Something for the little ones

September 7, 2010 by

Fiona Vallance was a Mary’s Meals student volunteer at Glasgow university. She visited the charity’s projects in Malawi this summer, spending time at our centres for the under-sixes.

Our first visit was to the under-six centre at St Mary’s Chenussa school. The centre is classified as urban, but it was still a 20-minute drive from Blantyre city centre and the roads to get there were rough and bumpy.

I was overwhelmed by the smell, especially the dried fish which was to be served to the children for their lunch as a relish with their Nsima (maize mash). 

When we entered the centre, the teachers rounded up the children – they gathered on the stone floor to sit and entertain their visitors.

An under-sixes centre in Blantyre

The majority of children were orphans who had no parents or possessions. Their feet were bare and hardened by their lack of shoes and despite their immediate smiles, it was clear that these children were suffering from the lack of clean water, housing and food at home.

The children spoke Chichewa, one of Malawi’s main languages, but had been learning English and recited the alphabet to us, as well as the days of the week and the months of the year.

Afterwards, they all jumped to their feet and sang songs about the different parts of the body, along with the actions; “shake your head,” they chanted and they blew us kisses. The teachers selected different children to play out the actions. As well as learning, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The children played a game called ‘Adam and Eve’. One boy and one girl were selected and blindfolded, then they had to catch each other whilst the other children gathered around in a circle to watch and laugh.

These children were all under the age of six and despite their circumstances they appeared to be doing very well – I believe because of the work of Mary’s Meals.

Whilst the children had been singing and dancing, the volunteers had been cooking the likuni phala (preparing this porridge took a long time). The children were told that their likuni was going to be served and they sat in rows and patiently waited.

I asked one of the teachers when the last time that the children had eaten was, and she did not know. Many of the children we met were orphans whose guardians have several other children to feed, so they really relied on the food that Mary’s Meals provided.

I found it shocking to think that the children might go for long periods without food, yet sat quietly while I was given the honour of serving it.

I felt really conscious as I was serving each bowl, because I knew that the food I was giving out was a lifeline, and I couldn’t help but feel responsible and determined to make sure that every child was given a portion in equal measure.

Once the bowls were lined up, we gave them to the children and they sat and devoured the food.

Serving the morning's Mary's Meals

While the children ate, the Mary’s Meals monitor checked every child’s attendance. If a child was off sick, she asked about their whereabouts and health – every child was a vital member of the class and not just another number.

Mary’s Meals makes sure that the children at the under six centres get two meals a day; likuni phala in the morning and Nsima and relish in the afternoon.

The volunteers told me about how vital it was that the younger children got two meals a day. At such a young age, child development can only occur with the nutrients and vitamins that food like Mary’s Meals delivers.

If the children are learning at the under 6 centres, then they have the building blocks which are needed to enter primary school at the right level and will have the opportunities to really educate themselves and go on to lead fulfilling lives.

Regina told me that the children with HIV/AIDS are also monitored and given the supplement Sibusiso for extra vitamins to ensure that they are not at even more of a disadvantage.

The next under-six centre that we visited was Lapani, a rural school so far from ‘civilisation’ that I wondered how Mary’s Meals had ever found them, but once again the monitors seemed very clued up about the children and their circumstances.

We arrived in time for lunch and were met with open arms by the volunteers, whilst some of the younger children were suspicious of us ‘mzungu’s’ (white people). Before lunch was served we gave the children gifts from home. I was overwhelmed by the children’s excitement at the smallest of gestures.

I met a little boy who had the most beautiful smile and I gave him a tennis ball to play with. He had no idea what to do with the ball and it took me ten minutes to try to introduce him to the concept of throwing and catching. By the time he had grasped this, I demonstrated how the ball bounced and this surprised him even more.

We gave the children colouring in books and coloured pencils and once again they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do with these strange tools.

Once I showed them, they were entertained and kept colouring in until lunch was served – eager to show me what they had achieved. They all shared the toys and were looking out for one another.

Lunch, consisting of nsima and vegetable relish was served by the incredible volunteers, who were feeding the children whilst carrying one or more of their own babies on their backs.

The volunteers wanted no thanks for their help but instead thanked us for coming which seemed insignificant compared with the work they do on a daily basis. When we asked why they volunteered they stated their love for Mary’s Meals and what it has given to the children of their community.

They insisted that without Mary’s Meals, children’s futures would be a lot less certain and that the under 6 centres allow the children to play, feed, learn and interact. If there were no feeding projects, the children would have no structure, routine or normality in their lives.


A warehouse welcome

September 7, 2010 by

Eilidh Campbell was the Mary’s Meals student volunteer at Edinburgh university. She visited Malawi this summer and helped with the distribution of backpacks.

About six staff were at work sorting through backpacks, preparing to distribute 4,000 in the north of the country the following week. The warehouse was pretty full when we saw it, ready to be emptied and filled again with new bags from the UK and elsewhere.

The children with their old school bags

We met Florian, who is in charge of the warehouse, for the first time, and were excited to discover that we would get the chance to join him and a couple of the other warehouse staff distributing backpacks to a small school in Blantyre.

After leaving the main road, the pick-up took us over some pretty bumpy pot-holed roads to get to the school. As we drove up to the school, crowds of children ran towards the car, shouting ‘Mzungu! Mzungu!’ This was slightly intimidating the first time it happened but we became quite used to it.

Before going into the school we met the volunteers cooking likuni phala, a maize porridge which is locally produced in Malawi. They had been there for hours stirring away, but carried on patiently and carefully.

The classrooms were bare and not all of the children had seats or desks.

Florian spoke to the children in Chichewa (the first language for most of them) and asked them to hold up their current backpacks. Many of the children had battered plastic bags or no bag at all, and it was clear the school itself did not have sufficient classroom equipment.

Florian explained what the children would find in their bags and told them that they must take great care of the contents, and should come to school every day and work hard. He also told them where the bags came from and explained that school children in Scotland had put together the bags for them.

Sorting through a new backpack

Each item that Florian announced got a HUGE cheer from the class. We understood ‘soap’ and ‘toothbrush’ (inside most of the backpacks are pencils, notebook, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, towel, clothing, sometimes shoes and other stationary, and a few have small tennis or foam balls).

Fiona and I then helped to hand out the backpacks. Even the way each child held out their hands and clutched the backpack close to them to carry them back to their seats, demonstrated how important they were to them. It was pretty fantastic to watch and help them investigate the contents, but all too soon we had to leave.

First impressions

April 8, 2010 by

Cathy Ratcliff is Mary’s Meals Head of Overseas Programmes. This is her first visit to Malawi

Over my 20 or so years working in international development, I’ve visited lots of African countries, and recently lived in Ethiopia for two years. So much of what I see in Malawi does not surprise me. 

Approaching Lilongwe, the capital, by plane, though, I was struck by how every inch of available land is farmed. Like many African countries, this is obviously a country of small-scale farming, and the people are either very skilled at using all available land, or in great need of doing so – probably both.

The Mary's Meals cooking shelter at St Pius School

I was also struck by how the fields are all dotted with bushes, which must be of use for shade, fruit or firewood. I heard after, that the Malawian forest is now much reduced, due to continued reliance on farming coupled with population increase. 

I was lucky that we flew into Lilongwe, and therefore got a 4-hour drive through the countryside to our destination, Blantyre, where the Mary’s Meals office is. Although we were tired after an overnight flight, we were all interested to see what we could on this drive. Magnus in particular did an amazing job of driving us all that way in spite of his tiredness. The rest of us could relax as passengers!

Every so often we saw wet ground, indicating recent rain. This is harvest time, and along the road we saw many small stalls selling potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins and onions, and a couple of stalls selling baskets, woven mats and straw hats.

The next day, we met all the Mary’s Meals staff based in Blantyre, and then Joe, Mary’s Meals’ new Malawi Country Director, and I went to see two schools being fed.

Last week the government announced that this week would be a school holiday! For all except Grade 8 children, who are studying for exams in June… So we saw Grade 8 girls in one school (an all girls school) queuing up for their corn-soya blend (CSB) porridge – and coming back for 2nds and maybe even 3rds!

It must have been a good day for getting 2nds, with the younger children all off school. The Grade 8s all looked healthy, and the school was in good order with a lively headteacher. The two volunteers who cook and serve in this school were pleased to sport Mary’s Meals T-shirts and wrap-around skirts.

In the second school we also met an enthusiastic headteacher, and as this school is larger, we met more volunteers. There are nine volunteers at this school, including two men. In both schools we saw the rocket stoves (fuel efficient stoves that are used at most of our projects) the pots which fit the stoves, and the store rooms for firewood and fuel. We noted the numbers of children enrolled at each school and heard how school feeding had increased enrolment and attendance and reduced sickness.

After lunch we had a long meeting to discuss the workings of Mary’s Meals in Malawi. The whole day was very informative for Joe and myself, since we are both new to Mary’s Meals. We had lots of questions to ask.

My last week!

October 21, 2009 by

Well, I’ve just finished my last week with Mary’s Meals!  I am moving on after many years, as it seems the right time.  The programme is now the fantastic, vast, everyday wonder reaching hundreds of thousands of children.  It has been a real privilege to witness much of what’s happened over the past 8 years.  But I believe, hope and pray that the future looks even better for Mary’s Meals, and I’ll continue to be an avid supporter.

However, I’ll be continuing in Malawi until next year, so if you have any queries, I am available on my personal email address,, or you can get in touch with Mary’s Meals directly on

Take care, and thank you for all the wonderful friendships I have enjoyed with you and look forward to continuing –


Hut Party!

September 3, 2009 by

August was the time of year here when boys grow up and go through initiation ceremonies in Malawi: the school holidays are even based to take this into account.  However, it also means that there is non-stop music in the poorer parts of town where the ceremonies are mostly practiced.  One such part of town is called Mbayani, which is just over the wall from the hut (what Fiona and I call the house we are staying in).  So, all night, literally all night and back into the morning again, there has been music blaring up the hill.  But two can play at that game, because …

… At long, long last, our hut’s outside table is finished! – the idea was that a bit of outside space would be nice – we checked with Davina our landlady, and then dug a bit of earth to make some flat ground.  Then I thought, ‘Well, now that’s done, we could put a picnic bench there and have lunch outside’, then when wooden benches appeared too expensive, so Davina thought: ‘I’ve got spare bricks, so why not make a permanent one?’  During all this, we’d been promising to all the MM office that we’d have them round for drinks.

So 5 months later, we now have a table and the office came round – one of the best nights I’ve ever had.

Backpacks – nearly as good as green maize

August 3, 2009 by

Enrico (Swiss intern, maths genius and fan of Malawian Special Brew!) has had the pleasure of unloading his first container of backpacks which came in a week or so ago – for me this is a rite of passage!  After stalling as long as possible behind the desk, I went out to help too 😉  Enrico says my Indian name would be ‘The Guy Who Unloads The Container Smiling’.

It was great to work alongside him, Florian and the new warehouse team in Malawi – it was their first container too, and I thought of everyone in Glasgow who must have sent it a couple of months back.  There were tons (literally) of backpacks and school materials like pens, pencils, exercise books and so on.  Fantastic – every time we go to a school, people talk about how much an effect the backpacks have had on the children, or if they are still waiting for backpacks in that school, it is politely suggested that it would be good to have them!

Peter Mawere and I went to have a meeting near Chikwawa last Sunday, about one hour south of Blantyre.  To get there you descend down a steep escarpment into the Shire River valley, and at the bottom its a good few degrees hotter.  This means that you can get fruit there earlier in the season, and the water means its more fertile too.  There is a Scottish project working to conserve the forest there, managing useful plants that can substitute for paraffin in lamps (most Malawians don’t have electricity), can be used as fertiliers, and much more.  Anyway, when we got to the bottom we got a snack of green maize, which is like sweetcorn-on-the-cob, except not sweet, less garishly yellow, and a bit bigger.  It was roasted at the side of the road, and it was so delicious its hard to describe (I was peckish by that point in the day I’ll admit).  Very tasty, and washed down with a Fanta.  Which was just as well, because the meeting-place turned out to be a further hour’s drive through rivers and dirt tracks, and in an attempt to avoid re-tracing our steps on the way back we subjected ourselves to a 3 hour drive through foothills of banana and tea plantations, a lovely town called Fatima, long lost villages, potholes, past broken trucks and, notably, a distinct lack of green maize sellers.

Poker night

July 22, 2009 by

The expat community in Malawi have, until recent times, had a strong culture of having people round to each other’s houses – this is because ‘there’s nothing to do in Malawi’, or so they insist.  Its especially untrue nowadays, with Blantyre sporting a cinema (with salt and vinegar powder to put on your popcorn, apparently), French Cultural Institute, regular meetings of the Society of Malawi, and so on.  But last night we went round to the flat of Dutch friends, who very kindly made a Dutch meal (potatoes, saurkraut, sausage!) and we learnt how to play poker.  The reason was that another friend we’ve made is from Boston and is a complete card-shark, so we (Enrico too) thought this was too good a learning opportunity to miss (for all you non-gamblers, we were playing with chips rather than real money).

But Blantyre even has a casino now.  There are many changes in Malawi, even in the 6 years since I came here first.  And the government is making strides, bolstered by a recent election win and renewed mandate.  One thing they’re determined to do is maintain the value of the kwacha, which means that those gambling on a devaluation after the election are getting their fingers burnt.  For Mary’s Meals, it means that our pound sterling buys fewer kwacha – bad news.

The real gamble for people here is the high-stakes game of getting through the day.  Many people’s income fluctuates because they do odd jobs, or if they’re farmers because of the time of year – meaning its a roller-coaster of either going hungry or having a bit of a party.  And if you happen to do well – well, you’ve got a whole extended family or village looking to share the proceeds.  So there is not much of a savings culture – its a more volatile system of largesse and need cancelling each other out (or not).  This is lamented by lots of NGOs, but it has to be accepted rather than simply shrugged off as ‘wrong’.  The other heavy loss on the horizon is – and I keep mentioning it but its important – illness.  Your winning streak can quickly be over.

A colleague (Peter Mawere) just visited Likoma Island on Lake Malawi, where we feed all the primary school children.  Very interesting point he raised: there are a lot of development projects, and all rely on volunteers to help make it happen – including Mary’s Meals.  But so much is happening that the local people are struggling to do everything that is demanded of them!  I mention this because we often get asked whether our shelters could be built using the community to provide the labour.  From my experience, we ask a lot from the community in terms of commitment to providing the food every day, and organising them to build what are large structures, and in schools where safety is paramount, is a step too far.  Mary’s Meals irons out some of the risks involved in education and hunger – the rewards are high but its not an easy win for most.

Malawisaurus! – and the return of Holyrood

July 8, 2009 by

I was up in Karonga last week, right at the top of Malawi – an interminably long drive but worth it to see that end of the country.  Like the UK, it gets less populated as you go up, and past Mzuzu, which is a growing town and the regional capital, it is even more like the Highlands (or to be precise, the Cairngorms).  And it was COLD up there!  Prior to this month, I really couldn’t believe that it gets properly cold here, but it does. 

Anyway, from Mzuzu you drive north until you get to the top of an escarpment, and you descend the side on an alpine-esque, hairpin road, until you reach the lakeshore, then along the shore to Karonga.  Karonga’s currently famous for 3 things: 1) being far away from anywhere, 2) having a uranium mine that’s going to earn Malawi a fortune – at least everyone hopes so, but the track-record in Africa of benefitting from your mineral wealth is not good, and 3) having a MALAWISAURUS dinosaur!!!  Well, a skeleton of a Malawisaurus.  Well, a copy of a Malawisaurus skeleton at any rate, that was found in Karonga.  It looks like a diplodocus (apologies for spelling) but smaller.  They have a nice museum that I looked through the window of, containing said copy, but I thought the cartoonish, Flintstone-style replica on the roundabout as you enter the town was much more imaginative.  I was expecting people to be trundling by in stone cars with their feet pattering below, but disappointingly there was only the odd bike.  That said, the people there were very polite, though I felt my ignorance as I couldn’t say even the pleasantries in Tumbuka (the language in Northern Malawi as opposed to Chichewa).

Tony and the Holyrood team left on Friday, after a gruelling but successful trip to help renovate buildings in two primary schools – but before they headed off, we all had a farewell dinner in their partner Secondary School, Stella Maris.  There were the usual accoutriments of a Malawi event – interminably long introduction sessions and speeches, followed by nsima and chicken.  What followed was more exciting! – a Shakespeare-esque Malawian play of who-murdered-the-king and babies-swapped-at-birth acted by the girls (Stella Maris is a girls only school) sporting manly charcoaled goatees, followed by a disco with Malawian hits, bringing on an explosion of nuns line-dancing, kilts, conga and the odd glimpse of a Gay Gordons.

Fondue – and roads like Swiss cheese

June 26, 2009 by

Enrico Berkes, a Masters student, has arrived from Switzerland and will be helping do some data collection work with me over the next couple of months.  I lived in Geneva for 3 years as a teenager and so we have been discussing all things Swiss.  He’s settling in really well, and I’m looking forward to spending time with him – not least because he’s a Formula 1 fan and we watched it in the local bar on Sunday.

On Saturday, we went to the Malawi Trade Fair, which showcases Malawi products to potential buyers.  I saw the rocket stove stand, run by the aptly-named producer ‘Ken Steel’.  They are supported by a German organisation, GTZ, to promote efficient stoves as this minimises firewood needs and reduces deforestation.  Apparently the use of rocket stoves by Mary’s Meals has encouraged the uptake of domestic stoves too – another great result!  Enrico also suggested the stoves would be good for enormous fondues!  I agree – now where’s that Gruyere?

I was also in Lilongwe (again!) with Florian.  Despite the long drive over potholed sections of the road (its like Swiss cheese – but more likely to wreck your car), it was a good trip.  We met Catriona and David from Scotland, who are looking to support feeding and do what they can to help raise awareness – yet more lovely people I get to meet through this work.  Again, it was a great visit to a school, with classrooms the likes of which I haven’t seen before: they were like pens of reed fencing, with no roof.  This didn’t detract from the teaching though, and the pupils were being drilled on their ABCs.  One child of a volunteer was absolutely petrified of Catriona as he had probably not ever seen a white person before.  His mother kindly laughed it off! – and he was coming round to us by the time we left.

Fiona and I have also enjoyed the return of Tony Begley, this time accompanied by the whole team from Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow (and the linked primary schools).  When not exhausting themselves rebuilding classrooms in the local primary schools, helping Mary’s Meals and singing songs with the pupils, they were challenging the local builders to a game of  fitba.  Tony said he’d be wearing his workboots – he’s a man that means business.

A fresh look at Mary’s Meals – and at some dodgy attitudes

June 17, 2009 by

Fiona’s mum and sister (Sheila and Jennie) have been out visiting us and staying at our house, while we stay with Davina, our landlady (and good friend and advisor!).  Fiona has been excited for ages about them coming – I dread to think what she’ll be like when they go home today.  They’ve been amazed by Malawi, but it was only after 8 days of being here that we actually visited a Mary’s Meals project.  It was ‘an eye-opener’ – and good for me to see their reaction as if through fresh eyes.  It was necessary too to give them a roundup of opinions on aid.

 To be honest, lots of expats in Malawi are anti-aid.  They think that it’s a handout, or they think that aid gets hoovered up by government, because the current trend among most big donors is to put it into the national government, never to be seen again.  There are lots of good arguments for and against this approach.  But I think a lot of the scepticism is denial – denying that there is a problem of poverty in front of their eyes and that it could and should be addressed.  Doesn’t that denial make life much easier?  Well, not for those who don’t get help as a result of it.

 There is even a basically racist belief that Malawi doesn’t develop because its people are lazy or don’t have the frenzied work ethic of Westerners: they even think that providing basic life-savers like anti-malarials or food will ‘spoil’ people with luxury.  Let me say clearly that almost every single person I have met is hard working (with long hours), uncomplaining, and remarkably tolerant of outsiders taking a dim view of their country.

One observation by expats is that people here don’t seem in a hurry.  But people don’t walk slowly because they’re lazy – they walk slowly in Malawi (and a worldwide survey confirms that people in Blantyre do walk slowly!) because they have miles to walk.  Or they’ve had malaria.  Or life is difficult so why not take your time, especially when you’re not in control of every minute?  These attitudes are sensible here and not crimes of the century, and not reasons to damn every man, woman and child in the country.  Some expats are just irrational – they think that people standing around on the street are being lazy – er, not e.g. waiting for a truck to pick them up?  Or a colleague?  Or any number of quite reasonable reasons to be standing on the street???  Its more telling about our prejudices than anything else.

 There are challenges in the aid world, but I can say, hand on heart, that Mary’s Meals is tackling real problems effectively and efficiently, and that it respects the people that are benefiting from it.  It is certainly not ‘ruining’ people with luxury – just giving them some basics for a chance at a better future.

 Sheila and Jennie, after a fun and thankfully safe, trouble-free trip are leaving with a positive picture of Malawi, and I can’t hope for more than that.  Well, I can! – they are also going home determined to fundraise to support the children they met.