Afri Famine Walk: Solidarity with our famine past and present

With summer almost upon us, it’s a great time to get out and about. This weekend sees the annual Afri famine walk take place in Co. Mayo, an experience that is always uplifting and memorable, writes Rob Fairmichael.

Organised walks can be pedestrian, if you take ‘pedestrian’ in the sense of routine, everyday, nothing out of the ordinary, even if everyone is getting a bit of exercise.

However the annual Afri Famine Walk in the most spectacular part of Co. Mayo is different. Taking place annually for the past twenty seven years, it is always a deeply symbolic and extra-ordinary event that has included walk leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma), Christy Moore, John Pilger, as well as human rights activists from places such as Guatemala and the Choctaw nation. This year's leaders will include Sharon Staples, aunt of the imprisoned whistle-blower Chelsea Manning.

The Afri Famine Walk has it's origins in a real event, a tragic famine walk of 1849 when the starving people of the Louisburgh area walked, in bad winter weather, 11 miles to seek relief at the Delphi Lodge mansion, home of the local landlord. They were refused, and a large number died on their way home. But the walk is not just a memorial, a commemoration of those people in the middle of the nineteenth century. Rather, it links with current issues which resonate because of the context; struggles for food, for human rights, for land justice, issues which are the contemporary equivalents of the injustice of 1849. This means the walk is doubly grounded; in the past, and in the present, but always with a view to how the future can be made better.The other point about the famine walk is that it takes place in beautiful, and wild, Co Mayo. You can’t get a much more beautifully desolate spot than Doolough, close to Delphi Lodge which was the place the walkers of 1849 were aiming for. Thankfully the current management of Delphi Lodge have laid old ghosts to rest by opening their gates, providing hospitality and making the grounds available to the walk, and a memorial stone is now situated there.

There is something very contemplative about walking, travelling at the speed of your own feet and legs. If we travel by public transport, and even more so in a car, we miss so much, we don’t interact with others most of the time, and we get there fast. A walk like this is an opportunity to think, to be, to feel, and to talk with others along the road. And if the 11 miles is too much then a lift will pick you up.

We have come a long way since 1849. But many of the issues which blighted Ireland at the time are still a millstone around the necks of others in the world. And new issues have arisen which threaten the wellbeing of the world, such as global warming which not only threatens us all, and to evict billions from their homes, but also threatens the food supplies on which we depend. And the use of genetically modified crops, with increased pesticide use, is another threat to the very earth we depend on.

This year the theme is Food Sovereignty, Global Warming and Resisting Militarism, with walk leaders Abjata Khalif from Kenya, Maitet Ledesma from the Philippines, and Chelsea Manning's aunt, Sharon Staples from Wales.

There will also be music by RoJ Whelan.In our era of instant communication, the chatter can be so loud that we miss the things that matter. The famine walk is an opportunity to tend to some of the things that matter. It is serious but not solemn, and enjoyable as we interact with others along the way - and there is the possibility of ceol agus craic for those who can stay for the evening.Get your backpack ready and put Mayo in your sandwiches.

The walk assembles with registration in Louisburgh, Co. Mayo at 12.45pm this Saturday 16th May, and further details are available on the Afri website at http://www.afri.ie/tag/famine-walk/ 

Rob Fairmichael is a board member of Afri and coordinator of INNATE, the Irish Network For Non Violent Action Training And Education

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