students cited food as their greatest need. "We have a lot of orphans in this school. In fact, half the student body are double orphans - their parents died of AIDS," said one of the teachers.
According to UNAIDS, 23.2 percent of Lesotho's people aged between 15 and 49 are infected with HIV, and about 100,000 children under the age of 17 have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.
"The orphans live with relatives, who don't give them food. Some of the children have been abandoned and they end up in foster care, and there, too, they are not given food. They come to school with empty stomachs, and they go home with empty stomachs," Adewale said.
The orphans' school fees are paid by the education ministry from funding provided by a German faith-based organisation. "We cannot provide meals for our pupils, [but at] least we are not one of those unhappy schools where the students go on strike to protest bad food," the headmaster said in an attempt to make light of their situation. "But, really, something has to be done."
A place of despair
Lesotho's declining food security has been linked to the country falling short of its education goals. According to the UNDP's recent development index for Lesotho, between 1991 and 2004, the enrolment of those eligible for primary school rose from 71 percent to 86 percent, while secondary school enrolment increased from 15 percent to 23 percent.
However, the number of students remaining in school to age 11 showed no corresponding increase, but rather declined slightly, from 66 percent to 63 percent.
More than half of the population live on US$2 or less day and poverty feeds into the society's sense of despair. "The mothers are not working. The fathers aren't working. The men are back from the mines, from South Africa, where the Basotho men have always found jobs, but now they have been retrenched," said Puleng Masiphole, who lives in a basic mud hut close to the Moruthane Secondary School.
"Most men, you find them drinking morning 'til night. The local brew is very cheap. The men are not drunkards, they are just lost as to what else to do," he told IRIN.
The village homesteads scattered across the wide valley advertise products and events by flying coloured pennants: a white flag means the homestead is hosting a wedding, a green flag signals that vegetables can be bought there, while a yellow flag means home-brewed beer is for sale.
There were no white flags flown on the day IRIN visited. A resident said green flags had not been seen in months, but yellow flags dot the valley like sunflowers.