Charity marks 20 years of fighting global hunger with porridge

Mary's Meals outlines the work they provide in Malawi

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Life is not easy for many and when food is scarce for one family of orphans, the eldest Emmanuel Venasio skips meals so his 14-year-old sister Miriam can eat.

The pair lost their mother this year and his meagre earnings put them in the 70 per cent of Malawi’s population living below the international poverty line of $2.15 per day.

Emmanuel, 20, had to drop out of education and find work when he became the head of his household.

But he is determined that his sister will stay in school and realise her dream of becoming a doctor – the same goal he was forced to abandon.

And thanks to Scottish charity Mary’s Meals, the daily serving of porridge is providing life-saving nourishment and helping to keep Miriam on that path.

The Daily Express joined the aid organisation in Malawi as it marked 20 years of providing breakfast in primary schools and nurseries across the globe.

The free meal not only prevents malnutrition but crucially provides an incentive for impoverished youngsters to stay in school.

Without it many would be sent out to work or stop attending classes when hunger saps their energy.

For Emmanuel, knowing that Miriam is guaranteed at least one good meal every weekday eases his burden.

He works as a motorcycle taxi and, after paying rent on his bike, makes between 80p and £1.30 each day.

Emmanuel said: “She usually leaves without eating so the meal that she has at school brings me comfort.

“There are occasions when I cannot fetch enough money for both of us to eat but I can give it [to her] so that she can have something.”

Malawi, in southeastern Africa, has high levels of food insecurity and widespread problems with malnutrition. Four in ten children under the age of five experience stunted growth.

Hunger keeps many trapped in a cycle of poverty – and when survival takes priority over education, almost half of primary school children drop out early.

Emmanuel and Miriam have three other siblings who moved out of the family home after they lost their parents. Their mother died in January following a four-year illness and their father was killed in a 2018 car accident.

Their sister Nizziah, 17, left school and married a man from their village, Samama. But during a visit with her one-year-old baby, Ethan, she admitted she was unhappy and only wed for security.

Younger brothers Godfrey, five, and Kingsley, 12, were taken in by a local orphanage, where the siblings are reunited once a month.

Emmanuel said he misses his brothers but is relieved to know they are cared for. He hopes they, too, will stay in education.

He explained: “It wasn’t easy for me. My siblings all felt anxious about the passing of our mum and how we would carry on without her, alone. I felt that burden.

“The biggest challenge I have is finding enough money to just meet our basic needs, for example managing to buy soap.

“I miss school and wish that I had an opportunity to go back. I have dreams that I feel were not realised.”

At schools supported by Mary’s Meals, children arrive as early as 6am to get their serving of porridge before classes begin at 7.30am.

Attendance rates rise in areas that join the feeding programme and teachers notice their students concentrate better with full bellies.

Pupils arrive at Miriam’s school carrying their books in rucksacks, handbags and carrier bags – and each clutching a colourful plastic mug.

They rinse the cups out with water, then queue to receive a serving of porridge from one of the women volunteers who arrive before dawn to cook it.

The school’s small cookhouse is filled with gospel singing in the early hours as the women light fires under large vats.

They pour in water and Likuni Phala – porridge formulated for growing children that is delivered in pink Mary’s Meals sacks.

The mix consists of maize, soya and sugar, fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Volunteer Mary Simba, 47, wakes at 1am every day and walks for 90 minutes to reach the school.

Two of her six children benefit from the free breakfast which takes pressure off her family’s finances.

Mary said: “I am happy to see the children coming and taking the daily meal. If they don’t eat then they might become sick or weak because they are hungry.

“My children are happy and their performance in class is good because they have been fed. I wish to see them do well.

“It’s difficult because when they go to secondary school it becomes more expensive as they won’t have the porridge, so we have to fend for them. But I want to see them do well in life so they can support themselves.”

Samama Primary School gets through 65kg of porridge every day to feed around 1,000 pupils.

In total, Mary’s Meals helps more than 2.2 million of the world’s poorest children across countries including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Romania, India and Thailand.

The average global cost to feed a child is just £15.90 per school year and meals are tailored to the cuisine of each country.

The charity was launched in 2002 after founder Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow visited Malawi during a famine and met a mother dying from AIDS.

When he asked her eldest son what his dreams were in life, the boy replied simply: “I want to have enough food to eat and to go to school one day.”

Dan McNally, head of grassroots engagement at Mary’s Meals, said: “We believe the cycle of poverty can be broken by the simple serving of a daily meal at school.”

Mary’s Meals is running a Double The Love appeal until the end of January, which will see donations doubled by a group of generous supporters, up to £1.5m.

● You can donate to the charity’s vital work here.

Porridge gives me courage to learn, says pupil at school where it all began

Two long queues stretched across the yard at Chipini Primary School as boys and girls waited patiently for their porridge. Each carried a colourful plastic mug provided by Mary’s Meals.

This is where it all started in 2002 when the charity began supplying daily servings for the first 200 children.

Now, more than 1,400 pupils at this school alone benefit from the nutritious breakfast.

Among them are friends Flora Lesten, 13, and Oliver Malunga, 11.

Flora uses a wheelchair and says that without the free meal she would struggle to find the strength to keep coming to school.

She is the eldest of four children cared for by their single mother. Food is often scarce and sometimes all they have to eat are mangoes.

Flora said: “Maybe yesterday I didn’t eat supper but I can come here and get porridge. That gives me courage to go to class and learn.”

Chipini’s deputy headteacher, Godswill Chikomo, said enrolment shot up after the feeding programme was launched.

Previously many youngsters would drop out to spend their days working to scrape together enough money for a meal.

Mr Chikomo, 39, said: “The coming of Mary’s Meals provided great relief for parents. Some of the learners here just have one meal a day and that’s the porridge.

“After eating, they feel awake for another day so it has been a great help. Most learners are coming because they know that if they come here, they’re not just going to learn but to eat.”

In a nearby village, Hanna Lihonga described the challenges she faced looking after six children, three of whom attend Chipini.

One was her son and the remaining five were her sister’s children. Hanna, 40, took them in after she died following a long illness in 2018.

Hanna sold maize, beans and rice at the local market but said it was hard to make ends meet.

She added: “Mary’s Meals helps a lot. When the children get their meal it gives them energy to be active in class and they can easily pass [their exams].

“Without it, life would be very difficult.”

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