Elephant turns up his trunk at porridge

Magnus explains how porridge-slurping is a great way to break down cultural barriers – except when it comes to elephants. 

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow
Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow
Mary's Meals founder and CEO

It was the porridge that brought us all here. We are a group of Mary’s Meals’ fundraisers and supporters from Canada, New York, Germany, Scotland and several small villages surrounding Uyoba Primary School in the Mambwe district of Zambia – all drawn by the locally produced ‘corn-soya blend’ porridge, and the chance to visit one of the latest schools to receive daily meals.

For the children attending Uyoba school, this porridge is a long-awaited answer to their hunger and their desire to learn. When Mary’s Meals was first served here three months ago, there were 856 children attending the school. Today, there are 976! This porridge certainly has pulling power. The teachers and the volunteers who cook the porridge for their children tell us so, and insist that we try it ourselves. So just this once, some of the people who have been faithfully supporting Mary’s Meals from their home countries for years, get the chance to taste the porridge. It’s very good and very filling too. We slurp it happily, while children all around us do the same. I would suggest that porridge-slurping is a great way to break down cultural barriers.

Only one character appears uninterested in the porridge – a large bull elephant we spotted as we arrived, browsing a tree just a few hundred metres from the school. It is fortunate that he prefers spiky green leaves to warm porridge, or we would have to take a very different approach to the safe storage and distribution of food here!

Apart from the browsing elephant, the thing that strikes me most about this school is a large mural painted on the wall. The pupils’ artwork depicts various wild animals, including an elephant just like the one chomping nearby (how many children around the world who draw elephants get to work with a live model?). Above the animals, they have painted an image of tourists on safari and below are pictures of hunters. It captures brilliantly the particular struggle of this community – perched on the edge of the enormous, world-famous game reserves of the Luangwa Valley.

Traditionally hunters, the parents of these children are now trying to adapt their centuries-old way of life to this new era of conservation and tourism, grappling with the hardships and opportunities that come with it. This is a very difficult transition in a place where sometimes people complain that more value is placed on the life of an elephant than on the future of their children. It is one of the reasons they appreciate the porridge so much. By the way, please don’t think I am an ‘anti-elephant’ person. Nothing could be further from the truth. But still, I have to admit I wouldn’t be thrilled at the idea of one brazenly consuming a tree beside my children’s playground in Dalmally.

Every community where Mary’s Meals are served has its own unique struggle with poverty – and the people of Mambwe district certainly have theirs. No matter the specific nature of their battle, each community knows they can only succeed if their children grow up healthy and gain an education. That is why people across this area are celebrating the arrival of Mary’s Meals. All except our large herbivorous friend at the school gate – who will stick to his leaves, thank you very much.