Mary’s Meals: How one wish changed so many lives

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow found giving had become calling, writes Janet Christie

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow speaks to pupils at St Raphaels school in Liberia  the Marys Meals founder had to make his way there by canoe. Picture: Chris Watt
Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow speaks to pupils at St Raphaels school in Liberia  the Marys Meals founder had to make his way there by canoe. Picture: Chris Watt

BACK in 1992, fish farmer Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow and his brother were so horrified by television footage of the Bosnian conflict that they organised an appeal for food and blankets, loaded them into a Jeep and delivered them to Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a place of pilgrimage they had visited with their family.

Returning home to Dalmally in Argyll, they found their parents’ shed re-filled with more aid, so Mr MacFarlane-Barrow gave up his job to drive the aid out to Bosnia for as long as the donations kept coming.

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They didn’t stop – and the registered charity, Scottish International Relief was established.

In 2002, SIR was operating a simple famine relief project in Malawi when Mr MacFarlane-Barrow met a mother dying of Aids, surrounded by her six children. When he asked her oldest son what he hoped for in life, he replied: “To have enough food to eat and to go to school one day.” Mary’s Meals was born.

With the aim of providing chronically hungry children with one meal every school day, to give them the education that can lift them out of poverty in later life, the charity now feeds more than 822,142 children in 16 developing countries.

Malawi and Liberia are the biggest of its operations that span Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and South America. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow has just returned from a visit to Mary’s Meals in Liberia, where the charity is planning to increase the number of schools it feeds next year.

“Liberia has a special place in my heart because it was the first country we went into in Africa and we’ve been with people there for a long time through the civil war and aftermath, and the suffering that caused. It’s been wonderful in the last ten years to see a lot of things improve there. We’re going into more schools there next year, and in Malawi, too.

“Malawi has adopted a policy of school feeding because of Mary’s Meals, and in Liberia the government is very interested in what we do and is considering universal school feeding.

“We will always be independent of governments, but we want to talk to them and share learning,” he says.

Mr MacFarlane-Barrow is delighted by the success of Mary’s Meals, but nonplussed to find himself running a charity that last year raised £10 million.

“I didn’t plan any of this at all, and to an extent, it fills me gratitude that people are joining with Mary’s Meals.”

Now aged 45, he has seven children from two to 16 and still works from the original shed in Dalmally, although Mary’s Meals has offices in Glasgow, as well as its centres through the world.

“It’s continued to be a steep learning curve for me,” he says. “I have no academic qualifications relevant to this work. I’m learning as we go along and that’s because I’m continually surrounded by amazing people who volunteer to help, whether that be businessmen who have experience of growing an organisation or people on the ground.

“Tom Farmer is an example and he’s been my informal mentor from the early days. He came out to Malawi with me and I remember him saying ‘I love Mary’s Meals because there’s no mystery. I support a lot of things but with this you get there and you see it and there’s no mystery whatsoever. It’s always straightforward.’ That’s one piece of
advice he’s always given me: stick to the simple things.”

Mr MacFarlane-Barrow is looking forward to Christmas with his family, but there will be no lecturing to dampen the
festive spirit, an attitude he
extends to his school visits.

“I try not to do that ‘how lucky you are thing’, it’s not fair. And one of the things I love most about Mary’s Meals is the way young people respond to this mission. Far more than adults – though they’re great,” he adds. “But children move so quickly from getting the idea to taking it into action in fundraising. It’s because it’s simple. Mary’s Meals is this very simple thing that works in terms of addressing the most basic needs of the hungry child but at the same time is tackling the underlying issues of poverty. Donations of any size really will transform the life of a child.”