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The circumference of the healthy brain is almost twice as large. Presented side by side, it’s like looking at a cantaloupe sitting next to a softball.

A profound toll

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 percent and 3 percent of gross domestic product per year because of low labor productivity.

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

Mr. Guidigui, the teacher, 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 sharing for the second year.

It’s time for the math lesson. Mr. 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 counts as far as eight before getting tripped up. He is about 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 1 escapes her.

A worsening situation

Story Continues →