Reflections from Afri’s First-Ever “Virtual Famine Walk”

“Since we can’t do the Famine Walk this year…could we do a virtual famine walk, instead”, when the question was raised, it seemed almost farcical.  How could we re-create on-line the unique and extraordinary atmosphere that thousands of people have experienced on ‘the famine road’ in County Mayo over more than 30 years? But we are living in unusual times and unusual times require unusual responses!

And so the Afri team – Larysa, RoJ and I linked up with Ruairi McKiernan to explore the possibility. Ruairi had a very successful launch of his excellent new book ‘Hitching for Hope’  on line recently and he was confident that the ‘Famine Walk’  concept, as well as  Afri’s network and reputation could bring a community of people together to mark this important date in the calendar. The walk began in 1988 and for many years it has taken place on the 3rd week-end in May – this third week-end in May has now become the ‘official’ date for the National Famine Commemoration in Ireland.

When we went on air on Saturday, May 16th at 7pm – there was an immediate sense that this would be a memorable event. The easy and friendly personality of our host, Ruairi, set the tone for a remarkable two hours of recollection, reflection, insight, conversation, inspiration and beautiful music. The wonderful music was provided by Colm Mac Con   Iomaire, who spoke powerfully about the ‘collective vulnerability’ that we are experiencing during the pandemic, before playing a stunning version of Róisín Dubh. Emer Lynam spoke about an oil spill affecting the Kichwa tribe in the Amazon Rainforest before playing a beautiful piece by  O’Carolan.  And RoJ Whelan, who has just released his new album ‘Sacred Moods’ brought the curtain down with the ‘Afri anthem’, ‘The Arc of solitude’ – he was accompanied by singer-songwriter Paul O’ Toole.

Many friends from the ‘Afri community’ joined in from around Ireland and around the world – from eleven countries including Brazil, India and El Salvador and 23 counties – as far as we can ascertain! We saw familiar names coming up on screen as well as new people learning about the Famine Walk for the first time. Between 200 and 300 people were ‘present’ for the duration, while there were almost 2000 ‘views’ within 24 hours!

Following some reminiscences from more than three decades of the walk, John Maguire, spoke about the Doolough Tragedy as being “an exemplary tragedy, within a huge catastrophe”. He also pointed out that more money was spent on maintaining the military than on food relief during the period of An Gorta Mór;  how in one example, two guns and fifty soldiers were used to escort a shipment of food – not into – but out of Waterford harbour to feed the colonial economy.

Clare O’Grady Walshe described this as ‘such a hopeful time’ during her powerful input.  She said the Covid 19 pandemic, amidst the sadness and grief, also provides a monumental opportunity for ‘restoration, recovery’ revitalization, remembering and putting things back together so that we can have the sovereignty to grow in our own place’. Mother Earth needs to breathe and we need policies to be put in place to support ‘conservation through use’.  “We cannot allow ourselves to be caught again in the trap of mono-culturism, we need poly-culturism, and hubs of seed sovereignty all around the country and the world”

Donnah Vuma, speaking from Limerick, said that she hoped the Covid 19 pandemic has shown that the Direct Provision system is totally unfit for purpose. The pandemic has highlighted all the major flaws with the system. She expressed the hope that we would soon see a move away from DP to a more humane system, where people are accommodated within the community and where the ‘profit model’ has been totally abolished. There is hope, she believes, in the sense that the campaign to end DP is louder and stronger and public opinion is more informed. ‘If we are able to come together to fight the pandemic, why can’t we do the same to fight other injustices”

Our youngest speaker, Gráinne Malone got the opportunity to take part in a climate action while in France and it was a pivotal moment in her life. Since then, the issue of climate change has been a priority for her. She was chosen as one of the delegates to represent Offaly in the Youth Assembly and was one of over 150 young people who took over the Dáil for a day and came up with a series of recommendations for Government on climate change. She strongly believes that change is possible, “we can do things in our own lives that make a difference and we must keep up the pressure for action on this most critical issue”.

We were delighted to include messages from Michael Doorly of Concern and Caoimhe de Barra of Trócaire.

Michael said that ‘we honour the memory of those who died in our own ‘Famine’ by striving to end famine, hunger and injustice everywhere in our world today.’ He added that the World Food programme has warned that the Coronavirus crisis will push more than a quarter of a billion people to the brink of starvation, unless swift action is taken. “Meanwhile in Kenya and ten other countries in East Africa a swarm of locusts have been decimating crops since December last year, so the challenges are great “.  Michael concluded: “as we emerge from lock-down, many of us are asking how do we not return to the old normal. How can we press the re-set button on so much of the old world that led to so much waste and unfairness and inequality? I believe that it is at forums like this that we will begin to find the answers”.

Caoimhe added that Trócaire and Afri share a common set of values and beliefs; belief in a just world; belief in peace and human rights. The Famine Walk is an expression of compassion and human rights. Afri’s Famine Walk has reminded us, for example of the Choctaw donation given to Ireland during An Gorta Mór. Such solidarity resonates strongly in our memory and connects us to the present day when Covid 19 is creating untold misery in many parts of the world. Participating in the Famine Walk is a way of showing solidarity with the people around the world affected by Covid 19.” It’s a great way to exercise our common human spirit, our love for humanity. Through reflection, analysis and action, Afri is on a path to creating a better world and Trocaire is proud to be a partner with Afri in this endeavour”, she concluded.

So, though not like ‘walking the walk’, the virtual famine walk was a great experience that re-connected the ‘Afri family’ around important issues at this critical time. Thanks to all who joined us and supported us and please continue to do so in the time ahead.

We look forward to getting back on the road in 2021 – if not before!

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