[b]Gerard Butler, the Hollywood actor, has visited Liberia lto see for himself the work of Scottish charity Mary’s Meals. He tells Harriet Alexander why he went to West Africa – and how it has changed him[/b]
The sunlight was filtering through the thick tropical forest as the small Liberian boy showed the white man his walk to school. Butterflies flitted between the banana trees and the curtain of creepers flanking the red earth track was alive with chatter from the bush.
Sunday Boy Maison, 14, may for that moment have shared the same path as Gerard Butler, Hollywood leading man, but their worlds could not be more apart.
Yet both were making that journey for the same reason: to draw attention to the work of Mary’s Meals â€” a Scotland-based charity that helps more than 820,000 children in 16 countries, giving them one meal a day in their place of education.
â€œIt’s such a simple, no frills idea â€” but one which is so effective,â€ said Butler, 44. â€œAnd it is magical to see it in practice.â€
Sunday Boy’s school, in a remote northern Liberian village accessible by canoe, is one of 366 nationwide that receive assistance from Mary’s Meals â€” taking weekly deliveries of rice, peas, corn soya blend and cooking oil.
The villagers are taught how to store the food safely and to supplement it from their own vegetable garden, which the charity’s staff show them how to cultivate.
â€œBefore Mary’s Meals came to my school, I was hungry in the day and could not concentrate. But now I am on the ball, and I can pay attention because I have a full stomach,â€ said Sunday Boy, who wants to be a senator.
â€œSo you could be president one day?â€ asked Butler.
â€œYes,â€ he replied.
â€œSo I should be nice to you then?â€
â€œYes,â€ he said, to peals of laughter from the village elders seated nearby.
Of course, the tale of two unlikely acquaintances began far from this sleepy village in a remote corner of West Africa.
In 2010, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, 45, who had founded the organisation in response to the Balkans war, was named as one of 10 CNN Heroes.
Presenting the award, in Los Angeles, was fellow Scot Gerard Butler.
â€œI knew a bit about the organisation from my mother, who is a huge fan of Magnus’s work,â€ said Butler. â€œBut before I presented the award they sent me a DVD of Mary’s Meals. And it blew me away â€” I had tears rolling down my cheeks. So when I met Magnus I was a bit star-struck. I was in awe.â€
Born into a Roman Catholic family in Paisley, Butler started training as a lawyer â€“ but his hedonistic ways led him to be fired the week before qualifying.
Moving to London, the wild times continued. But he began to take acting seriously, and, aged 30, left Britain for Hollywood â€“ giving up alcohol, honing his craft and his all-action frame. With films such as 300 and Olympus Has Fallen, he is now one of their most bankable stars.
His accent is Scotland meets mid-Atlantic; Celtic is his team, songs and gags are Scottish schoolboy, but football is â€œsoccerâ€ and films are â€œmoviesâ€.
Butler’s father died when he was 22, but his mother appears to remain a huge influence.
â€œMy mum’s a good Catholic, and although I’d say I’m more into spirituality than organised religion, I listened to her.â€
Adopting a high-pitched Scottish accent, he continues: â€œOch, Gerard, Mary’s Meals do such beautiful things, you must get involved.â€
And so last week he found himself in the wilds of West Africa. His mother, he said, was far more excited about this trip than any of his films. He was based in a Mary’s Meals compound in the small town of Tubmanburg, midway between the capital Monrovia and the border with Sierra Leone. He and Mr MacFarlane-Barrow travelled to schools that Mary’s Meals supports â€” bumping along dirt roads for hours to reach remote settlements. Driving into one village, amid the frenzy of children bearing banners and drawings, the village chief stepped forwards to present Butler with a white rooster â€” a great honour for any visitor. â€œThis is our tradition to show that you are welcome and have a pure heart,â€ he said.
At another community, a group of middle-aged women welcomed them with a feverish dance, beckoning Butler to join in. â€œI’m dead worried,â€ he said, emerging sweating from the throng. â€œI’ve been told my dancing signalled I’ve married five of them.â€
What did he know about Liberia before? â€œI knew about the war and Charles Taylor, but not much beyond that,â€ he said. â€œWhen you think of Liberia, you think of horrific violence and senseless wars. But that’s not what I’ve seen here. It’s such a welcoming country, with proud people, and a real sense of marching ahead.â€
Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, emerged from an intense and vicious war a decade ago. Since then it has elected Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and improved significantly.
But immense problems remain. It is the fourth poorest country in the world, with a life expectancy of 57 and youth unemployment at 85 per cent. The swathe of land bordered by the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone has been blessed by iron ore, diamonds and the world’s largest rubber plantation â€” but little benefit trickles down to the country’s 3.7 million people, surviving on average on Â£258 a year.
Mary’s Meals has been in Liberia since 1994. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow said it was one of his favourite countries because the people embraced the idea of working alongside the charity. â€œFor me what sums it up â€” and a real highlight of this trip â€” is revisiting a school I went to earlier this year,â€ he said. â€œI got there in the afternoon and most of the children had left class because they had to go into the bush and look for food. But this time, the classrooms were full â€” enrolment has gone up by 40 per cent in this district â€” and that was a delight to see.â€
Butler told Mr MacFarlane-Barrow that he wanted to come, and Liberia, the first African country to receive Mary’s Meals, was suggested â€” â€œeven though it is logistically one of the more complicated places to come to,â€ Mr MacFarlane-Barrow said. â€œBut to be honest, I never really expected Gerry to make it here at all.â€
Charities queue for Butler’s support, but, he joked: “I can barely look after myself, let alone take on that”. It had to be something he believed in.
Behind the wisecracking and stream of anecdotes, he admitted he was apprehensive about the trip.
“I was nervous because I wasn’t sure I’d be eloquent enough to give justice to this experience,” he said. â€œBeing here is a huge responsibility. And then I thought about it and realised it was a real honour to be able to do this. Cynics are always going to say it’s about self-interest, but I think this is one of the times celebrity can work for you â€” to shine a light on good work going on.â€
Butler spoke with affection of Momolu Sando, an articulate nine-year-old taken by his uncle to an orphanage school, aged two, when he lost his parents in the war. The actor spent time talking to Momolu and playing football, and later said: â€œHe’s just the most incredible boy. He is just like me when I was younger; playing football, wanting to be a doctor â€” I wanted to be a lawyer. We have to give more children like that a chance.â€
Meloshe Roberts, 24, is one such child that was given a chance. One of the first youngsters to be fed by Mary’s Meals while at school, he is now director of news for a regional radio station.
â€œIt definitely helped me get where I am now,â€ he said. â€œIt encouraged me to stay in school, and be focused.â€
Leaving behind Sunday Boy’s village, taking the dugout canoe across the river, Butler was thinking about the past few days. â€œI usually click straight back into my real world quite easily,â€ he said. â€œBut this changes you. Getting out of your own bubble, and stepping momentarily into theirs. It matures you â€” although it also somehow makes you more childlike at the same time.â€
He returned to Hollywood exhausted, but inspired and wanting to do more.
He has plans for events back in Los Angeles, â€œto get the wealthy folk there to open their walletsâ€, he said.
â€œI just feel like we are all walking along this path together.
â€œAnd if we can give someone a little helping hand along the way, then it’s got to be the right thing to do.â€
Send your donations to Mary’s Meals.
Call 0800 698 1212 or visit www.marysmeals.org.uk
You can send cheques / postal orders made payable to Mary’s Meals to: Craig Lodge, Dalmally, Argyll, Scotland, PA33 1AR.