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Fish farmer who caught one million children

29 May 2015

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is an unusual philanthropist, says Duncan MacLaren


Happy meals: Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow in Haiti

Happy meals: Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow in Haiti

AT THE end of a single-track road, in a small village in Argyll, stands a modest house with a dilapidated shed behind.

At the back of the shed sits a lean figure, gazing out of the window at the glen he has known since childhood. Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow grew up here, attended the village school, later dropped out of university, and returned to farm fish. It was an ordinary enough beginning.

Now in his late forties, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow spends a good deal of time in his shed. Beneath its corrugated-iron roof is the headquarters of an international aid agency that feeds a million children every school day; 700,000 of them are in Malawi, the rest spread over 11 other countries.

From between its wood-panelled walls, flaky with white paint, more than 400,000 backpacks, filled with school supplies, have been sourced from donors across Europe, and sent to Africa.

The shed embodies Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's disarming humility.

"I never planned to get involved in this kind of work," he says in the introduction to his new book, The Shed that Fed a Million Children. "I am a rather unlikely and poorly qualified person to lead such a mission."


POORLY qualified or not, in the mid-1990s he left his nets to follow an impulse to drive aid trucks to Bosnia. From there, he went on to establish orphanages in Romania, and set up mobile clinics in Liberia, helping to resettle villagers displaced by war. Volunteers flocked to help, as if drawn by a mysterious magnetism.

Even the great and the good were attracted. He has dined with the Queen, and has been blessed personally by Pope Francis. (He is a Roman Catholic.) In 2010, he was selected as a CNN Hero, and invited to a celebrity reception in Los Angeles. And, in April this year, TIME magazine named him as one of its 100 most influential people in the world. (The jobbing journalist who wrote his entry was a former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.)

Across what passes for a boardroom table (it looks like a fresh arrival from a charity shop), Mr MacFarlane-Barrow sits and sips instant coffee from a brown mug. I wonder about his comment in the book that he is an unlikely candidate for this position.

"When this work first began, I was chronically shy. The idea of doing public talks would have filled me with horror. Academically, I never completed my university studies. I've got no relevant qualifications. I'd been a salmon farmer [with] very little experience of the broader world, or large organisations and how they work."

There is something in his manner which tells me this is not false modesty. He is simply stating facts. But that only deepens the conundrum: how is it that a softly spoken father of seven is feeding a quarter of Malawi's primary-school children from a shed in the middle of nowhere?

For Mr MacFarlane-Barrow, the story begins in the former Yugoslavia.

"As a 15-year-old, I went to Medjugorje with my sister and brothers. At that time, it was a place that wasn't really heard of. We'd just read a little news-in-brief column in the Herald saying there's a report that the Virgin Mary's appearing.

"We'd been brought up as devout Catholics: we were steeped in that tradition of Marian apparitions - Lourdes, Fatima. To suddenly be presented with this idea that that could be happening in our own day led us to say to our mum and dad: we should go there, and find out if that is even possibly true."


THE visit to Medjugorje had a profound impact on the family. The young people returned convinced, and their parents could see the change in them. The family guest house in Dalmally was transformed into a retreat centre. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's sister Ruth wrote about their experience in the Catholic Herald, and a thousand letters poured in from interested readers.

A few years later, when the war in Bosnia broke out, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow and his brother were spending a quiet evening in the village pub. They began to discuss the news report that they had just seen, which had featured a refugee camp near Medjugorje. They were moved by the realisation that the Yugoslavia they had visited as teenagers was now tearing itself apart, and began to wonder whether they might be able to help.

Three weeks later, they were heading for Bosnia in a Land Rover packed with aid. Word had gone round of their sudden adventure, and donations had tumbled in.

This was the first of many trips delivering aid to the former Yugoslavia, in increasingly larger vehicles. Unbidden, donations continued to arrive at the shed, sweeping Mr MacFarlane-Barrow from his day job at the fish farm to work full-time organising the relief effort. Scottish International Relief was born, and for the next ten years, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow pursued projects in Europe and Africa.


IN 2002, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow learned of the terrible famine in Southern Africa, and in Malawi in particular. While wondering how to respond, he remembered a letter the family had received in response to Ruth's Catholic Herald article, written nearly 20 years before. Of the 1000 letters they had received, this was the one that had stood out.

The correspondent, Gay Russell, had been a pilot living in Malawi. Intrigued by the young people's experience, she had written for more information about Medjugorje. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow had not heard from her for two decades. While he was wondering about what had become of her, he was incredulous to discover that one of the guests staying in the retreat centre (who had had a conversion experience in Medjugorje) not only knew Gay Russell, but was working with her in Malawi.

With Russell's help, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow began to explore options in Malawi. It was on his second visit that he received a shock that proved to be pivotal to all that followed. It came through a chance encounter with a 14-year-old Malawian, Edward.

Asked about his hopes in life, Edward had replied: "I would like to have enough food to eat, and I would like to be able to go to school one day."

Mr MacFarlane-Barrow recalls the impact of that statement. "To hear that, like it was a lofty ambition or a dream - it was a deeply shocking thing to hear from a 14-year-old."

In response, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow forged his own "lofty ambition": to provide a daily meal in a place of learning. Food and education - this would enable hungry children to attend school, and receive the education that could become a ladder out of poverty.

The simple vision of Mary's Meals was born.

"It's not an original idea," Mr MacFarlane-Barrow explains, "but I'm not sure that other organisations have made it their sole focus."


THE single-mindedness of this vision may help to explain the rapid growth of Mary's Meals. In just over a decade, its annual income has risen to about £15 million. Around the world, it employs 275 paid staff, 50 of whom are in the British Isles. And the school-feeding projects are delivered by a scattered multitude of 65,000 volunteers.

Some of this growth has no doubt come from tapping into a Roman Catholic constituency of supporters, and the sense that Mary's Meals is a fruit of Medjugorje. At the same time, its appeal has gone far beyond this, embracing "people of all faiths and none".

Its values are another compelling factor: it is a grass-roots movement, relying on local support and committed to sustainable working over the long term. It has also been selective in borrowing from the wisdom of the corporate world: witness the shed.

For all this, there remains something unexplained about the strange magnetism of Mary's Meals. I put this to Mr MacFarlane-Barrow.

"Mary's Meals really does have that [magnetism] in quite a powerful way. There's lots of things about Mary's Meals that are still mysterious to me; and that would be one of them. I feel a constant sense of surprise about what's happened.

"One of the hallmarks of Mary's Meals, everywhere I go, is that people are joyful because of this mission. That's one of the reasons I feel so privileged to do it.

"I would describe Mary's Meals as a fruit of prayer. I say that partly because of what Mum and Dad have done with the retreat centre here; for almost ten years before that decision to drive aid to Bosnia, there had been people faithfully praying here in this place every day. I have always had this sense that Mary's Meals grew unexpectedly out of that."


I ASK about Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's motivations.

"That's always one of the hardest questions, isn't it?" he says. "I do think that, at the deepest level, then and now, is my Christian faith.

"All of us who meet a chronically hungry child, our first overwhelming desire is to give them something to eat. I don't claim that that desire only resides in people who have a Christian faith. But, for me, in the years before this work began, I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about people living in that kind of poverty. The decisions I made at that time were very much because I felt that's what God wanted me to do.

"And there were other motives in there as well, like that sense of adventure."

Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's exploits gradually turned him into a reluctant hero. As the limelight began to dazzle, he found it increasingly difficult to hide. He recalls a trip to Liberia with the actor Gerard Butler, where, for once, he was relieved to find himself no longer the centre of attention.

"Gerry was up, dancing, in the middle of the village. He goes into a community, and the place lights up, and he makes everyone laugh. That was great for me because I could hide in the corner, which is what I normally try to do anyway, and don't always get away with it. I'm someone who needs my own space, and that's probably another reason for the shed."


WITH the growth of Mary's Meals came increased media interest, award ceremonies, and celebrity appearances. "Magnus" means "great"; but, for a man who would gladly spend a day in solitude, working with his hands, the "hero" tag is deeply uncomfortable.

"I probably have got a little bit better at it. I've come to realise that these awards are for Mary's Meals, and for this huge group of people around the world who are doing this amazing thing. But it's dangerous. There's lots of aspects of this work that are dangerous - that can easily lead you down the path of thinking you are something you are not."

So what are the things that ground him?

"I suppose the shed would be one of them. That's one of the reasons why we stay rooted here, which, in some ways, is a pretty daft thing to do - to be out here in the middle of nowhere. The shed itself is really important. This is how we began. One of our big things is being low-cost.

"Also, staying rooted in family and community - a group of people who are perfectly capable of challenging you when you're making a mistake, or doing something stupid. I'm blessed with a big family who are very capable of doing that."


ALL along, I have been wondering about his family. Throughout the book, they stay largely in the shadows. But the book ends with a swim in the river with his children.

With the hunger of a million children resting on his shoulders, I wonder how he balances this work with the needs of his own children.

"That's probably the toughest and the most dangerous part of it - making sure that I first of all look after my family, and look out for my own responsibilities as a father and husband. So that has to be number one.

"How that plays out day to day isn't always easy - when to say 'yes' and 'no'. I don't think I could have navigated that without an incred-ible wife, who shares my faith and who shares my passion for this work. That's an ongoing dialogue."

The shed, the man, the million hungry children - like the apparitions in Medjugorje, this seems like a quiet miracle. How this could have happened remains mysterious. But there are some clues. The shed itself witnesses to the power of humility; the man embodies a confidence placed beyond himself; and the million hungry children speak to the best in our humanity.

For the joyful ocean of volunteers who now serve Mary's Meals, the greater mystery might be that it did not happen sooner.


The Shed That Fed A Million Children by Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is published by William Collins (£12.99 ( CT Bookshop £11.70) hardback; and ebook).

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