MALAWI, Africa — It’s early in the morning and hundreds of children line up for class outside a row of small, mud-brick school buildings surrounded by dusty fields.
The boys and girls of the Changalu school district aren’t carrying fancy book bags or sporting trendy fashions. Some are barefoot and wearing faded clothing that doesn’t quite fit.
They clutch their most valued item: a plastic mug that local volunteers with the nonprofit group Mary’s Meals will later fill with a white porridge. For some, it’s the only food they’ll get all day.
The concept of Mary’s Meals, which every day feeds more than 1.1 million schoolchildren in 12 countries, was started in 1992 by founder and CEO Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow of Scotland. The group’s mantra is that every child deserves an education and enough to eat.
Changalu Primary School teacher Munitani Moomba said Mary’s Meals helps draw “learners” (students) to school to get an education and nutritious food.
“Most of the households cannot afford to provide their learners with food,” Moomba said. “Most learners come to school with empty stomachs, without food … they cannot learn without food.”
Before Mary’s Meals began its program in the Changalu district in September 2014, teachers struggled to educate the hungry and distracted students who often dropped out to find work or beg for food, the 40-year-old father of three said.
“So with the coming of this Mary’s Meal program, the school feeding program, a lot of changes have taken place at our school,” Moomba explained. “Enrollment has risen up, we have a lot of learners in each and every class from Standard 1 to 8. So this program is really helping very much in Changalu and Malawi. Everything goes well when one has eating.”
The students study topics such as math, English, life skills, art, science and agriculture, similar to children in America and other countries. Some of the classrooms have plastic chairs for students; others have no furniture. A cool breeze periodically blows through the open windows in the one-story buildings.
The goal of Mary’s Meals is to improve life for the Malawi children and brighten the country’s economic future. Most of the people in the region are farmers who produce maize as a staple food. However, flooding and prolonged dry spells has led to years of poor harvests and a sharp decline in maize production, according to the Global Information and Early Warning System, a food and agriculture organization of the United Nations.
“So the result is that most of the farmers do not have enough food,” Moomba said. “There is a shortage of food for most of the part of the year. For example, from September to April there is a hunger problem in Malawi. That is shortage of food, no food security.”
Malawi, located in the southern part of Africa, is home to 16.3 million people. The World Bank has declared it the poorest country in the world. Malawi has more than 1.8 million vulnerable children who are subject to various forms of abuse and lack access to basic needs, according to the Malawi Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare.
Mary’s Meals currently feeds more than 800,000 children in Malawi in about 25 percent of the country’s primary schools.
In order to qualify for the Mary’s Meals charitable program, the local communities must agree to build a standard-designed kitchen, organize local mothers to cook and serve the food daily, and provide a secure storage area for the sacks of “likuni phala,” the vitamin- and mineral-fortified powder that is cooked with water and distributed to the children who attend school.
Mary’s Meals provides the food (mainly grown by local farmers), stove and cooking utensils, and regularly monitors the program — twice weekly without advanced warning — to ensure there is no looting or corruption.
MacFarlane-Barrow’s vision to help others was first fueled after he made a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in Medjugorje in Bosnia in 1983. Years later, he and his brother, Fergus, both fish farmers, were haunted by TV clips of the Bosnian conflict and decided to collect and deliver donated goods to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Their kind act turned out to be a long-term mission when donated items continued to arrive at their parents’ shed. MacFarlane-Barrow soon quit his job and established the Scottish International Relief effort to help the needy.
In 2002, MacFarlane-Barrow met Emma, a woman in Malawi who was dying of AIDS; her six young children surrounded her inside their small, mud and grass home. When he asked the eldest son, Edward, what he wanted in life, the boy replied: “I want to have enough food to eat and to go to school one day.”
Those words inspired MacFarlane-Barrow to focus his mission on feeding children who attend school. In 2012, he changed the name of his organization to Mary’s Meal’s in reference to the Blessed Virgin, whose own child was raised in poverty.
The old shed in Scotland, which once overflowed with donations for the poor, today serves as Mary’s Meals’ global headquarters.
If you’d like to help, please go to marysmealsusa.org. For every dollar donated to the organization, 93 cents is spent on charitable activities. You can feed one child for an entire school year for just $19.50.
Your time, skills and prayers also are needed.
Arjen van de Merwe, a 55-year-old professional photographer/videographer based in Malawi, recently photographed students, teachers and others at the Changalu school on behalf of Totally Promotional, which is helping to feed more than a thousand students each day for a year through the Mary’s Meals program. We hope the photos and videos shared on our site will inspire you to help, too.
“We are deeply grateful for Totally Promotional’s support in providing life-changing meals to the students at Changalu. We hope the organization knows the real impact of its contribution and feels the deep and mutual benefit of joining this movement of individuals, families, schools, parishes and companies around the world who are working together in shared vision, values and mission.” — Kaitlin Flynn, executive director of Mary’s Meals USA
Read about other ways the team at Totally Promotional is making a difference by visiting the Totally Giving Back web page.