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Preparing for the first day of school

As the new school year begins in Malawi, our communications officer Jo Lehmann blogs about the excitement felt by many children as they return to the classroom.

It’s Monday and the first day back at school for thousands of children across Malawi.

As I drive along a dusty road I notice children skipping, jumping and laughing as they make their way to school.

I laugh to myself as I remember my first day back after the long summer break and I’m sure that I was never that enthusiastic about returning.  But for many children in Malawi going back to school provides them with an opportunity to forget the grinding poverty that they live in and be children for once.

I pull up at a school and notice two little boys who are both seven-years-old walking shoulder to shoulder. They’ve walked more than 2 km on their own to get to school. They have no shoes on, and are wearing tatty clothes, but both are clinging tightly to their porridge mugs, which have been provided by Mary’s Meals.

Mary’s Meals is a school feeding programme, which now provides a daily meal to over 698,000 children on a daily basis in 516 primary schools across the country.

“What are you looking forward to most at school?” I ask the two boys.

“I like singing the alphabet”, one of the boys replies in Chichewa, the Malawian language.

The other boy pipes up.

“I’m looking forward to my mug of porridge”.

“Why’s that?” I inquire.

The little boy looks down at his feet and whispers: “I didn’t eat anything before I came to school so I’m really hungry.”

Unfortunately he’s not alone. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Malnutrition of young children is widespread and the prevalence of stunting of Malawian children is one of the highest in the world.

Children often tell me they come to school because they know that they’ll be receiving a nutritious mug of porridge from Mary’s Meals. However the positive effects that the school-feeding programme has goes much further than meeting a child’s daily nutritional needs.

Teachers frequently tell me that attendance, and enrolments rates at their schools have improved dramatically since the introduction of Mary’s Meals.

“Before Mary’s Meals was here, children were coming to school hungry. When you are trying to talk to a child that is hungry you may as well forget it, as their mind is elsewhere,” one headteacher explains to me.

“Now the children at this school are happier and healthier, and it’s much easier to teach them when their bellies are full.”

I spend the rest of the morning in a Standard 1 classroom (the equivalent of year one in the UK). There are nearly 80 children in the class, all of them sat on the floor, most without shoes on, and most without any school equipment.

I suddenly receive a picture message from my sister back in the UK. A photo of my little niece springs up on my phone – she’s dressed smartly in her new school uniform and is laden with books, all ready for her first day of school.

It then dawns on me how different her first day will be from the children sitting millions of miles away in this classroom in Malawi.

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Mary’s Meals responds to Ebola crisis in West Africa

Mary's Meals delivers emergency meals to Ebola patients and hungry children, amid food shortage reports

Mary’s Meals is delivering food aid to thousands of people affected by the Ebola outbreak in Liberia – including patients infected by the deadly virus – following the launch of a new emergency relief effort.

Under normal circumstances, Mary’s Meals reaches more than 128,000 impoverished children across Liberia each day, attracting them to the classroom with a nutritious meal in school. However, the recent crisis has brought a temporary halt to our feeding programme in the country, with all schools now closed.

Striving to make effective use of our resources, expertise and significant community standing in Liberia, Mary’s Meals has now launched an emergency response to the Ebola outbreak by distributing food to children in their homes.

Moreover, Mary’s Meals is reacting quickly to requests from embattled health care workers to provide much-needed food aid to suspected Ebola sufferers. Meals are being distributed at three holding centres in the townships of Tubmanburg, Robertsport and Brewerville.

“We have been working in Liberia since 1997 at the height of the country’s hideous and terrifying civil war,” said Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, Mary’s Meals’ founder and CEO.

“During those years, we supported the people amidst unimaginable violence. Today, we are determined to again provide continuity and potentially life-saving support, at a time when the communities we serve are facing, in Ebola, a truly frightening invisible enemy.

“It is thanks to the generosity of our supporters around the world that Mary’s Meals can act quickly in times of crisis to provide vital food supplies to people in desperate need.”

The Mary’s Meals crisis response has already seen around 10,000 children receive emergency food rations in their homes and is focused on two counties, Grand Cape Mount and Bomi – both of which have been cut off from the capital Monrovia by military blockade.

The state of emergency declared by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has led to the establishment of quarantined zones and the restriction of people’s movements. As a result, there have been widespread reports of soaring food prices, increased hunger and a general rise in food insecurity across the region.

Mary’s Meals staff on the ground are working closely with community leaders to deliver and monitor the emergency food distribution programme. They are also routinely giving best practice information and advice on preventing infection from the Ebola virus.

At least 2,200 people infected with Ebola have died so far this year across Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, with Liberia suffering the most hardship by far. The World Health Organisation has declared the crisis an international health emergency.

The extraordinary measures ordered by the Liberian government mean that schools will remain closed until further notice.

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Mary’s Meals is now reaching 923,572 children every school day!

Owing to the continued generosity of our supporters around the world, Mary’s Meals is now feeding 923,572 of the world’s poorest children every day they attend school.

In the last four months, we have been able to add close to 30,000 new children to our global school feeding programme, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of our army of supporters who give as much as they can – time, money, skills and prayer – to help the communities in which we are working.

All of these acts of goodness bring us closer to realising our vision that every child receives one daily meal in their place of education. Yet, in a world where 57 million children are out of school and thousands are dying each day due to hunger-related causes, there is still so much for us to do.

Mary’s Meals is now reaching 923,572 children every school day

Help us make it a million!

The Mary’s Meals campaign began in Malawi in 2002 feeding just 200 children. Twelve years later, relying on kindnesses from across the world, we have now made it over the 900,000 mark and are incredibly close to reaching a major milestone: ONE MILLION CHILDREN being fed every school day.

Across 12 countries – including in conflict-gripped South Sudan and Ebola-hit Liberia – Mary’s Meals is bringing hope to poverty-stricken children in a number of challenging contexts.

Each of the children enrolled in our programme is receiving a nutritious daily meal and sitting in a classroom gaining an education, which is their best hope of escaping poverty in later life. And, as a no-frills charity, it costs us a global average of just £12.20 to feed each of these children for a whole year. With your help, we can make it a million children! Thank you for all your support.

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Mary’s Meals offers prayers as the Ebola crisis worsens in West Africa

The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has now killed more than 930 people across Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and has today been declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

At this time when many others are at risk of infection – and with stringent preventative measures and movement restrictions in place across the region – all at Mary’s Meals offer their heartfelt thoughts and prayers to those affected.

In Liberia, where Mary’s Meals provides a nutritious meal to 128,910 impoverished children every school day, there have been 282 confirmed deaths and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has declared a 90-day state of emergency.

With schools in the country currently out of session for the summer holidays, the operation of the Mary’s Meals school feeding programme has not yet been directly affected. However, the new term is just three weeks away, due to begin on September 1st.

The extraordinary measures ordered by the Liberian government, as it works to contain the spread of the virus, mean that schools will remain closed in the country until further notice. Regrettably, therefore, it now looks increasingly likely that the feeding programme will not be able to recommence next month as planned.

With this highly probable outcome in mind, Mary’s Meals is now considering other ways in which the charity might utilise its resources in Liberia to support the communities we work in at this difficult time, and we will inform our supporters of any such activity in due course.

As a member of the Liberian International Non-Governmental Organisations’ forum (LINGO), Mary’s Meals is also liaising with other aid agencies working in the country, and is in regular contact with the British Embassy and, of course, the Liberian authorities.

Mary’s Meals’ head office in Liberia is located in the city of Tubmanburg, Bomi County – one of the areas where Ebola is prevalent. Both Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties have now been cut off from the capital Monrovia by military blockade.

At this time, we will continue to monitor the situation closely and take the necessary precautions to protect our people on the ground. Staff at Mary’s Meals headquarters in Scotland are, as always, in close contact with our Liberian team, based in Tubmanburg.

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A Tale of Two Brothers

Blog by communications officer Jo Lehmann: The Challenge of Child Labour in Malawi and how Mary’s Meals is helping families to send their children back to school

I met 13-year-old Yunis and his eight-year-old brother Frances by accident. I was visiting a school, which serves Mary’s Meals, around 50 kilometres from the commercial capital Blantyre. We made a wrong turn in the car and ended up near a small piece of farmland near the school. After stopping to ask for directions I noticed two young boys herding goats.

The boys were thin and frail, and at the time I thought they couldn’t have been older than six or seven because of their tiny frames.They looked exhausted as they tended to the animals in the scorching midday sun.

My colleague Jacqui and I decided we should find out why they weren’t in school. The older boy replied and said they didn’t have any food so they had to work for a living.Having been in Malawi for a number of months now, I am realising this is a familiar trend.

Malawi — home to Mary’s Meals’ largest school feeding programme — remains one of the poorest countries in the world and faces huge challenges in education, access to healthcare, and widespread child malnutrition.

As a result, many children don’t go to school simply because they’re too hungry.  Instead, children like Yunis and Frances, work on the streets oron small pieces of farmland in order to make enough money to eat. It’s a huge challenge for Malawi, but one Mary’s Meals is helping to overcome.

By providing a nutritious daily meal in a place of education, Mary’s Meals is enabling children who would otherwise be working or begging to attend school and learn so they can reach their full potential.

Jacqui and I had a discussion about Yunis and Frances’ situation and decided it was best to involve the deputy head teacher from the local school. Hudson M’bawa has worked in the area for several years and is experienced in the local culture and traditions, so he would know how to the handle the situation sensitively.

Together we travelled back to the small piece of farmland where Yunis and Frances were working to find out more about their situation. As they told us their stories it emerged the brothers were living with their elderly grandmother, who didn’t have enough money to support them.

“Often parents or guardians will send children to work because culturally they don’t see the benefit of education or because their poor financial situation means they need their children to work,” explained Mr M’bawa.

“But if families are made aware of the goodness of education then I think this will start changing.”

As we continued speaking to Yunis and Frances we discovered neither they nor their grandmother had realised that if they went to school they’d also be receiving a mug of porridge from Mary’s Meals.  Each school meal we provide is fortified with vital nutrients and vitamins helping children to both concentrate in class and grow up to be strong and healthy.

“I want to go to school,” explained the elder brother Yunis. “I prefer that to working as I can see my friends and I can learn,” he added, his eyes lighting up at the prospect that going to school could be possible.

Mr M’bawa said he would hold a meeting with their grandmother to explain the benefits of education and also that they’d be receiving food at school, reducing the financial burden on her to provide them with a meal. Mary’s Meals currently feeds over 686,000 children in Malawi each day, in 516 schools across the country.

A month later we arrived back at the school. Yunis and Frances came running out of the classroom with big smiles on their faces.  The two malnourished boys I saw a few weeks earlier looked like different children. They’d put on weight and their complexions looked much healthier.

“The boys have been coming to school everyday,” Mr M’bawa explained.  “They’ve been taking the porridge and seem much happier”.

Frances and Yunis will still face many challenges, but a daily dose of good food in school provided by Mary’s Meals is going a long way by helping them off the streets and back in school, where every child belongs.

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Magnus included in Gerard Burns art exhibition ’14 for 14’

A painted portrait of our founder Magnus is currently on show—and on sale—at a multi-charity fundraising exhibition in Glasgow.

Contemporary artist Gerard Burns often donates his work to charity, but the “14 for 14” exhibition—which was launched during the XX Commonwealth Games in Glasgow—will raise money for 14 charities at once.
The exhibition includes recognisable faces such as Ewan McGregor, Neil Lennon, Alex Salmond, Judy Murray, and Karen Dunbar and is open to the public until Friday August 8 in the Clydesdale Bank on 30 St Vincent Street, Glasgow.

Gerard says: “2014 is such a significant year for Glasgow and Scotland. I decided I would paint 14 individuals that I have been inspired by or that I have admired for being at the top of their game.

“For some time Magnus was at the top of my wish list. My wife Ellen and her family are all involved in raising funds for Mary’s Meals and Magnus’s story about founding the charity is like a modern day fairy tale.

“I was blown away by how humble he was. He was a little shy and uncomfortable about an implied vanity in having his portrait done but agreed when I explained it would help to raise funds for Mary’s Meals and he would be doing me the favour to take part. He was hesitant but finally agreed, hence the small painting and the tongue and cheek pose with the mug on his head, showing he isn’t taking himself too seriously. In truth, though, the blue mugs are very serious because they are used by children in Malawi to collect their daily meal in school.”

Funds raised from the sale of the painting will be donated to Mary’s Meals, to help us reach more of the world’s poorest children with a daily meal in a place of education.

Alastair Christmas, Clydesdale Bank’s Regional head of Business and Private Banking in the West of Scotland, said: “Gerard has been a private banking customer for many years so it gives us great pleasure to support his latest exhibition, 14 For 14. It is also gratifying to know that the funds raised by the exhibition will be donated to some fantastic causes.”

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I want to be the next Lionel Messi

Nine years ago, Wongani Kuchisanja could only have dreamt he would be a footballer representing his country abroad.

But now, the 17-year-old Malawian, who received Mary’s Meals when he was younger, plays for his country’s Under 20s team as a striker.

“Mary’s Meals helped me with my football,” Wongani recalls. “When we were about to play a game we ate the porridge and it gave us energy.”

Wongani says when he graduates from secondary school he wants to play professionally and one day be the next Lionel Messi.

Meanwhile, Brighton Muthali, 17, who is a goalkeeper for the football team, also received Mary’s Meals.

“My life was very tough when I was young,” explains Brighton.  “Sometimes we wouldn’t have enough food to eat.”

Brighton began playing football when he was eight-years-old but recalls that often he didn’t have the energy to play because he was hungry.

When Mary’s Meals began feeding at his local primary school in Blantyre, Brighton’s life began to improve and his dream of becoming a footballer started becoming a reality.

“When I went to school I used to eat the porridge. Not only did it help me concentrate in class but it also helped me play for my school football team as it gave me energy,” he added.

The Malawian goalkeeper has since travelled across Africa representing his country in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

Basiano Bauleni has been a sport’s development co-ordinator in Malawi for over 20 years and helped train boys like Wongani and Brighton. He recognises how Mary’s Meals is helping bring unity and hope to the younger generation.

“Before Mary’s Meals started feeding here a lot of the youths weren’t going to school.  Now, not only do they go to school, but they have the energy to come to our sport’s programme and are taught to be good citizens,” Basiano explains.

“One day I hope to see Malawi qualify for the World Cup. This goal is certainly being helped along by the school-feeding programme.”

Sport is seen as important tool in helping countries across Africa, promoting good health, empowering young people, and building self-confidence simultaneously.

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Football Fever: why daily school meals are empowering children to play the beautiful game

Communications Officer Jo blogs about World Cup fever in Malawi

From South America to Europe, Asia to Africa, football fever is well and truly gripping the globe as the 2014 World Cup continues in Brazil, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Malawi.

Mary’s Meals vision is a simple one: to provide children with a daily meal in school so that they can live and learn.  But I’m also eager to learn the benefits this has outside the classroom, so I head to a local football field to meet a group of eager football fans.

“We’re rooting for Brazil”, a group of young boys tell me as they kick a ball around a dusty pitch in the commercial capital Blantyre.

“Who’s your favourite player?” I ask.

“Neymar,” they reply.

The 22-year-old Brazilian golden boy certainly didn’t disappoint as he scored twice in Brazil’s World Cup opener.

As I research a bit about Neymar’s background I discover he grew up playing street football, and wonder if that’s part of his appeal to these young Malawian boys.  Most of them don’t have shoes on, they’re playing on a gravel pitch, using rocks as goal posts, and playing with a ball not much larger than a tennis ball, but their love for the beautiful game is evident.

Out of the corner of my eye I spot two boys about 14-years-old with a proper sized football.  One of the lads shows-off his “around the world” trick.  His friend laughs, grabs the ball and does the “scissors” trick, inspired by the legendary Ronaldinho.  Their display was like something out of Run DMC’s ‘It’s Like That’ music video, but with a ball.

I’m eager to get involved so I wander over and ask to show them the only trick I know, something I like to call “the ball over the head” trick.  They seem impressed with my ball skills and ask for me to show them more. I laugh and politely decline knowing I’ve already shown off the full extent of my footballing prowess.

I start chatting to the boys about their lives, and what inspires them to play football.  I discover most of them have come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and often lack food.

“How do you have the energy to play?” I ask.

“We receive porridge at school,” they tell me.

As I ask more questions I discover that the boys are among the more than 692,000 children in Malawi receiving Mary’s Meals.  They go to the local Misesa Primary School in Blantyre, where nearly 2,000 children are served a nutritious meal each day.

“So how does the porridge help you play football?” I inquire.

14-year-old Mussafata pipes up: “The porridge helps me with my football skills,” he says.

The first thing I notice is how tall he is for his age and I immediately wonder if it’s the porridge, which is fortified with vitamins, that’s helping him to grow so tall.

He explains, “It improves my vision and gives me the energy to communicate with my teammates on the pitch.”

Another player interjects and says that without the food he receives at school he’d be hungry and wouldn’t be able to play.

As the great Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world.  It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair”.

As I continue watching the boys play, these words echo around my mind and I realise how much football means to these young lads, who really have very little.  It makes them stronger as individuals and unites them as youngsters, and as they told me themselves, without the porridge they wouldn’t have the energy to play.

Before I leave I ask them one final, but all-important question: “Is anyone supporting England?”

Most of them laugh or look down at their feet, apart from one brave boy named Patrick who says that he is and he wants to be like Wayne Rooney.

After Rooney’s and the rest of the England squad’s World Cup performances I wonder if Patrick still feels that way!

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Our friends help Balkan flood relief effort

Emergency aid has arrived in the flood-hit Balkans after members of our Mary’s Meals family launched efforts to help victims of the crisis.

As flooding continues to wreak havoc in the lives of tens of thousands of people in the region, donations collected by Mary’s Meals Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Austria are being distributed in badly affected areas.

Many people are still without safe water and electricity, while others are living in unsafe and insanitary conditions created by the worst rain-fall in the region in more than a century.

Mary’s Meals teams have helped to organise the distribution of donated goods and funds for those in desperate need of assistance following a public appeal by our support groups in Croatia, Bosnia and Austria.

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder and chief executive of Mary’s Meals, said: “Like everyone else, we have been horrified by the images of suffering in the Balkans. Thanks to our wonderful supporters, donations are now helping to alleviate the anguish faced by many families in the region.”

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Why it’s the simple things in life that matter

Communications Officer Jo blogs about her very first day in Malawi with Mary's Meals.

Within hours of touching down in Malawi’s commercial capital Blantyre, I hardly have time to catch my breath before I find myself being driven to a local school by Mary’s Meals’ expansion manager, Florian.

“We’re off to see a backpack distribution,” he tells me.  “I warn you the children can get very excited when they receive them,” he adds.

The Mary’s Meals Backpack Project runs alongside the school feeding programme—which provides a daily meal to over 894,000 children every day they attend school—as an additional incentive to encourage children into education.

Schools, businesses and individuals in the UK are asked to fill backpacks with basic educational materials to send to children receiving the daily meal.

After a short car journey along a bumpy road, we arrive at BangweccapPrimary where Mary’s Meals is feeding nearly 3,000 children attending the school every day.

As I get out the car, I see in the distance a truck loaded with thousands of backpacks reversing into the schoolyard.

Florian informs me that the children have no idea what they’re about to receive.  For most, he says, it will be their first ever gift.

I’m then led into a classroom where about 100 children are sat on the floor reciting words in English from a blackboard at the front of the class.  I am immediately struck by how attentive and well behaved the children are.  Every one of them seems engaged, their eyes glued to the teacher standing at the front of the class.

The teacher asks the children in Chichewa (the Malawian language) to get out their exercise books. As they do, I notice a little girl who was probably no older than 10, taking out her book from a tatty black carrier bag with several holes in—it looks as though she’s been using it as a school bag for several months.

It then dawns on me how much the backpacks will mean to these children, many of whom don’t even have shoes to walk to school in.

The teacher introduces us to the class: “This is Florian and Jo from Mary’s Meals,” she explains.

“HELLO FLORIAN, HELLO JO, YOU ARE WELCOME”, the children chant in unison.

Florian tells them the good news about the backpacks.  From the looks on their faces they seem confused.  They begin looking at one another with puzzled looks, many unable to comprehend what is happening as the sacks of bags start arriving inside the classroom.

Then smiles begin to spread across their faces and excited chatter fills the room as the bags are handed out.

Some of the children look at the backpacks in amazement, as if they’ve never seen anything quite like it before.  I then look around for the girl with the tatty carrier bag I noticed earlier.  She’s been given a brand new pink backpack and is beaming from ear to ear.

She and her friend examine the contents of their new bags.  One of them finds a tennis ball, some note books and a new pair of leggings; the other has been given a ruler, some pens and pencils and some new shoes.

I wander outside and can hear classrooms across the school filled with laughter and excitement as the bags are handed out.

Patrick Masiye a standard 6 teacher walks over to talk to me.

“Can you pass on a message to the people that donated these backpacks?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Can you say thank you, they have made these children so happy, they’re now proud kids.” he says.

I suddenly felt grateful that I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the joy something small can bring the faces of so many children.

If this was day one in Malawi, I can’t wait to find out what day two, day three and the coming weeks will bring.

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