In 2017, the cost of feeding a child at school for a whole year is still a snip at just £13.90. Mary's Meals is now providing school meals to well over a million children, in communities held in subjection to poverty and hunger. As well as fundraising efforts however, I've also written about failures of diplomacy in the developed world, inhibiting efforts to deal collaboratively with crises such as the famine now menacing East Africa and Yemen.
The David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, Lanarkshire, 22nd March 2013
The preparations and first days of this journey, in which God-willing i hope to walk as far as reasonably possible from Blantyre, Lanarkshire, to Blantyre, Malawi, have done nothing to diminish my conviction that there is an intrinsic connection between pilgrimage and divine providence. 'Northern Cross' is an annual religious roam from various points in southern Scotland and northern England to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, partly inspired by the 7th century peregrinations of St Cuthbert. When i signed up to be part of it in February, i already had the outline of an African enterprise in mind, but i wasn't certain initially that there would be any connection between the two treks. With about 10 days to go however, not only was it reported on BBC radio, that the week of our departure from Lanark would see celebrations of the bicentenary of the birth of famous African missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone, in Blantyre, just up the road from Lanark; but a google search of 'Blantyre' brought up the one in Malawi, which turns out to be the very place i hope to reach, with God's help; it was here in 2002 that Mary's Meals began! I would not have expected to be doing another of these walks, but the premiere of 'Child 31' in Glasgow last November got me thinking about how i might try to be of further assistance, not least as i had just finished writing the account of my Mexico mission. Needless to say, i am immensely privileged to have an opportunity to try to do this, and i pray that i may never pass up any chance to thank the Lord for His goodness to me.
Naïve clouds over Dalkeith; Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh in the distance
Having said all that, on Friday morning, on my way to Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, as naïve clouds with ruled-line undersides sailed serenely across the cobalt heavens above, my knee went. I ascribe this principally to walking too far too fast, after stopping over Easter at my home in Berwick-on-the-Scottish-side-of-the-Tweed. It means however that i'm under doctor's orders to rest and recuperate, which i've chosen to do here in Dundee, staying for a few nights in a youth hostel occupying a fascinating merchant's house known as 'Gardyne's Land', dating back to around 1560, with some sections even older; "...the only complete domestic survivor from the time when Dundee was Scotland's second city." From here i hope to make my way to St Andrews, then west to Dalmally, where Mary's Meals is famously based in a shed.
On my arrival in Blantyre in the early evening of Thursday 21st March, i had every reason to think that a night out in the snowy open air lay before me. I might have known however, that after Mass in St Joseph's Church i'd be spontaneously invited to a prayer meeting, where everyone knew all about Dalmally and Mary's Meals, and that having given me a significant amount of sponsorship money, one of their number (a Protestant, as it happens), would offer to put me up on his sofa! Next morning i was taken to Blantyre's David Livingstone centre in this gentleman's car, then up the road a few miles to visit a priest friend of his, Fr Dominic Towey, at St John the Baptist in Uddingston, where around £130,000 has been raised by parishioners for Mary's Meals over the years. He gave me a blessing and yet another kind donation, after which i put up very little resistance to the idea of driving to Carluke, leaving only a modest amble to St Mary's Church in Lanark, where i fell in with the cheerful troop of Northern Cross pilgrims from a range of denominations, whose excellent company i would keep on the way to Lindisfarne.
Red Squirrel. An hour or so after seeing it we came to a sign next to the road, saying that Grey Squirrels were introduced in 1872.
Our walk, in which pairs of us took turns to carry an 8 foot wooden cross, was characterised by sometimes heavy snow falling on us during the day, followed by often wonderful hospitality being showered on us in the evenings. Over a Passover supper on Maundy Thursday Lauren, one of a brother/sister duo who were outstanding ambassadors for California, invited everyone to share their high and low-points. It didn't come to me at the time, but a high for me was the fish and chips we had for supper in Biggar, after we'd been invited in for a cup of tea in 007's kitchen (you had to be there), and i'd been to Palm Sunday vigil Mass at the Church of St Isidore of Seville, which is actually the converted front room of someone's house. I was technically fasting from fish and dairy products for Lent, but the chip shop had inadvertantly given us an extra portion of haddock, so it seemed rude not to help find a home for it! Besides this, there was a rare lowland sighting of a red squirrel on the way to Selkirk, and a really super supper in the Manse there (as also in St Boswells and Kelso), where a parishioner introduced me to Robert Burns' 'Selkirk Grace':
'Some ha[v]e meat and canna eat,
And some wad [would] eat that want it;
But we ha[v]e meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.'
1955 tractor to escort us over the river Till
In Kelso i must never forget how Helen, our organiser and leader on the Lanark leg, rescued me from a deep hole i was digging for myself, when i ventured the opinion that perhaps our trifle could be described as 'Scotch', by virtue of the fact that Rev Tom had been, in his words, 'stingy' with the sherry he put in it - but i wasn't suggesting Scottish people are stingy! "How could you be", asked Helen, without missing a beat, "when all the available evidence is so stacked against such a conclusion?" On Maundy Thursday we visited the battlefield of Flodden, whose quincentenary falls in September this year, and sang a few bars of 'Flower of Scotland'. Soon afterwards there was an Indiana Jones-esque moment when a thick layer of moss had to be removed from a signpost, directing us to Etal; then we saw an otter in the river Till, across which we were graciously escorted in a cart behind a tractor driven by a gentleman farmer from central casting. Then there was the final tramp on Good Friday, much longer than i expected, in bare feet, across the sometimes thick, always cold mud and occasionally sharp seashells, to Holy Island; taking care not to stray the wrong side of a row of wooden markers (tree-trunks driven into the mud), where there is treacherous quick-sand. The camaraderie and hymn-singing with a great assemblage of other pilgrims was memorable there, and our being snapped by a large contingent of press photographers. Brian (Lauren's brother) came up with the best joke of the day, when he asked one of the organisers, "How many photographers have you lost over the years?"
Here in Dundee it happens (providentially) that i've been able to meet up with a couple who i met at a pro-life conference a few years ago. She had an outstanding letter published in this weekend's Scottish Catholic Observer, which i feel obliged to reproduce here:
Charity begins with the basics of life
"I refer to Mary McGinty's article, [SCO February 22], and wholly agree that we must be careful when donating to charities if we do not wish to compromise our beliefs.
Some months ago, in the letters section of your paper, a dismayed parishioner had expressed concern that the parish priest had sanctioned the display of a poster promoting a Christian Aid event. The priest said that Christian Aid did a lot of good work. It is true that it does do a great deal of good, but it also funds 'reproductive health' projects, which in essence means the carrying out of abortions and distributing abortifacient contraceptives and so on to young girls in developing countries. Unfortunately, several other well-known charities do the same.
What the charities should be doing rather, is working to bring a reduction in maternal deaths. Well over 90% of the world's maternal deaths take place in developing countries. The majority of these deaths are easily preventable by basic healthcare and living conditions, which the rest of the world has long taken for granted.
If only charities, such as Christian Aid, would help these types of projects instead of putting funds into population control, women in developing countries could be properly looked after during childbirth."
MB Kobylarska O'Sullivan
Attributed to HM Stanley, November 1871.
A very powerful documentary about Mary's Meals by Grassroots Films which i cannot recommend highly enough.