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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’s overwhelming failure: “They’re too little,” he says. “When they are this small, they don’t understand anything.”

Among those held back this year were 7-year-old Achta and the three boys who share her bunk – Youssouf, Mahamat and Nasruddin. Taken together, they are a window into this hidden scourge that is undermining efforts to right Africa.

Stunting is the result of having either too few calories or too little variety in the types of calories consumed, or both.

Achta’s birth seven years ago coincided with the first major drought to hit the Sahel this decade.

Climate change has meant that the normally once-a-decade droughts are 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.

The droughts decimated her family’s herd. With each dead animal, they ate less.

Most days, Achta leaves home without eating anything. Usually there isn’t anything for lunch, either. Dinner is millet flour mixed with water, eaten plain.

Her mother’s kitchen doesn’t have so much as a pinch of salt or a cube of sugar.

“They come to school having had nothing more than a glass of water. They can’t make it till the end of the day,” says their teacher, Djobelsou Guidigui. “Some fall asleep in class. Others vomit.”

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 CT scan of a normal 3-year-old child and that of a severely malnourished one.

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