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The salmon farmer who feeds the world

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow is mobbed by children in Haiti

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow’s first experience of delivering aid was to drive a Land Rover crammed with food, clothing and medicine from the Highlands of Scotland down to Bosnia. At the time he was a salmon farmer: he had taken just a week’s holiday to do it. When he got back, his family shed was bulging with aid that had poured in from friends and friends of friends. He quit his job, sold his house, and learned to drive articulated lorries. Now, about 20 years later, his charity Mary’s Meals feeds half a million children every day.

But that is not the start of the story. At least, not how Magnus tells it. The real beginning was 10 years earlier, when he was 14, and he went on a pilgrimage to a small village called Medjugorje.

I meet Magnus for tea near London Victoria. He is tall and in a suit; his hair is greying a bit at the sides. He says he finds it hard to describe the effect that first trip had on him. “It was something in my heart – an experience of God’s grace,” he says. Later, he describes it as “something God seems to do for many people there: [he] gives them an awareness of his love for them”.

It was a madcap adventure: 10 of his family and friends, all teenagers, turned up at Medjugorje without anywhere to stay. They had read an article about six children having visions of the Virgin Mary and thought if it was possibly true they should visit. They flew in to Dubrovnik and drove there in two hire cars (harder than it sounds, since their map didn’t have Medjugorje on it).

After evening Mass a friar, Fr Slavko Barbaric, came over to them and introduced them to his sister, who they ended up staying with for the week and who had children their age. It was, Magnus says, an “amazing mixture of the supernatural and the very mundane” – one minute they’d be talking to Bosnian children about Italian football and the next “we’d all be talking about the fact that one of them was going out with one of the visionaries”.

At the time the six alleged visionaries were young teenagers, too. They invited Magnus’s group into the room where they were having apparitions of the Virgin Mary every evening. Magnus knows two of them still.

What struck him, though, was not the visionaries themselves – they were “very nice, very ordinary people”– but the faith of the villagers and the way they responded to what the six children were saying.

“By the time I came home,” he says, “I had the belief that Our Lady really was appearing in Medjugorje and that she was appearing with a message for the whole world.”

He says that he wanted to try, “in whatever way I could, to respond to her invitation to … put God back at the centre”.

About a decade later Magnus was in a pub with his brother Fergus. They were talking about a news item they had seen about refugees near Medjugorje during the Bosnian war. And that’s when they thought of driving aid there themselves.

Magnus tends to play down his role in all this. Once the donations came pouring in, he says, “it was harder to stop than it had been to start”. Giving up his house and job was no big sacrifice, he insists. He had been a salmon farmer for six years and was “looking to do something else anyway”.

After 20 minutes or so of talking – Magnus, though very mild-mannered, talks at an incredible pace – we remember to pour the tea. Over the next 10 years, he explains, his charity Scottish International Relief brought aid to Bosnia, built care homes in Romania and worked in Liberia and elsewhere.

His stories pour out and are some of the most moving I’ve ever heard. He talks about 11-year-old Romanian orphans so neglected they could not walk properly. The children, all HIV positive, had been abandoned in hospitals and no one had lifted them out of their cots long enough for them to learn. The doctors, he says, “couldn’t see any worth in those children at all and they were dying, numbers of them, every week”.

Magnus recalls an exchange with one doctor who said: “I don’t know why you’re building these [care] homes for these kids.” Pointing to one girl, Juliana, he said: “She’ll be dead before you even finish building them.” Now, Magnus says, “Juliana’s a young woman, and a few summers ago I went back for the weddings of three of those girls. It’s been a miracle to me because we thought we were building a hospice where they could have a dignified death so really it’s been an amazing thing that all of them are still alive.”

Magnus has plenty of these stories, and is used to telling them, I think. He gives talks in schools and to fundraising groups. He says at one point: “I’m sure there’s only so much of all this stuff you want, because there’s a lot of it.”

Mary’s Meals was founded in 2002. Its one, simple idea was to provide children with a free school meal every day.

To explain how it started, Magnus goes back to that first Medjugorje pilgrimage 20 years earlier. His sister, he explains, wrote an article about it in The Catholic Herald. Printed at the end was their parents’ address, and 1,000 letters from all over the world flooded in, including from a woman in Malawi called Gay Russell. Their parents replied, but heard nothing back. They did not know that she had gone to Medjugorje herself, had a profound experience, and decided to build a replica shrine in her home country.

Magnus was introduced to her years later because she was also a key figure in famine relief. It was through her contacts that Magnus’s charity was able to start work in Malawi. And it was an encounter there that led to Mary’s Meals.

During a visit to the villages they were bringing food into, Magnus says, a priest took him to see a family. The father had died a year before and the mother had about three or four weeks left to live. She was in agony, surrounded by her six children on the floor of her mud hut. She was saying there was nothing left for her except to pray that someone would look after her children after she’d gone.

Magnus started talking to the oldest child, Edward, and asked him what his hopes were in life. He said he “would like to have enough food to eat and would like to go to school one day”.

That encounter was “one big reason why Mary’s Meals was born”, Magnus says. But the idea for it actually came from Tony Smith, a Catholic businessman and philanthropist, who had himself taken it from George McGovern, a US senator who helped create the World Food Programme. When Tony Smith shared the idea, Magnus says, he “immediately felt this was what we were called to do”.

Now, Mary’s Meals feeds 17 per cent of Malawi’s primary school population, and 581,000 children globally. A free meal goes far, says Magnus: there is evidence that “enrolment shoots up, attendance rates improve and academic performance improves dramatically as well”.

The government in Malawi has now said it wants to provide free meals for all schoolchildren (though in practice this is a far-off prospect).

Magnus says that, while he believes Mary’s Meals was a fruit of Medjugorje, “we don’t shout it from the rooftops”, and lots of people involved in the work would not even have heard of it.

I ask Magnus about the controversies around Medjugorje. I refer to it only vaguely, but I am thinking of the laicisation of Tomislav Vlasic, a former Franciscan friar and early spiritual director of the visionaries. Previously, he was reported to the Vatican for “diffusion of dubious doctrine, manipulation of consciences, suspected mysticism [and] disobedience toward legitimately issued orders”.

Magnus’s belief in the apparitions is unshaken, though. He says: “There are lots of people involved at Medjugorje and I don’t see that if any of them make a mistake or do something wrong it has a direct bearing on the authenticity of the apparitions. If a priest or lay person who has a connection to Medjugorje does something wrong, is that not the world over? Is that not just what happens?”

The fruits of Medjugorje, he says, are “beautiful and amazing”.

“You go to all these corners of the globe and you can see these good things happening,” he says. “It seems to be the source of this incredible grace.”

A year after his first pilgrimage his parents went too, and had a similarly profound experience. They turned their home into a retreat centre, the Craig Lodge Family House of Prayer.

It’s there that Mary’s Meals still has its headquarters. (Magnus’s office is a tin shed in the garden.) He is heading back there at the end of the day.

Magnus explains that one of the key values of Mary’s Meals is “our belief in the innate goodness of people”. He says: “It’s just our experience over the years. You go back to how we began and it was just this spontaneous outpouring of goodness.”

He talks about fundraisers in America and the tens of thousands of volunteers in Malawi. He recalls people in aid camps in Bosnia who would smuggle a quarter of their food back to friends or relatives stuck on the other side of the war.

“You start by thinking you’re doing all the giving and then you go there and there’s someone else doing something much more amazing,” he says. “That’s one of the things I really, really love [about the work]: it constantly restores your faith in human nature.”