In just one month, the all-volunteer Catholic charity SPICMA (Special Projects in Christian Missionary Areas) has disbursed nearly £100,000, well over a third of its total for all of last year. Already dipping into its reserves, the charity is appealing urgently for donations. The money is being sent to distressed parishes in Kenya, Uganda, India, and Pakistan, all hit by the Covid-19 lockdown.
One such parish is based in Sotik, a small town in the Rift Valley area of western Kenya, where Father Eliud Otunga is the parish priest. Aged 40, he has been a priest for ten years. This is only his second year in the parish, where he provides spiritual and social services to some 2,000 parishioners scattered across 16 villages and many square miles.
Mainly, they live off casual work in the region's tea plantations or by selling milk from their cows. This is the second time in barely six months that their priest has had to appeal to SPICMA on their behalf. Last autumn, parts of this rainy district were badly flooded. Many families, their crops and livestock washed away, faced starvation. With no local government support, Fr Otunga urgently needed help.
The leading aid agencies, already stretched by successive years of drought, floods, and famine, could not address the problem of a few hundred starving in Sotik, no matter how dire their predicament.
The alleviation of such localised misery is the particular aim of SPICMA. Originally founded in north London 53 years ago, its handful of staff is now based mainly in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, where Cathy Forman, one of the administrators, works from her home in the village of Coln St Aldwyns. Helped by Paddy Phelan the founding director and volunteer, Cathy disburses up to £500,000 annually to desperate people in Asia, Africa, or anywhere that disease, drought, flood, war, or famine has brought calamity.
With no office to maintain and no salaries to pay, SPICMA keeps its expenses to the bare minimum. It also focuses on projects too small for the major aid organisations. Not that SPICMA's reach is small. Founded by the family of a missionary priest, it maintains a worldwide network of on-the-ground contacts in missionary outposts.
Fr Otunga is one such contact. Within barely a week of his end-October appeal to Cathy, she obtained the trustees' approval and transferred £4,000 to the Sitok parish bank account, enough to provide basic nourishment for over 30 starving families with children.
Now, however, the pandemic is bringing new distress to Sotik. In most of the developed world, the current lockdown may be hugely inconvenient but it's not generally life- threatening. For those without income, there is social welfare and the government's special income support measures, as well as numerous food banks.
It's different in the developing world. Although, so far, the coronavirus has not affected, much less killed, as many as in the richer nations, the lockdowns imposed across much of Africa and Asia bring exceptional misery to already- desperate communities.
In Sotik, there is neither government nor employer support for the tea-pickers and other casual labourers now isolated at home without work or income. Food markets are closed, anyway, and travel is prohibited.
Meanwhile, the people affected by last year's floods have exhausted the food bought with SPICMA's previous grant. The rain continues, so even if they had the money for seed, planting this year's harvest is impossible.
Once again, Fr Otunga turned to Cathy Forman. In early- April, he appealed to her for funds and, within days, a second grant of £4,000 was on its way. In due course, he will report back on how the money was spent.
All told, in response to pandemic-related appeals from Uganda, Kenya, Pakistan, and India, SPICMA has paid out almost £100,000 in the past month, more than a quarter of the total distributed for all of last year.
So, next time you enjoy a cup of tea, spare a thought for Fr Otunga's parishioners - and for Cathy, Paddy the Director and the other volunteers at SPICMA who, on your behalf, have never forgotten them.
For more information and to support SPICMA, please visit: www.spicma.org
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