Was it really worth it?

Perhaps he’s just having a bad day at the office, or in his case a bad day at the airport, but the immigration officer at Johannesburg doesn’t seem in the best of moods. “Where you going?” I’m going to Malawi, I reply. “How long for?” asks Mr Grumpy. Just a week, I say with a smile.

“That’s long enough for Malawi,” replies the immigration officer, curtly. Not the most encouraging news for someone who’s just set foot on this most unstable of continents.

It certainly doesn’t help my feelings of trepidation over what lies ahead. I am only a matter of weeks into my new job as a fundraiser with Mary’s Meals and here I am, about to experience the poverty which so shocked the founder of the charity, Magnus McFarlane Barrow, in 2002 that he set up our first school-feeding programme.

I’d heard graphic accounts of a generation wiped out by Aids and abandoned children starving, but I had also heard about a strong sense of community and a joyous spirit which distinguishes Malawians from other Africans. One of the Scottish charity’s supporters is a frequent visitor to Malawi. He told me how every day he sees wealthy people in the affluent west end of Glasgow going about their business “miserable as sin” while in Africa those he met with nothing were nearly always smiling.

On the plane from Johannesburg to Blantyre I get a clear view of the terrain. For hours I follow the path of the Zambezi River as it snakes its way through the Rift Valley. It is a dried out, yellow scar on the landscape, cutting through arid, brown earth.

It’s only spring, the situation will be even worse come summer when the drought will be at its worst. Food supplies will be running low and there are months to go until the rains come and, eventually, the harvest.

Just to add to the hardship, this year the government set minimum prices for goods purchased from Malawian producers to stop exploitation by foreign buyers of home-grown goods like tobacco, sugar and maize. The knock-on effect was that these price rises were passed on to consumers.

This is a catastrophic move as most people rely on home or locally-grown goods like maize. Any price rise really hurts.

Finally, we land at Blantyre Airport. Ramshackle and chaotic are two words that spring to mind. Thankfully, Gay Russell, who sits on our board of trustees in Malawi, is a pilot and used her connections to fast track us through the system, otherwise I’m sure we’d still be there.

We are told the office was buzzing with excitement at our arrival. The feeling was mutual.

It is on the journey into Blantyre that my education truly begins. It is a Saturday so there is no school. The streets are littered with city, that my education truly begins. It is a Saturday so children, some playing happily, but others are a pitiful sight, sitting alone in the dust by the roadside. I wonder how long they’d been slumped there. The adults are lying under the trees or are behind their stalls in the marketplace selling clothes, shoes, beer, maize, cotton and fruit. Some have a box with just a few tomatoes to sell. Many are walking beside the road carrying bundles of charcoal, illegally gathered from nearby woods.

We see shacks with flat roofs, mud and grass walls with no running water or electricity.

We also see huge houses with steel gates, guards and 10-foot high walls, which belong to the ex-pat community and wealthy Africans keen to keep their less fortunate countrymen out.

Andrea Kirkbride, our Malawi director, says that since the last elections in May which returned President Bingu’s Democratic Progressive party to power, there’s been a greater feeling of optimism, but despite economic reforms the gap between the rich and the poor is ever more apparent.

It soon becomes glaringly obvious that the majority suffers from chronic poverty while wealth rests in the hands of the few.

The next day we drive to a sugar plantation, passing by the Shire River, named by Dr David Livingstone. It’s the only feeder river into the Zambezi and is the best and worst friend of the Malawians. The water is crucial to villagers living on its banks for the most arid months but in winter the river floods and their mud huts are washed away. Each year, they start again, rebuilding only to face the inevitable.

As it is spring we see the more compassionate face of the river with kids playing in the water to cool off or washing their T-shirts on the rocks. As we wind our way down a mountain road to the Shire, we see a huge green, fertile square of land ahead of us. It is the Illovo sugar plantation where money had been made available to irrigate the land and get a round-the-year harvest of sugar cane. The natural resources are there but not the money to help the farmers. If only the investment could be put in, the story could be so different.

Monday morning dawns and I am off to visit one of our 33 centres for children under six. As the mother of five-year-old twins, this is going to be very close to my heart.

The mission statement of Mary’s Meals is to feed children in their place of education because we believe that if they can get an education they will be empowered to lift themselves out of a cycle of poverty as adults.

We focus on primary schools because early years schooling is free to all and it’s our best chance of encouraging children to come, eat and learn. We give the children under six two meals a day. A half-cup of fortified porridge called likuni phala at nine in the morning, then nsima, which is a maize mix a bit like mashed potato, and beans at lunchtime before they go home.

Everywhere we go we see enrolment shooting up, academic achievement rising, more girls coming to school – with fewer married and pregnant in their early teens – and health and nutrition improving.

The price? £6.15 to feed a child in Malawi for a whole year.

Although primary schools are our main interest, we found that some areas were so poor that there was a serious risk the children wouldn’t even make it to primary age, so in extreme circumstances we set up pre-school facilities with feeding stations.

The “teachers” are volunteers who we give basic training so the children, even the two-year-olds who come to us, get a basic education. We’re currently feeding almost 5000 two to six-year-olds. (Our feeding number for the whole country is more than 320,000.) Although we operate in 14 other countries, Malawi is our biggest project. We’re hoping to use it as a model to show governments that a universal school-feeding programme is possible.

The Malawian government has recently adopted such a policy, although a lack of money and poor infrastructure means achieving it is a major challenge.

As we drive along the dusty road, I am told that we are on our way to the Namame pre-school centre with has 148 children. It was one of the first to benefit from Mary’s Meals. Most of the children are orphaned through Aids. Some walk a round trip of 10 kilometres (just over six miles) each day. I feel the first of many pulls on my heart. But there are many positives too.

Our staff describe how most of the children come every single day, partly for food but also because they enjoy it.

They are photographed on arrival and then again after a month. There is a palpable difference with a lethargic, unhappy child nearly always turning into a smiling, bright-eyed one. The children are also weighed regularly.

The first thing I see as we roll up to the school are two enormous cooking pots with steam billowing from them in the porch of the classroom. As we get out of the car, there is the sound of children chanting. They are singing the alphabet, learning the months of the year and how to count.

Their eyes move but nothing else does when we walk into the room. They are asked to say “good morning” to their guests and do so in unison.

As I watch the children, some in rags and all sitting on a bare, mud floor, I see many of them yawning and keeling over. I feel a bit alarmed and ask if the kids are sick. But I am told that this happens a lot, especially on a Monday, as the children probably haven’t eaten anything over the weekend.

This hits me hard – the children might not be starving but they are malnourished. Two days without food is a long time. I see now that, even if children make it to school instead of being sent to forage for food all day, their ability to learn is severely hampered by hunger.

From that moment, I just want the lesson to end and the likuni phala to start flowing. Before it can, the children sing a song of thanks. They know they are getting what hundreds of thousands of their peers can only dream of – food, education and hope.

Minutes later, I experience one of the most joyous moments of my life. I serve the plates of steaming porridge to the children and watch them devour it. I see the volunteers spooning brown food from a huge tin onto the plates of some of the children. It’s called sibusiso, a peanut butter type food substitute that is given to undernourished children to give them a boost. I ask about a little girl who finishes her plateful and then helps two of her friends clear their plates.

Lydia is four years old and has been fed by Mary’s Meals since she was six months old. She came to live with her grandmother when she was just a baby after both parents died from malaria. This I am told time and again about many of the parents. The reality is that the cause of death is Aids in most cases but malaria is cited to protect children from the stigma. It’s a sad fact that in Malawi 15% of 15-30 year olds are infected with HIV.

In desperation, her grandmother brought her to the centre, begging for food, as she didn’t have enough money to keep even a baby alive. Our workers took a little money out of the budget and bought some milk to ensure Lydia’s survival. Here she sits before me now, one of the more robust and sturdy children in the class, stacking up the plates.

After mealtime, it’s playtime. The effect of the porridge is akin to an intravenous injection. Weary children are transformed into mischievous kids you’d see anywhere in the world. They play hide and seek, tag and a host of other games. The noise level is deafening but beautiful.

As I watch them play I hear their stories. There is two-year-old Grace, who is carried on the back of her older sister for 2km (around 1.2 miles) each day and left at the centre.

Her sister then walks to her own school some distance away before coming back to give Grace a piggy back all the way home.

I ask if it is acceptable for me to cuddle the children and I am told it will make them feel special and valued – the orphans are often taken in by neighbours or relatives who are already struggling to cope with a large number of their own children. For that reason, they are often neglected.

I get around as many as I can. The teacher is Blessings Katunga. She has a child of her own but when her sister died and she took in her five-year-old nephew Jacob.

She tells me how she wanted to make sure they were fed and could just have sent them to this centre. Instead she decided to volunteer as a teacher and go through the Mary’s Meals training programme. She tells me her husband is very angry with her for taking on unpaid work, but she insists on continuing. Given the cultural constraints on women in this part of Africa, this is a brave decision.

Blessings knows we simply couldn’t deliver on the ground if it wasn’t for people like her. Both here in the UK and in the countries we operate in, we rely on volunteers to fundraise for us and deliver the food.

We have a tiny paid staff and the way we work means that as much money as possible, 93p from every pound given, goes to feeding the children. We’re a no-frills organisation and believe that local communities should take ownership of the delivery of the feeding programme.

As soon as the circumstances are right we should be able to withdraw, leaving the system intact and run by Malawians. We do not want people to become aid dependent and we want them to play a vital role in the feeding and support of their own children.

It is with great regret that I leave Namame, waving to the children who stand in the playground shouting their goodbyes.

The next day I visit Milo primary school in the Blantyre district. In 2007, when we started feeding, there were 800 pupils. Now the roll is 1380. That’s what Mary’s Meals does for attendance. But this time, as well as dishing out the daily bowl of likuni phala, there is to be a delivery of backpacks.

Children in Scotland are asked to fill an old backpack with a notebook, some pencils and pens, a ruler, a towel, soap, toothpaste and a few other things that may be lying around the house. We then ship them out to Malawi, Liberia and Uganda. I’d heard about the utter joy this brings to children who have never even had so much as a pair of shoes and this time I’d be able to see their faces as they receive such treasures. Even better, I’ll be the one giving them out. We stand in the swirling dust in the playground and wait. I hear the lorry before I see it.

The warehouse workers and volunteers from the villages are standing on the back of the open-topped lorry, singing at the tops of their voices that the backpacks are coming. Soon the school is in uproar. I’m not ashamed to say that tears stream down my face.

The children are told that these gifts have come, not from governments, but from families and communities throughout the UK who care about them.

I give out the bags and hear the whispered word “zikomo” which means “thank you”.

Once everyone has a bag, they are allowed to open them. Imagine your children’s squeals at Christmas and multiply it by 100. Some of the children are so overwhelmed that they cling to the bags and don’t even open them.

Others immediately try on the clothes and shoes, smell the soap and taste the toothpaste. They have never touched such things before. After my work is done I stand between the classrooms watching the children. Many say it is the best day of their lives and tell me this will be a day of celebration for their family.

Lots of meetings with various officials and supporters follow over the next few days. All of them important in developing our work but while my head is in the meetings, my heart is most definitely in those classrooms.

Some things will live on with me for all the wrong reasons: the sounds of female circumcision ceremonies taking place in the valley below our hotel, a disturbing tribal ritual that is firmly rooted in Malawian culture; the skewered mice on sale at the side of the road, should you feel peckish, and the white flags flying from the tops of some houses. This shows the traditional healer is in residence if you need him, a cheap and dangerous alternative to hospital treatment.

We drive from Blantyre to Liliongwe, the country’s official capital. The road runs along the Mozambique border. On one side, Mozambique with its houses still in ruins after the civil war of the 1970s; on the other, beautiful, peaceful Malawi. Many Mozambican refugees fled their country by crossing the road and never went back. We are warned that landmines remain on the Mozambique side so maybe that’s why so few went home. Or maybe they, like me, fell in love with Malawi.