THE SUNDAY TIMES (SCOTLAND) - Sunday, December 10th, 2006.
THE FEEDING OF THE SLUM 5000
A tin hut in the heart of rural Argyll is the unlikely hub of a growing campaign to save children such as these in Haiti from starvation, writes Billy Briggs.
On the flat roof of a dilapidated building a woman is making mud pies, moulding them to the size of large, grey oatcakes and laying them out to dry in the sweltering sun. Made from little more than dust, mixed with water and sometimes herbs and butter, these are what pass for sustenance in Cité Soleil, a slum province of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. To Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow this is a familiar and depressing sight. Poverty in this benighted country, just a 90-minute plane ride from the millionaires’ paradise of Miami, is the worst he has come across. “I thought I had seen quite a lot over the years in terms of suffering but this was the most extreme I had ever witnessed,” says the Scots charity director. “I have never seen people so utterly stripped of their dignity.”
It was the plight of Haiti’s slum-dwelling population that prompted MacFarlane-Barrow to set up a branch of his charity, Mary’s Meals, in some of Cité Soleil’s poorest schools and orphanages in September. The project, to feed malnourished children, now serves almost 5,000 youngsters a day their only nutritious meal.
Now MacFarlane-Barrow, 38, is planning to expand into less accessible and more dangerous areas run by gangs of militias where poverty is so acute that people migrate to slums like Cité Soleil. While the daily food rations are measured out by volunteers in bullet-scarred schools in Haiti, Mary’s Meals has its head office on the banks of the River Orchy in rural Arygll. From a tin shed belonging to his father MacFarlane-Barrow oversees a global operation that now feeds 90,000 children a day in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe as well as Haiti. It is an idyllic spot, far removed from the world’s chaotic, wartorn communities, and MacFarlane-Barrow has no plans to relocate. “Our head office is my father’s shed which we borrowed to set things up and never gave back,” he says. “As the organisation started to grow we did sometimes think about moving to bigger premises but then decided to stay rooted in Arygll. It’s where I am from and it’s important to me. Also, working in my dad’s shed means that there are no overheads.” Inside his makeshift headquarters, MacFarlane-Barrow keeps in contact with his worldwide network of volunteers via email. “It becomes more challenging as the charity expands, especially as we also like to visit all of our projects regularly. There is a lot of travelling involved. I am going back to Haiti early in the new year, for example, to look at where we can expand our work.” Recently, he has been trying to cut back on the travelling to spend more time at home with his wife, Julie, and their five children. “I am away perhaps eight to 10 weeks during the year. I don’t want to be away any longer than that.” The difficulties arise when MacFarlane-Barrow visits wretched places such as Haiti and sees for himself how much help people need. “Even in war zones like Bosnia or Liberia or after disasters like the tsunami, I've never seen a place as deeply shocking,” he says.
For the barefoot children, who play in toxic rubbish dumps, teeming with disease and vermin, and wade through lakes of stagnant, green water on the streets, help cannot come soon enough.
In Cité Soleil an estimated 500,000 people live in rusty corrugated iron huts without electricity, running water or sanitation. Rats scurry along streets flooded with the debris from open sewers. It is little wonder that Port-au-Prince has been dubbed the Calcutta of the Caribbean. At night fall the sound of gunfire draws closer. United Nations’ peacekeepers have been in Haiti since 2004 following the overthrow of the country’s democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but their presence has done little to deter gangs of armed militias from roaming the townships after dark, vying for control. The country has become so volatile that all aid agencies, except Medicin Sans Frontieres, have pulled out. In daylight there is no escaping the dreadful consequences of poverty and disease, as I discovered when I saw a knot of people standing by the side of a road. Drawing closer, I saw that they were crowded around the bodies of twin babies laid out on a black bin liner. A note beside them reads: “Nov 26, 2006. Valnie and Sanon, a lifetime of only three days.” “This happens a lot in Haiti,” says Augie, the translator. “Many mothers can’t afford to feed their babies so they give them up.” It is in the midst of such desperation that Mary’s Meals does what it can to bring some stability to the lives of traumatised children. At St Veronique’s School in Cité Soleil 590 pupils are served a breakfast of bread and vegetable soup every morning. Before they would have been lucky to eat anything other than scavenged scraps. In the canteen, a colourful poster designed by pupils says:
“Thank you Mary’s Meals”. MacFarlane-Barrow explains that Mary’s Meals is always based in schools because it encourages children to attend lessons. He set it up in 2002, when a little boy called Edward from Malawi told him his dream was to eat, and to go to school. In war-ravaged or severely impoverished countries, education is not always a priority. Providing food can act as an incentive to get pupils into the classroom. “The whole concept is based on meeting an immediate need — hunger. But the meals are always served in schools because it brings children in,” he says. In Haiti, the charity is working alongside an American organisation called Hands Together run by a Catholic priest, Father Tom Hagan, who has lived in the country for more than a decade.
Together the charities can deliver more food to more schools. But Father Tom warns that it is an increasingly dangerous job. He takes me to St Francois de Salles School and points to seven bullet holes in the wall. The violence is now endemic but so is starvation. “This,” he says, “is why we need Mary’s Meals.” Although Mary’s Meals began in 2002, named after the Virgin Mary and set up to supply food to 200 orphaned schoolchildren in Malawi, MacFarlane-Barrow’s charity endeavours date back to 1992. He was at home in Argyll watching graphic footage of the war in Bosnia on television and it struck a chord. Ten years earlier he and his older brother, Fergus, had visited the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia and here it was again, destroyed by the war with terrified villagers gathering what belongings they could carry and fleeing to refugee camps. MacFarlane-Barrow, who was then a salmon farmer, decided with his brother that they should raise money to help. They collected donations of clothes, food, toiletries and medicine which they crammed into the back of a Land Rover and drove to Bosnia to distribute among the refugees.
Back home, MacFarlane-Barrow believed he had done his good deed and prepared to return to salmon farming. But although the appeal had ended, the donations continued to pile up at his home and he realised it was not going to be easy to disentangle himself. In the end he decided to do charity work for a year, established Scottish International Relief, stood back and watched it take off.
By January 1994 it was obvious his salmon farming days were over. The charity, of which Mary’s Meals is the main focus, now has 14 full-time staff and 400 volunteers in Scotland alone. It runs projects in Ukraine, Uganda, Peru, the Philippines, Kenya, Bolivia, Liberia, Romania and Albania and has provided emergency aid in Rwanda and India, after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Most donations come from Scotland where it has become one of the country’s leading overseas aid organisations. MacFarlane-Barrow does not go in for high-profile advertising campaigns or rattling tins in the high street — the charity has grown through word of mouth. Since 1992 more than £10m has been given to charitable projects and in 2005 MacFarlane-Barrow’s efforts were recognised when he was named Young Person of the Year at a ceremony in Vienna. More than 3,000 miles away in Haiti it is hoped that the planned expansion to more far-flung schools can get underway early next year. As MacFarlane-Barrow learned back in 1992, however many good deeds you do, in countries like Haiti it can never be enough.
Website - www.sircharity.org
(Copyright Billy Briggs, 2006. No reproduction without permission)