The story of a big heart

I have been involved over the last fifteen years in a project to recognise and support culture in Mozambique and to make links with Deptford, here in South East London. I have blogged before on some of the uplifting outcomes of this collaboration, and some of the local co-ops involved.

Peter Llewellyn was one of the other trustees of the Merry Trust (Mozambiquan Educational and Recreational Resources for the Young – one for my acronym hall of fame, alongside Nutshell). He died last month and so I shared with his family the story of what we had done, the story of a big heart.

Peter’s sister, Jani, was an imaginative nursery school teacher and activist and when she knew she was dying, in 2001, Peter, I and a few friends took up a project that she had started, Merry. Jani had started by collecting buttons, for children in Mozambique, initially deposited in the local branch of the Co-operative Bank. With money from her flat after she died, and subsequently from the will of her Aunty Marge, Pete turned this into a formal charity and we set about making things happen on the other side of the world – and in Deptford where Jani had lived and worked.

Mozambique had been the poorest country in the world, measured by money, but one of the richest, measured by culture. From his own time in Africa, Peter, as Jani, knew that progress starts with focusing on what you have, not what you lack.

Fifteen years on, Merry has supported an astonishing array of tiny inspirations, cultural projects in Northern Mozambique – like teaching teachers how to paint, so that they could teach children in turn, like supporting woodcarvers to take over a shop as a co-operative to sell their work to tourists, like paying for the skins for traditional drums in a community centre overlooking the coastal town of Pemba and paying again when years later, the skins had given way through constant use, like supporting the first film ever made by people and about people in Pemba, like supporting cultural festivals that thousands of people took part in.

In Deptford, on the same principles of building on culture and thinking globally, Merry has sponsored one or two classes to go to shows, in every single primary school in Deptford and New Cross. It has supported school workshops on culture and world issues, dance, drumming and story telling, including an annual visit from a writer, Beverley Naidoo, dealing with issues rarely touched on even today of race in children’s literature.

Peter was a can-do organiser, able to make things happen in ways that made everyone feel good. We are all used to the idea that big global issues require big global organisations, but no, here with a lightness of touch and agility, with so little administration and fuss (and cost), one family, the Llewellyns and a few trustees, meeting in the cafe at British Film Institute on the South Bank, raised smiles, raised hopes and even raised life chances – in communities that can feel so distant and so different, if you don’t have the mindset to think in another way,with a big heart…

…that people you don’t know from across the world are friends to make, people to learn from and partners to co-operate with.

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