Johanna writes on my favourite famine story

I have been moved by this story for years since I heard it from Don Mullen.


Much has been written about our materialistic society, and certainly, as a child of the sixties, and now a parent myself, I have joined in the chorus of disapproval voiced by my generation in particular, about the way our ‘celtic tiger’ affluence and mentality has seemed to influence us and our young people especially. We accept and are grateful for the benefits our new found wealth brings, of course, but we bemoan the apparent decrease in altruism, the decline of volunteerism, the scepticism about aid and aid organisations, the increased focus on individualism, the rise of racism and protectionism.

And yet, (did you sense an ‘and yet’ coming up?), there is apparently something about famine, disaster, suffering, that touches us all, especially if there is some memory of similar suffering in our own national or clan consciousness. I am reminded of the wonderful story of the Choctaw tribe of Native Americans in Oklahoma, who, on hearing reports of the Irish famine in 1847, sent $710, the equivalent of more than $100,000 today. They had almost nothing themselves but were moved by the awful suffering in Ireland at that time, and felt a special affinity with the hungry and those who had lost their homes. It was only sixteen years since their tribe had walked the ‘Trail of Tears’ from Oklahoma to Mississippi, along which many of them died. Bill and Melissa Gates, at the other end of the wealth spectrum and in our own century, have been important role models for those who have plenty and who can make a real difference in the lives of others who are much less fortunate. And there are many like them.

But for those of us whose financial status lies somewhere in the middle – we have enough but could always do with a little more – we are the ones who are apparently suffering what has come to be known as ‘donor fatigue’. We have grown tired of the many calls on our hard earned cash. We have a lot more that we would like to do with it ourselves anyway. Statistics about the often small percentages of donations to Aid agencies that actually get to those who are suffering, disturb many people and discourage us from giving.

In this climate, my family and I – my husband, and four adult children – found ourselves presented with the opportunity to spend a couple of months in Malawi, in sub-Saharan Africa, the summer before last. We went, partly because it was made pretty easy for us to go, partly because it was something we had always wanted to do, and mainly because we had a sense that it was something we ought to do. And to be honest, it wasn’t just that we thought it would be good in the altruistic sense, but also we believed that it would do us and our children good. We did voluntary work in a place called Mzuzu, in northern Malawi, for about 6 weeks, and then took some time to travel and see some more of this beautiful country.

Before we left Ireland, we asked our friends and family to consider ‘working an hour for Malawi’. In other words, to donate the amount they normally earn in one hour to a fund that we would collect and take out to Malawi with us to use for the relief of extreme poverty among the people we would be working with. This appeal raised 12,000 euros and was used for basic needs such as buying blankets for families who had none, bags of fertiliser for those in desperate need of growing crops to feed themselves or to sell in order to buy other necessities. We established a fund so that orphaned children in the area could be fed a bowl of maize porridge each day when they attended the Day Care Centre set up for them by the parish we were working with. We also used a substantial amount of the fund – about 3,500 euros – to buy a plot of land and to build a Centre for the young people in the area where they can gather. They come to read – the National newspapers and magazines are there each day – there is the beginning of a small library, and there are courses organized for them, for example AIDS prevention and computer skills. There is the opportunity for inter-faith discussions, as well as to simply talk and have fun together. The Centre is called ‘Ungweru’ or ‘Light’ House. All of these projects were over-seen by our friend, Fr John Ryan, a St Patrick’s Missionary priest who has lived in Africa for 28 years, and committees of his parish, St Augustine’s, in Mzuzu.

Of course, once we had spent time there and got to know the people in the parish and their ‘clients’, the AIDS sufferers, the orphans, the poorest of the poor in the out-stations and villages far away from the town, we had fallen in love with the place and its people, and we wanted to keep up the contact we had established. We promised them that we would not forget them once we came home to Ireland. Our home is now full of photos and mementos that remind us of them, and we still talk about the amazing experience we had of going out to Africa to work together as a family and to see the situation at first hand. But naturally, we want to remember them in a much more tangible way for them, too. And we had a strong urge to bring their story and their message to our ‘developed’ world. We wanted to make clear the urgency and the desperation of their need, but also their resourcefulness, their wisdom, kindness, humour and humanity.

Last September we planned a calendar for 2007, using photos taken by us when we were in Malawi. The idea was to raise money and to raise awareness, and this time, not just among our own family and friends. We printed 1,250 calendars. At this stage we have about 30 left and we have raised over 32,000 euros after taking out the cost of the printing. Some of that money has already gone to Malawi to help buy fertiliser, food, and to pay school fees for children whose parents have nothing, but who desperately want to send their children for the education they themselves never had, in the hopes that it will lift them out of the poverty trap they find themselves caught in. Again, all the money is administered by the parish of St Augustine and is distributed by committees set up for this purpose. A major aim of the fund-raising was to build a Day Care Centre for the 2-5yr old orphans who are at present taken care of by the parish in a dilapidated old building that is on loan to them. The land has been bought and building will start as soon as the rainy season ends in a couple of months’ time. We also plan to look into the possibility of building a small hostel which can be used by parish groups but will be available for volunteers from the West to stay in if they are working in the parish. Fr John is very keen to set up this sort of opportunity for exchange and dialogue between cultures, and from our own experience of having had this ourselves, we are convinced of the benefits to both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ .

We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of those who have made it possible for us to keep our promise to our friends in Mzuzu, not to forget them. We had hoped to raise 10,000 euros, and we have been entrusted with over three times that amount, and it’s still coming in. Our children spoke about Malawi in their old schools, my husband and I appealed for support for the calendar project in three of our local parishes, we emailed all the long suffering friends and family, and we were met with enthusiasm, warmth, interest and huge generosity. In an article about our experience in Malawi, and our ‘Small Change’ project, printed in the Irish Examiner and here in St Austin’s parish magazine before Christmas, I made a brief mention of our need for help to get a newer, more reliable car for Fr John. He would never have allowed us to fund-raise for this for him, but we were unhappy about the state of his 13yr old car which was constantly in need of repair, and of parts that could only be got through asking visitors coming from Ireland to bring them in their luggage. Almost immediately someone came forward offering to buy John a car. “You can have too much money”, she said, “and we already have enough ourselves, so when I came into this money, I just decided to look for something that I could do with it to make a difference for someone else.”

Celtic Tiger materialism? Yes, the Celtic Tiger is alive and well and stalking the countryside here in Ireland as boldly and successfully as his counterparts in so many countries in the wealthy, consumerist West, but it seems that Tigers have memories too – (or maybe a well-developed ‘tigress side’!) – of the times when things weren’t so good. In 1997, the 150th anniversary of that generous gesture from the Choctaw Indians, a group of Irish people walked the 500 mile ‘Trail of Tears’ in reverse, back to the Choctaw homeland, and in so doing raised over $100,000 for famine relief in Somalia. In 2007 our Small Change project will be sending over 32,000 euros for the relief of poverty and suffering in Mzuzu, Malawi, and Fr John will be driving a (nearly) new car that is safe and reliable, around the outstations and villages in the bush. In addition, it has been tremendously up-lifting to witness the generosity and enthusiasm of people who are supporting our project and it certainly helps to renew our faith in people’s essential goodness.

During Lent, it’s even more important to remember, and to do what we can to help relieve suffering, and it’s also important to remember that with all our frailties and susceptibilities, most of us still do want to do what’s right.

Thank you for your support.

Anyone who would like to know more about the Small Change Project or who would like to donate to the fund is welcome to contact us by phone at 00353 21 4343851, or by email at


2 thoughts on “Johanna writes on my favourite famine story

  1. Hi Wells for Zoe,

    I too am helping a fellow Catholic priest in Malawi. His name is Father Clement Chimwala. He also is looking for a reliable vehicle. I was curious what is the best avenue for purchasing a used vehicle since I am assuming the vehicle has to be a 4X4 vehicle. My parish in Kirkland, WA, Holy Family Catholic Church is trying to ascertain the best way to get a more reliable vehicle to him. Did you go through a specific dealer or through the internet? Thank you for your heartwarming story and God Bless.

  2. Dear Michael,

    Sorry not to have responded earlier. I have only just seen your comment. I’m afraid I can’t be very helpful to you as our friend Fr John just heard on the grapevine about the car he was able to purchase with the donation that was given here in Cork. It is a two year old second hand 4X4 and a huge impovement on the 13 year old car he had before!

    Good luck with your fund-raising. Johanna

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