Monday, 20 December 2010

Climate change, local communities and real ale...

I was intrigued to read Chris Huhne's comment that "...even the Women's Institutes has better rules" than the UN when it comes to their negotiating procedures when he discussed the Climate Change Conference in Cancun last week. When it comes to the UN's organisational skills, I sincerely hope that they were better in Cancun this year than they were in Copenhagen last year. I was refused entry to the Climate Change talks last year with the entrance in sight, which was not something that endears one to the UN's power of organisation. At the time it was obvious to me that the WI could have and would have arranged that event much more efficiently so it’s interesting to hear Chris Huhne echoing me earlier thoughts! I also attended the previous talks in Poznan in 2008 so know a little of how things work, although the WI was not at this year’s talks despite that fact that women's roles in finding solutions to the changed climate remain important to the organisation. We must all continually strive to make a difference every day through environmentally friendly actions at home, in our local communities and in our wider actions at every level.

Another area of interest in December is The Sustainable Communities Act, originally put forward by Nick Hurd MP, which is now on the statute book. The Act was celebrated last week with a reception for its many adherents and those who worked so tirelessly on the Bill focusing on communities and how they can have more of a say in how they are run. Ron Bailey and Steve Shaw of Local Works deserve a special mention here; I met them both when speaking on behalf of the WI in the big push to put people at the heart of governance through the aforementioned Bill. David Cameron, while he was still an MP, made special reference to the uniqueness of the the WI and the Campaign for Real Ale speaking on the same platform and thus, surely, making the Sustainable Communities Bill one that should be accepted by all.

It might have been unique but since then a WI Real Ale has been produced – you can read all about it in the current edition of WI Life!

And now I raise a glass of the Harmston Heavenly to all you blog watchers; thank you for reading the musings and goings-on of the WI in the last few months. Happy Christmas to you all!

Monday, 13 December 2010

COOL, Jerusalem and climate change

Still with food in mind, and in particular the WI's COOL (County of Origin Labelling) campaign, I had an early start today at a prestigious venue in the City. Barbecoa Butchery at 20 New Change Passage provided the setting for a short film to illustrate what the NFWI mandate is calling for – a label on meat to tell the customer where it was reared and not only where it was slaughtered and packaged after it was imported. Voluntary labelling in this manner does happen sometimes already, but it needs to be across the board so that we can be assured that our British sausages are actually made from pigs living and fed in the UK.

In just two days, the WI finds itself in so many parts of what makes our society!

And I hope you managed to download the Harmonies' version of Jerusalem yesterday!

It's worth noting that this time last year, at the very time I am writing this, I was standing outside the Bella Centre in Copenhagen, just a few paces from the door waiting in the freezing cold to get inside the building. No joke. This year I enjoyed a warmer clime in the UK to stand and wait, however, all of the messages coming back from the negotiations say that they are going well. The WI hasn't spoken so widely on the changed climate in the last twelve months but its message is still there urging, nay, demanding that the voices of those women in the countries already affected by the changed climate should be heard. "Sisters on the Planet" and "A world without Jam" are still as relevant as at this time last year, and the message is still there to be listened to and acted upon.

Sunday 12 December - all about the food

This morning I presented certificates to three ladies, who, in the space of two and a half days, have studied for and passed stage 1 of their Food Hygiene Certificate. Over the weekend they learned how to cook nutritious and moreish dishes and how to make the perfect cupcake. A short course, very much akin to our Get Cooking and Let's Cook projects, took place in the Cookery School at Denman College, with participants from the Oxfordshire Family Intervention Scheme. I very quickly learned that a great time was had by all when I joined them at the end of all the hard work, but I know that the ladies had a wonderful time as well as learning so much to take back to their family meal times.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Christmas treats

You may have recently noticed a competition for WI members on our website under the glorious title of Yule Britannia. This was a competition to produce a Christmas dish using only the best British ingredients, with the delicious entreaty: " We want to know more about what inspires your cooking, so we need you to tell us in no more than 200 words, what inspires you about cooking Christmas food and in particular, using the best of British produce.” A photograph of the masterpiece was also requested.

The four finalists competed at the BBC Good Food Show, cooking their recipe in 25 mins. The final recipes were made on the Stoves stand and judged by renowned chef Brian Turner The winner, Yasmin Limbert, a member of Wirral Belles WI in Cheshire received a prize of £1,500 worth of Stoves appliances and a choice of cookery courses at the WI Cookery School, at Denman College, Oxfordshire.

Yasmin will indeed be taking up her prize of a course before long. Do check out the courses at the WI Cookery School, where there are courses for all interests and for everyone, including gentlemen. We should be learning more about Yasmin and her entry in the next edition of WI Life.

And WI Life was the reason behind an indulgence of a "white chocolate Gianduja mousse with cherry jelly, cherry sorbet and almond tuille" at the Independent Publisher awards earlier this week where our magazine was nominated under the category of ‘best new launch/ best relaunch of the year'. WI Life might not have won the award but its small, perfectly formed team, headed up by Editor Neal Maidment, is a winner with the WI.

Speaking of winning combinations the combined voices of WI members and several gentlemen in a choir sang in Kent West Kent Federation for their Christmas celebration. I'm sure such celebrations will resound across England and Wales in the coming weeks. In my own federation we have 'Words and Music for Christmas', which I always hope will include a few words from Mr Charles Dickens and his Christmases past.

But for Christmas present – a song with a difference. 'The Harmonies – the voices of the WI' are releasing their beautiful arrangement of Jerusalem on Sunday 12 December. Nowadays, to achieve a chart topping hit single, the song needs to be downloaded from the internet. Even if you've never download music before, please do give it a go and download Jerusalem by The Harmonies from Jerusalem – always a hit with the WI, now let’s make it one for the nation.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Water water everywhere

A resolution on flooding was put forward in 2009, and although it was not accepted, it was of great interest to many members and so under the banner of environment it was decided to look further into flooding. The result was the creation of flooding workshops in partnership with the Environment Agency.

I spent yesterday morning in Cambridge at the third of these flooding workshops – the other two had been held in the West Midlands and Devon – discussing floods, their history, their causes and some possible solutions. There was also discussion on issues relevant to the area, including what might happen to excess water where thousands of new dwellings are built. We spoke of the recommended provisions in the Pitt Review, including the active response by communities before, during and after flooding and the recruitment of Flood Wardens. You know, so many of these proposals fit quite naturally with the ethos of the WI.

Householders, parish councils, indeed, anyone, may sign up to receive flood warnings wherever they are. Go to the Environment Agency website, if you are interested in learning more.

Not living near a stretch of water Riparian Rights is something I know little about, but, as with all rights come responsibilities. I learned that householders whose land stretches to the bank of a river are responsible for that bank along their boundary and also for that water to the middle of the width. This must surely come from the time of the ancient Franks living on the Rhine between the Meuse and the Moselle and the code they observed for harmonious living.

And this type of discussion I also had yesterday around the ‘Big Society’, in an interview for the Office of Public Management Public Service Futures programme. In many ways WI members are already doing or living the ideals of this ‘Big Society’; being engaged in their own communities and coming together within their WIs to make a positive difference to their lives and the lives of others. The ‘Big Society’ is about rights and responsibilities too and as such will mean commitment at all levels.

Footnote: I learned of Elton John editing The Independent newspaper today. Where WI Life leads others follow; the WI has a guest edited edition of our membership magazine coming up in 2011.
And congratulations to WI Life Editor Neal Maidment for his nomination from the Periodicals Training Council as ’new editor of the year’ - an accolade in the big society of periodicals.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The WI Real Jam Festival went down a treat

You know, I wonder if we should ask ourselves why it has taken almost 100 years for the WI to get around to holding a Jam Festival! Over the last weekend people came to our WI college in Oxford, Denman College, to view jars of jam - in fact, over 500 jars of jams in 12 classes, including one entitled 'Man Made' and another especially for children. The Jam with a Difference class did attract a very high number of entries - one of my favourite being "Traffic Jam", a glass jam jar full of small plastic cars! A Winner!!

Prizes were awarded in each category with for the best in show prize winner receiving not only a jam making kit and lots of goodies but £700 worth of Stoves electrical kitchen equipment of their choice. Stoves was only one of the sponsors of the event which also included Billington's Sugar, The Jam Jar Shop and World of Glass.

As well as examining jam for clarity and colour, visitors could buy from stalls locally produced foods and goods. And during the two days cookery demonstrations, with jam as a common theme, were given by Rachel Green, Pam Corbin and the WI's own Anne Harrison, Chair of Denman College, whose idea the jam festival was. The fourth demonstrator was Dhruv Baker. Winner of Masterchef 2010 and no stranger to Denman College, Dhruv took part by cooking for a crowd using Denman's own catering kitchen.

Look out for the next WI Real Jam Festival – get boiling and stirring and that Best in Show title could be yours.

And now, for the next few days it is back to meetings, not least a National Board meeting, the final one of the year. We are looking forward to the Harmonies joining us all at the end of the two day meeting where I have a hunch they will sing their new version of 'Jerusalem'.

You can download Jerusalem from the internet on 12 December, and the more folk who do the closer it gets to being a possible Christmas No. 1.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Too much to fit in a title

What began as a debate has grown into a mission. On Tuesday, Mission Milk, the WI's conference and debate hosted jointly with the NFU, took place in central London. Attendees came from every sector of the dairy industry including the WI member whose resolution back in 2006 set the nation's mind on the low and unfair prices that dairy farmers were receiving for their milk, as well as a dairy farming WI member who had been able to leave the milking to others that morning to make sure they could attend!

Over 100 Great Milk Debates, organised by WI members, took place across the country in 2007, with representatives from the whole of the industry including the retailers and processors of milk, as well as dairy farmers themselves. At the time, the situation did improve somewhat, but three years on, WI members again realised that although some dairy farmers are now receiving higher prices per litre for their milk through dedicated supply chain contracts with some retailers, many thousand more were not - discrepancies again! So the NFWI decided it was time to revisit the milk campaign and raise awareness once again of the difficult and unfair situation the dairy industry is still facing.

There was the odd contented voice among the crowd, which was great news, but as custodians of the countryside, the dairy industry along with all other farmers is hugely influential in the way our countryside looks and is managed, and as such, deserves the country’s support.

The panel of Peter Kendal, NFU President; Mike Coupe, Sainsbury's Group Commercial Director; Neil Kennedy, Milk Link Chief Executive; Andrew George MP for St Ives and the Isles of Scilly and myself each spoke from their perspective which raised questions and comments from the audience.

Recent evidence would suggest that the supply chain is not functioning properly and many farmers are missing out on their share of pounds in additional earned revenue to milk buyers. Perhaps it is time that the retailers change the way in which they buy dairy products by moving away from short-term tendering to long-term contracts, with greater partnerships with processors and farmers - would this not give a stronger foundation for a more stable and transparent supply chain?

We all need to work together.

Two days with the WI can seem like a week – especially when they are as busy as Tuesday and Wednesday were! On Tuesday we were on Mission Milk, and on Wednesday, the WI found itself in a whirlwind!

The first thing on Wednesday was a “keynote address on equality” given by Theresa May, Minister for Women and Equalities AND Home Secretary - how does she manage both roles??

I think of that meeting with a wry smile for as people were being allowed in with “photographic identification and prior registration only” cemented with a tick next to those registered names, women with babies and toddlers in pushchairs were being sent in the same direction for what I presume was a playgroup session, while others asked where the NCT class was to be held.

Once the Minister began her address there was anticipation on my part to hear of engagement and representation, the question of what would be put into place for the women’s sector. This is most important with the Commission on the Status of Women coming up at the UN in the spring of 2011. Regrettably, no information on this was forthcoming but we did hear about the scrapping of laws made by the previous government and that from now on the Equalities Policy would be to work with the ‘grain of human nature’. Flexibility and fairness were much quoted when mention was made of working hours, parental leave, retirement and may other causes of inequality. Many areas still need more work, especially changing the opinion of people who still see there is equality for others but not for them. Equality of opportunity is there for all, and fairness should always run alongside equality.

So from Coin Street Neighbourhood Centre to Clarence House and lunch with the Prince of Wales or, more accurately, with the past and future partners of His Royal Highness’ initiative - Start. This is a programme of simple steps that everyone can take to make better use of our natural resources. Millions of people confused by percentages, targets, science and conflicting advice want to do more to live sustainably and Start aims to make that sustainability simple, positive and inspirational. And all in a language the public understands.

It would seem that quite a lot of initiatives have already taken place this year and one event we know of was the Garden Party held in Clarence House’s garden when The Harmonies gave their first public performance.

The starting points are easy to understand and do something about: Start thinking, Start eating seasonally, Start insulating, Start doing it smarter, Start energy saving at home, Start recycling clothes, Start knowing your food and Start using your water wisely.
Now those of you reading this and knowing the WI will say, I hope, this is what the WI has been advocating and doing for years and years. So who better to get on board the Start bus than the WI?
Prince Charles told me, indeed, who better than the WI to take this on board at local level and he would be very pleased if we were to become part of Start. We have yet to discern if and where and how we might be involved but many thousands of WI members might think to quietly call it Start II.

So from Clarence House to BBC TV Centre in Wood Lane to take part in the Alan Titchmarsh Show along with The Harmonies and to talk about the WI’s Jam Festival at Denman College this coming weekend – 20th and 21st November. A six minute slot had a couple of sentences from me on the ‘history’ of the WI, followed by a further few sentences on jam and the festival from Anne Harrison, Denman’s Chair, a piece on flowers and flower arranging and then The Harmonies sang their own new version of Jerusalem, live, for the first time. There was the added bonus of seeing Westlife perform their new single and briefly meeting Ainsley Harriot before he recorded a piece for the next day’s programme.

Quite a day!

And please, don’t forget to download The Harmonies single on 12th December - a number 1 with a difference perhaps.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Begin November with a bang

November has begun with a bang or two, or at least sparklers, as many a November does, and the same can be said of the world of WI. Three committee meetings in 3 days; one for Denman College, one for WI Enterprises and one for Finance. Finance pertains to most things we do, of course; where it comes from and where it goes to. WI Enterprises is the trading arm of the NFWI and Denman College always has so much going on, not least this month with our Real Jam Festival taking place on the 20th and 21st. Jars of jam have been arriving daily at the college and I hope many of you blog watchers have entered a jar in one of the 11 categories. It should be a super event.

During the week I went to a discussion on Climate Change hosted by Oxfam, with whom we work on our Women Reaching Women Project. The discussion asked the question, ‘Is the upcoming 'meeting' in Cancun the answer to the issue of the changed climate?’ Several experts gave their opinions and as I have thought and understood for some time now, climate change is not like any problem the world has ever faced before. We have to decarbonise the world's energy system by the middle of the 21st century and keep the rise in temperature below 2 degrees. Beyond that and the problem becomes unmanageable. Domestic policies need to tackle this issue as much as international endeavours and it is politicians who bring about outcomes not processes.

From the discussion it was on to the opening of a brand new cookery school in London. Then I was off to the House of Commons for a reception hosted by the Girl Guides on the eve of the presentation of their 25,000 names petition to Downing Street. The petition called for airbrushed photographs of sylph-like, beautiful, unblemished girls and women to acknowledge if they have been airbrushed. This campaign was requested by the girls during their centenary year as the issues it raises affects girls and young women, in particular, nowadays, when youth and perfection is applauded and anything less is 'sad'.

The week then ended with a meeting with a representative from Start – the Prince of Wales sustainable living imitative.

Never a dull moment and every moment a sparkler!

Friday, 29 October 2010

End of another busy week

So have you heard it yet? Of course I am talking about The Harmonies - Voices of the WI – a truly beautiful collection of songs. I am so proud of you girls – Doreen, Gemma, Jan, Jennie and Naomi. I am sure they just had the best time making this CD - for them it must have been even better than the auditions, which was such a memorable day too for the rest of us who were there. One of the highlights of the entire process was definitely the whole choir of WI members - all those who sent in an audition tape - singing the new version of Jerusalem – a truly inspiration moment!

This is just one example of the opportunities that come with belonging to the WI, proving that membership is so much more than eleven meetings a year, raffles and cups of tea. These are all part of that great jamboree of course, but there is so much more on offer! Opportunities from your own locality, within your federation, and much further a field; you will have read here that the proposer of this year's resolution that has become the NFWI's COOL campaign (county of origin labelling) went to Brussels to state the WI's case in the European Parliament. Members can be involved in the campaigns they empathize with; they can enter competition, locally and nationally; and they can even send in audition tapes when they are called for - check out - and also your federation websites to find out what’s on offer. The world of WI really is your oyster.

While the girls were on television on Tuesday morning, I was in the Isle of Ely at the federation’s autumn council meeting where I was giving members an insight into what I do as Chair of the NFWI. I said that just like them, the WI keeps me very busy!

After this I made my way to Worthing to speak at the West Sussex Autumn Council Meeting; this time telling them more about my trip to Malawi earlier in the year. The Mums Matter petition is still available for signing but sheets of signatures are coming into our office in their thousands – keep them coming! Check out for more information on this too.

And something that I presume must sell in their thousands are cookery books by James Martin. I had another dose of this superb chef at this very meeting. Remember, he came to demonstrate at Denman College in July? I did ask if he would come again – just imagine a masterclass with this motor-bike-riding, fast-car-loving chef…!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A busy week

A week ago I was in Bishop Aukland; this week I was in Ulverston in the Cumbria Westmorland federation to celebrate their ninetieth anniversary. I shared the bill with Gyles Brandreth, the very person who shared the bill ten years ago with a certain Prime Minister. He was as hilarious, as intelligent and as clever are ever; it is always such a treat to see him perform.

I always marvel at how swiftly we can travel around our country, and what beautiful scenery we can view at leisure from a train window. I had the pleasure of travelling past Morecambe Bay and the flatlands, which are now covered in grass with sheep grazing. The smooth dips and hollows of magical shapes full of shimmering water were really quite delightful and completely justified such an early start.

Yesterday it was back to 104 for a meeting of the Public Affairs Committee where bees and fast fashion, the next stage of the milk debate and ACWW were discussed, along with a whole host of other fascinating issues.

We met with the new World President and Treasurer of ACWW last week, May Kidd and Alison Burnett respectively; to discuss the many projects WI members had funded during the last year, and future involvement with the UN Women's Commission.

It never ceases to amaze me just how many other organisations the WI has been involved with at their inception over the last ninety five years. The British Standards Institute recently revealed to us that the WI was one of the founders of the original committee on standards some 60 years ago in 2011, which is just another string to the bow that was fired at the time of our Keep Britain Tidy era in the early 50s.

I was lucky enough to hear Bill and Melinda Gates speak at the Science Museum about international aid on Monday evening. Their latest venture, “Living Proof”, aims to demonstrate that international aid really does work, for example vaccination to prevent measles for children has to be a positive. I am eagerly awaiting the rest of the talk; unfortunately technological problems meant that it had to be cut short. I will, of course, share more when I can.

P.S. By popular request, here is a photograph of my daughter’s wedding.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Brussels to Birmingham

We arrived in Brussels via the famous Eurostar train and after a hair-raising taxi ride; we were dropped off at the European Parliament. The WI contingent was made by myself; Marylyn Haines-Evans, Chair of the Public Affairs Committee; Enid Gratton-Guiness, the WI member who proposed the resolution on Country of Origin Labelling (COOL); and Rachel Barber, Head of the Public Affairs Department at NFWI.

The first task was our ID photographed at the security check-in, which appeared to be much more flattering than the ones one has to bear in our own Houses of Parliament, and after this, we were ushered into a smart cafe area to meet with Renanta Sommer, the rapporteur for the legislation pertaining to our COOL campaign. We spoke to Renata for an hour; a meeting that revealed differences of approach. She maintains that it is too difficult to track the route of any lorry load of meat or poultry due to the many loads arriving at huge slaughter houses across Europe every 24 hours, and that keeping a check is next to impossible. We countered this argument by discussing the paper trails that legally have to follow any sheep or cow, and any other animal, wherever it goes, for example, a paper record must be made to move a cow from one field to another. We were told that fact-finding programmes have to be put in place before anything can be decided, meaning that voluntary labelling seems to be on the cards at this time.

We also spoke with MEPs Jill Evans and Chris Davis, from Wales and the north of England respectively. They are fully behind the WI's call, but other MEPs are not, and many MEPs will not have encountered the discussion or legislation just yet. The WI mandate calls for mandatory labelling so do get lobbying those MEPs and MPs – they need to know what the WI is calling for!

From Brussels to Birmingham for me, as 24 hours later I found myself in Sutton Coldfield Town Hall speaking to members of the West Midlands Federation. I then enjoyed a short break before travelling on to Barry in South Wales to address the autumn council meeting of the Glamorgan Federation.

Yesterday I headed to Denman College for the beginning of the Women Reaching Women's final year and then I travelled on to Darlington in readiness for the Durham council meeting. Today it's Bishop Aukland!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Meetings, ANC and Brussels...oh, and a wedding

My last entry was several days ago because life, both with the WI and otherwise, has been rather hectic of late. A spate of internal meetings followed by the September Board of Trustees meeting took up some of this time. A Board meeting is always important because that is where the 'running' the NFWI really happens. 13 members of the Board of Trustees only meet five times in a year so this is the place where all of the organisation’s activities are discussed; approaches by other individuals and organisations are brought to the table; and issues are voted on and decided. Money is also discussed as in any organisation, and offers and opportunities for all 207,000 members are heard and deliberated, resulting in a packed programme across the two days.

This time, we also finalised the format and contents of the Annual National Council. This is an annual forum/conference for all Federation Chairmen and Treasurers from across the 69 Federations (the areas roughly denoting the county boundaries in England and Wales). 138 leaders come together for discussion of the many issues that affect and inform the whole of the WI, and the exchange of information and ideas. This year we discussed how to expand our organisation, how we are perceived, and how we truly are as we begin the five year countdown to our centenary in 2015,

My time was well and truly taken up with meetings but right in the middle of these two big events was an even larger one; my daughter’s marriage. Anyone who has been the 'mother of the bride' will understand the many last minute things to suddenly need to be done or, at the very least, considered.

And now I'm off to Brussels to speak to MEPs about out Country of Origin Labelling campaign (COOL). I'll tell you how I get on very soon.

Friday, 17 September 2010

...A Wonderful World...?

So now we know, Jan, Gemma, Doreen, Jennie and Naomi are "The Harmonies: The Voice of the WI." And what voices they have! I told you the standard was high, didn't I? Their version of Jerusalem is particularly beautiful: I love it, and I don’t think it’s in competition with Parry's version; it's just a different stance musically, giving it a more soulful, thoughtful aura. It’s also a huge thrill to know that they are to sing for Prince Charles. Being a member of the WI really can make it "...a wonderful world"

You know, before the girls had even left the BBC Breakfast studio yesterday morning, we were receiving calls at head office from women wanting to know how to join the WI. So heartfelt congratulations to The Harmonies! We can't wait for the CD to be released and of course you are all invited to sing to your fellow members at the AGM in Liverpool next June - with bells on.

But on the other side of the world there are some harrowing tales to be heard. At an Oxfam reception earlier this week I was introduced to "The Circle ", an initiative set up by the singer Annie Lennox with Oxfam. The WI' s own Women Reaching Women project is run in conjunction with Oxfam and, of course, has women's rights, their education and their heath at its heart. However, The Circle, with many female celebrity supporters, throws up salient facts to ponder:

- Two thirds of the 72 million children denied school are girls.

- Sixty four percent of the 771 million illiterate adults worldwide are women.

- Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, yet earn only 10% of the world's income.

- Women hold only 14% of the world's parliamentary seats.

- Every minute a woman with no medical help dies in pregnancy or childbirth.

- Domestic violence is the single biggest cause of death and injury to women worldwide.

A wonderful world?

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Northern Inspirations

Something has to be truly inspiring to cause that intake of breath and the moistening of the eye, which was how I felt yesterday evening when I stepped through the portals of Carlton Towers in Yorkshire for the opening of 'Northern Inspirations'. This is a celebration of crafts, including flower arranging, from six northern Federations: North Yorkshire East, North Yorkshire West, East Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Humberside and Lancashire. It is a wonderful collaboration of talents, abilities, and sheer genius, all in one place, representing patchwork, textile art, embroidery (hand and machine), bead work, lace making, painting, gold work, encostic art and, I should think, any other craft ever devised.

In the magnificent setting of this stately mansion with its foundations dug in medieval time, each exhibit is an heirloom to be cherished, and every craft is a treasure that was created to be enjoyed now and savoured in the future. The kaleidoscope of colour, presented in the perfect and amazingly beautiful flower arrangements, demonstrated nature's beauty and the craftswomen's artistry working together to create stunning effects.

If you find yourself in the north of England this week, do take a trip to Carlton Towers for the opportunity to see the WI at its best.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Persuasion at Denman College

Be persuaded that taking a course at Denman College; it could change your life! I have alluded to this phenomenon several times in past blogs but this time I'm thinking of the people you might meet; you could make lasting friendships while learning something new. While I was visiting Denman last week, they were running a course entitled "Persuasion" where I met a lady who had travelled from Canada to take part. A fan of Jane Austin and looking for some activity pertaining to the author while she visited England, the course came up from an internet search. She then took a look at the Denman web site, honed in on the college and grounds, and decided she had found the perfect combination; Jane Austin at Denman College.

I am told a similar course was held last year and a lady travelled from the USA to attend. She is still in touch with a fellow student she met and they have become firm friends. Who knows which country might be represented on next year's course when Northanger Abbey will be discussed?

My reason for staying at the college earlier in the week was to attend a Denman committee meeting, which was followed by a Finance Committee meeting at the National Headquarters in 104 New King’s Road. National Treasurer, Aleathia Mann, reported on a recent meeting she attended at the Payments Council to discuss the abolition of cheques. 71 charitable organisations were represented at the meeting, where the discussion centred on the importance of cheques to each of those organisations – all receive money via cheques and make payments too, with many of the alternatives requiring either mobile phone or internet access. However, a paper based option is being investigated but two main issues were not addressed: the cost of cheque alternatives, and the security of personal data. Further consultation meetings will be taking place and a report will be provided after these meetings.

Friday, 3 September 2010

NFU, cows, the Great Milk Debate and COOL campaign

Children back to school on Thursday in many parts of the country so the sun came out and I spent the day in the sunshine standing in a field surrounded by dairy cows inquisitively looking at me while I, in turn, nonchalantly looked out across a Norfolk landscape. I had been asked to “star” in a photo shoot and interview for the NFU’s Countryside magazine, which brought me face to face with Holstein calves, cows and a magnificent, huge and, sometimes frightening, three year old bull. The cows were completely unfazed by our presence and equipment; many of them were lying down and lazing in their stall on sand - which I learned helps to keep them cool – while others were scratching their backs with a brush fixed at just the right height – it was idyllic, and I’m so glad that it wasn't raining or things might not have turned out quite so well!

My morning on the farm was to do with our upcoming return to the Great Milk Debate. In 2007, Federations held Great Milk Debates where not only members but the general public were invited to question dairy farmers, processors and retailers in a bid to raise the price that dairy farmers actually receive per litre of milk. The sharing out of pennies for that litre was not quite 'fair', and the WI had the mandate to raise awareness of the low prices dairy farmers were receiving for their milk. At the time, this did change in part but in the ensuing years, the margins are unfortunately slipping back, so along with many members, I felt it was imperative to raise this issue once again and stand behind our back dairy farmers.

Our recent campaign on county of origin labelling – COOL – comes naturally into this debate too, and imported milk, labelled or otherwise, is not, hopefully, the way our milk should go.

Concentrating on milk once again always reminds me of my very early childhood and my great aunts hand milking their small herd of cows, then taking it in churns on their milk cart, pulled by Dolly, around their village. People would come out of their houses with their jugs to be filled with fresh milk. It is always amazing to see how times change and how technology is changing our world.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Six-O Group and Climate Change

This week I've taken part in the second of our biannual meetings of the Six-O Group. This meeting is an informal gathering of the leaders of the six largest women's organisations in the UK, which are: The National Federation of Women's Institutes, Soroptimist International Great Britain and Ireland, The Townswomen's Guild, Business and Professional Women Foundation, British Federation of Women Graduates and National Council for Women Great Britain.

The meetings are a chance to catch up on what each organisation is working on at any given time with a view to strengthening the message, but also to learn from each other. One of the big issues we tackled was the huge but illusive problem of Human Trafficking. With the Olympic Games now in haling distance this issue will grow. Is that something many people would think about with the excitement of the Olympic Games coming to our country, I wonder?

We also discussed the environment, something that is never far away from the conscience of many a WI member. Have you seen our latest Climate Change Action Pack on how you can be involved in actions to improve that very environment? Which reminds me, the government and the media both seem to have gone very quiet on the issue of Climate Change? What is happening there I wonder Mr Huhne? At the Copenhagen summit the wealthy counties pledged to provide $100 billion by 2020 so that the poorer countries might adapt to the impact of climate change. What is happening there, I wonder. And all we marched for in the Wave on 5 December last year has not changed – well, hardly at all. That's the trouble. There has to be a way forward by the time the Mexico summit happens.

I've been doing some clearing of papers in the last week and amongst them I found a booklet, put out in 1999 by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The opening line from "Climate Change – Draft UK Programme Summary" reads, "In the last decades of the old century, the world has learnt some hard environmental lessons". We can equally well say that in the first decade of the new century those lessons have been compounded with the result of inaction. The summary of a decade ago is more or less the summary of today. But I know members have been taking action for the last 10 years that does help the situation; don't stop. We have to change to halt the changes that have sadly already happened with the climate of their land for many millions across the world.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Holidays, memories and the year of the archive

Holidays very often provide the 'free' time we feel we need to visit the past. I'm thinking of visits to museums, art galleries, and special exhibitions. One set of memories that I experienced a few days ago was that of the world of circus. Housed backstage at the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth are the props from years gone by, photographs too, and literally, the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint greets the intrepid searcher who wishes to delve into circus history. This venue boasts 1 of the 4 remaining amazing water features still operating throughout the world today – a circus ring that drops down and pours water in, showing water spectaculars.

This set me to thinking of what we all do or don't keep; stuff, really. And in the WI world there is so much stuff. Every federation office will have artefacts and books and the like going back to the beginning of the life of that federation. I am a hoarder, so disposing of anything takes me ages since I fear I might need something that I no longer have because I threw it out! Many of you will probably know that feeling. Mind you, the NFWI possessions from the formation of the organisation, the archives, are now housed in the Women's Library in London having been rescued from the garage in our WI College in Oxford, Denman College.

A few years ago a great inventory was taken of all the textiles in the possession of WIs and federations and this is kept by the National Needlework Archive.

Throughout the federations many a County Records Office houses the minutes and paper archives of individual WIs. I know the photographs of my own WI are held in the records office too and they are "borrowed back" every time we have a special event when we want to look back at what the WI has done over the years. Many an album will have photographs behind the pages of self adhering plastic. I have learnt that this is not good as chemicals in the mix turn the photographs brown over time. We should all be using albums with the old fashioned photo corners and filmy tissue paper dividing the pages.

Quite a number of WIs now have their committee minutes and WI meetings records online. Others use this method but also keep a paper copy. And, of course, many WIs still use paper copies only. I wonder, though, in say 50 years from now, if many or our archives will be on memory sticks.

In my own federation we had quite an array of written pieces from the past and I recall one such, "A History of the federation", presented as a speech at the Autumn Council Meeting on 18 October 1952 - the month I was born! I quote the final paragraph:
"1938. The local authorities called on us to find billets for evacuees, and in 24 hours the committees of 70 villages had helped to get promises of accommodation for 5,000. Then we knew and rejoiced in our strength, and could go forward undaunted, secure in the confidence that so long as our great movement holds fast to it principles , and is based as if on the "spiritual ideals of fellowship, truth. , tolerance and justice" there is perhaps no limit to what it can accomplish for our home and our country".

2012 is to be the Year of the Archive. I know many federations have archivists but if all 69 of them had just one archivist each, then our history would be taped and tidied for the future. It is said the WI is one of the major custodians of our heritage, the social history of England and Wales. This we should never doubt.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Annual August garden meeting, WI Life and memories

I had the tables, decked out with cloths, and the chairs all ready, and the punch was rippling gently in the bowl alongside the mugs. The lime and coconut cake was on its stand and I'd even managed to acquire an urn for the evening. I suppose I was tempting inclement weather since it had been raining on and off, more on than off, all day. This very quickly turned to on, rather than off, and very reluctantly I had to take the decision to cancel the annual August garden meeting of my WI. Most unfortunately, the message did not reach several members who turned up on the doorstep, surprised to find everywhere seemingly very quiet.

It was disappointing and, of course, by the time everything should have started, the rain had stopped, but everywhere was damp and not suitable for an outdoor soiree. However, during the phone conversations to cancel, I leaned that a friend who used to live in the village and is a WI member in Suffolk East now, had returned especially to come to our garden gathering, so happily I was able to meet up with her, which was some kind of compensation.

Being a member means you have even more in common with your friends than just friendship. We immediately started discussing the latest edition of WI Life, the AGM, WI book clubs, I know many WIs have these nowadays, as well as theatre groups and many more. My own WI has a thriving walking group too; hardly a month goes by without an organised trek, finishing up at an hostelry for lunch.

We also talked about writing down our memories or, indeed, our memoirs. More and more of us want to do this; some are more proactive but others need a helping hand to begin. Just the other day I was telling my youngest son about my father, whom he never met since he died when I was 19, and I realised just how much I had not imparted to all my children. Another snippet I had forgotten; for the first 15 years or so of living in this house, a dairy herd would be taken by morning and evening for milking - with all the mess you would expect! But by the time my son was old enough to have understood what he was seeing, the dairy herd was no more due to EU-related regulations. The farm land now belongs to the Countryside Restoration Trust. His three siblings remember the cows going by but he is just too young.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

“Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright..."

I was very pleased to be asked to go on a radio show on Sunday afternoon to chat about everything to do with the WI for half an hour. Interspersed with the local travel news and a beautiful 1923 rendition of Jerusalem, I was free to discuss whatever I fancied with presenter and journalist Christopher South, who is well known for his page in the Cambridge News and for his shows on Radio Cambridgeshire. He has a great admiration for the WI and I asked him to chair a “Question Time” style event on climate change we held in Cambridgeshire in 2008, where he did a superb job. We touched on the topic of climate change during our discussion, along with the age range of WI members, whether ladies from ethnic minorities are becoming members, and the plight of the honeybee, referring to our 2009 mandate.

Of course jam was discussed, not to mention Jerusalem as I have already mentioned, but, as I have always maintained, the skill of jam making is good to have or acquire, and to know the words of that great four stanza poem by William Blake does no harm at all! Our WI signature might well have been “Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright..."; as that too is set to music.

But not content with a Sunday slot, which Mr South very kindly said he'd like to repeat some time, yesterday morning Radio Newcastle wanted to hear about women's social groups and why there is obviously a need for them. The WI is the biggest voluntary women's group in England, Wales and The Islands, and its long 95 year history speaks for itself; women have always liked to come together in groups. I'm sure strength and safety in numbers, empowerment and education and so much more, are all reasons to form a WI.

The world really is an oyster for any WI member; and I hope all 207,000 of them out there realise this and revel in it.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Holidays, weddings and James Martin

The month of August has always been real holiday time. I remember my French pen-friend, Joelle, saying that the world is on holiday in August because the whole of Paris is on holiday, which to me, at the age of 15, seemed to be the case. Of course, I know now that this is not strictly true, but it does seem so at 8am in the morning when getting to the railway station means a ten minute journey rather than the usual 35-40 minutes. That doesn't help me too much though because, as I said last time, the WI tends to slow down in this month and the meetings are not so many or frequent for me.

As well as July, August is the month for weddings too; and not only have a couple of the members of staff married but I too have the joy of a few to attend. In fact for one wedding in the Cotswolds I found that the hotel I am staying in is actually advertised in WI Life. There don't seem to be as many such adverts lately as there used to be, which is odd, since there are so many more people who now see this magazine. Anyone out there, with a hotel or B&B to fill could do a lot worse than putting an ad in WI Life.

I meant to record earlier that one of the very nice WI events I have been to recently was a cookery demonstration by James Martin. He came to Denman College and his demo was one specifically using canned foods. Canned beans, tomatoes and similar were his most used ingredients and seeing him demonstrate live was even better than seeing him on screen. The audience were, of course, entranced - not least because he is a superb cook - or should that be chef. Suffice it to say, he definitely knows how to cook and his tips alone were worth the trip to our wonderful college in Oxford.

Indeed, why not take a course in the WI Cookery School at Denman College; think of it as a mini-break and the chance to learn something new at the same time. And gentlemen, you are most welcome on these courses too.

Friday, 30 July 2010

The last couple of weeks have been filled with meetings, meetings and more meetings! I know that's not what the WI is thought to be about, but someone has to make arrangements for everything to happen, which is just what the Board of Trustees has been doing throughout July. The first board meeting after the AGM was held in June and there was so much to look back on, and even more to look forward to!

In September, the WI celebrates its 95th anniversary so the real countdown to 100 years will begin in earnest. I'm sure most of the 6,500-plus individual WIs will be planning special meetings or events for 2015, but in the meantime, I expect many a member, like me, will be making sure that the garden is tidy and the chairs plentiful in readiness for the extra garden meeting. If yours is like my WI, it meets in a member's garden in the month of August. Of course, we have the 11 formal meetings during the year but my WI has August as the holiday month, rather than, say, January, as I know many WIs do.

Anyway, I am bemoaning the lack of green grass – we need a deluge of rain to transform the garden’s scorched earth appearance before early August! As for the chairs, we have a few now; it's just the table that we need now for the bring and share supper dishes that will appear with each member. Perhaps there is one more ingredient – a fine evening! – otherwise the garden meeting becomes a house meeting. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, 16 July 2010

WI members visit HQ

120 members visited the NFWI's head office at 104 New King's Road over two days this week for the very first time, bar a couple of members who had visited before. Some of the visitors had been members for many years, while others were relatively new to the WI.

Open Days are an ideal opportunity for members to see, first hand, just what work is going on in Headquarters on behalf of the 207,000 members, and also see just how 31 members of staff manage in what is a relatively small office space. Every department presents its work to the members in open presentations, and their is a brief overview by all departments including Public Affairs, Public Relations, Finance, Central Secretariat, WI Enterprises (generating income from advertising, sponsorship etc.), WI Life magazine and Human Resources. Denman College was also discussed, as was the increases in membership that those at 104 keep an eye on every day. At the moment, about 300 to 500 new member packs are being sent out every couple of weeks.

Participants in the days were shown alternate versions of the front cover for the next issue of WI Life and amazingly, each choice had almost the same number of "votes"!

If you are a WI member and would like to visit 104, I'm sure there will be more Open Days to look forward to in 2011 and beyond.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

By now you will have heard of The Harmonies - the voice of the WI - a group of 5 WI members, names yet to be announced, who will begin recording a CD that will hopefully be climbing the charts just in time for Christmas. As I said on countless broadcasts throughout the whole of Friday last week, the standard of singing of those who auditioned was just so good; it was truly inspiring. Hearing some of the ladies truly made me tingle. As you know, I think that all WI members are great, and these members were no exception. So watch this space and fill in the pre-order details – I guarantee you will love it!

But I do want to point out that the WI has not made a million pounds deal. This is the sum that the record company, Universal, is purported to have invested in the project. The WI has only provided the voices.

Every day is different with the WI; I was recently lucky enough to have a trip around the Olympic site immediately following a television interview, which certainly made it a day with a difference. If you get the chance do take a guided tour of the site, you will see all about the different buildings and learn about how some of them are permanent while others are not. The roof over the swimming pools must almost be a wonder of the world; it is supported by a girder measuring 160 metres, giving the entire structure the wow factor. Congratulations to the engineering team! There are many opportunities to volunteer in one capacity or another during the Games in 2012, check out the website to see what catches your eye.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

On a glorious sunny day a week ago hundreds of members and friends flocked to Denman College, the WI’s own college in Marcham Oxfordshire, to see something of what the WI has on offer. Set in beautiful gardens, lake and all, for the past 62 years Denman’s doors have been open to WI members to learn all manner of skills, from cooking and craft to literature and language, with music and history in between, not to mention fashion and food.

The college has a cookery school – food and the WI just go together so well, don’t they! And if you have a secret desire to know how to make that ubiquitous jam - Denman College is not only the place to learn how to, but it is also the place to show off your jam making prowess by entering our Jam Festival in November this year.

Following our 2009 national mandate, SOS for Honeybees, Denman has acquired its own hives, and I do believe Denman honey is now for sale in the college shop.

Body Fit Camp has also come to Denman - you could shed the pounds or just keep fit and healthy with this specially tailored course.

You do realise, don’t you, that you don’t have to be a WI member to have a place on the courses offered? Not so long ago a gentleman flew in from New York to attend an embroidery class.

In 1948, when the college was opened and named after the first NFWI National Chairman, I wondered if the members then expected that it would not only thrive into the 21st century but that hen weekends would be offered; a weekend where brides and friends can dip into different crafts or cookery, indeed, your choice of any of the courses on offer. Check it out – a hen party with a difference.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Two weeks ago in London the NFWI launched it new campaign petition – ‘Mums Matter’ calling on the UK government to keep its promises to reduce maternal deaths, especially in the developing world. The issue of actions to achieve these Millennium Goals, in particular no. 5 – the reduction of maternal mortality – is being championed by the WI with Oxfam. You can sign this petition on line at the

Last Thursday I was in Cardiff, Wales to launch the petition again, this time in the auspicious surroundings of the Welsh Assembly Senate, once more with Oxfam Cymru. Many agencies that already work in this area of maternal health were present as well as the first minister of the Welsh Assembly Government, Carwyn Jones. Angela Gorman spoke of her work with which helps many, many women during maternity.

Another organisation that gives women in this country help and a listening ear is Breast Cancer Care whose House of Commons reception I attended to launch their summer fund raiser of Strawberry Teas. I met several WI members – in any gathering of women it is a rare occurrence when none of them belong to the WI – who are volunteers and give their time to this cause. How refreshing to see so many women of every age, all in summer dresses and only a very few dark suited men; albeit men who care equally as passionately. I’m sure many WI members know of Breast Cancer Care, but it is always hoped that many more should know of its existence.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

This morning I sat in the lecture theatre at the Royal Institute of British Architects listening to Lord Adair Turner explain why the 2nd progress report of the Climate Change Committee to Parliament is not as positive as it might have been. Note, this presentation was delivered to interested parties, (the WI acknowledged as one of them) including one or two MPs, I suspect, but still very few women to be found among the dark suited men.

Anyway, since the first progress report, at least, in essence, little progress has actually been made. Any cuts in CO2 emissions that have been made are in great part due to the recession rather than the implementation of policies from the committee. But, whatever this committee decides it needs to happen now; whatever policies government champion, the requirements now, and in the future, will be incentives for lifestyle changes across the population. Now isn't that just what the WI has been advocating and putting into practice for years? Of course it is! Incentives from government and local authorities and better, simpler information on 'green living' might help, of course.

In the meantime, how about NFWI federations putting on eco driving lessons? That is, learning how not to drive using the usual break and accelerate method when travelling from A - B; driving in a more sustainable fashion, using less fuel, resulting in fewer traffic jams!

Monday, 28 June 2010

A long overdue return to the Blog. The WI is certainly a busy place to be! We’re into another WI year now, the 96th, having held the AGM at the beginning of June. Cardiff was the venue this year; perhaps you’ve seen the photographs and read of the highlights on our website – – an entertainment.

I had the privilege of being elected for a second year to serve as the NFWI Chair and indeed, all committee chairmen remain as last year.

WI members will have read in the magazine, WI Life, some of what I have been up to in recent weeks. A particular treat was going to the V&A Museum to view the beautiful quilts in the museum’s latest exhibition. This is because the V&A boasts its own WI and the curator of the 1700 – 2010 exhibition is the president of that WI. The 30 London WIs were invited and we really did have a great time.

All I do on behalf of the WI is a pleasure but some is tinged with sadness and nothing more so than the launch of our latest petition campaign – Mums Matter. Based on the desperate need to attain Millennium Development Goal No.5, this petition calls upon government to keep its promise to reduce maternal deaths with funding and midwifery and health training in countries where it is most needed. I speak about my trip to Malawi, whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. Do sign the petition, download one from the WI website and ask everyone you know to sign it.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Federation Council Meetings are still happening but in between I also gratefully accepted invitations to attend the reception in Guildhall to mark the centenary of Girlguiding UK, and the launch of British Food Fortnight held in the Grand Hall, Westminster Cathedral.

When it comes to the former, Girlguiding UK, I was thrilled to be there not only as NFWI Chair but also an one of the first Guiding Ambassadors, being appointed in 2000, and as a Vice President in Cambs East. It was superb evening to celebrate such a great achievement; 100 yeas and looking forward to the next 100. I absolutely love the idea that at 20:10 on 20th October in 2010, everyone involved in guiding will affirm their promise across the world; a true example of sisters across the planet. I know many WI members are also involved in the world of Guiding.

British Food Fortnight, held from 18th September to 3rd October, will once again highlight local, seasonal and sustainable food from the British Isles. Set around the time of the traditional harvest festival, many organisations and institutions and individuals, WI members among them, take up the baton for British food. This will be partcularly important during the Olympics when the torch for British produce will shine even brighter when BFF celebrates during the fortnight of the Games in 2012; what a great event to look forward to already!

Friday, 9 April 2010

A very long time since the last blog - my excuse is completely WI. The month of March is always a busy month as many Federations hold their Annual Council Meeting. This year I have been invited to speak at a number of these meetings and they have taken me from one end of the country to another. It is a great privilege to attend these meetings and for me to speak to my fellow members. I learn of all the fun and exciting things on offer in each Federation as well as their triumphs over the past year. My travels have extended to Northern Ireland, where I offered greetings from NFWI to the Federation of WIs in Northern Ireland, and to Wales, where I spoke at the Conference of the Federations of Wales. The former is a separate organisation whilst the latter is very much part of the NFWI.

During this same month of March, I have spent several nights at our own Denman College. First I was a tutor at the workshop for new Federation Chairman and then I was at a conference on The Rainforests - a day organised to help delegates understand the plight of the indigenous peoples. A further day conference on the Honey Bee was especially interesting, with lashings of honey to taste too.

So much going on! I'm off again now, to the northern most part of the WI world - another Annual Council Meeting beckons.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Fair's Fair

Went to an event this evening and met a Fairtrade certification officer named Diane. She comes from Ghana and is travelling in Europe during Fairtrade Fortnight telling what difference receiving fair prices for products really means. She comes from a pineapple growing area and the fair income recieved from selling these fruits benefits the workers on the plantation and thier communities. It has enabled one community to install a stand pipe for fresh water, a lavatory block and a school room. And that is only the 'tip of the iceberg' of change for the better.

Fairer prices for milk in this country are still desperately needed. I attended the 150th anniverasry celebration service of the Royal Agricltural Benevolant Institution earlier this week and learned of the help that this excellent organisation can give to our farmers. One farmer who had to give up his dairy herd and then his milking goats because more money was needed to increase numbers, was helped by the RABI with a grant to retrain as a heavy goods driver. This enables him to earn extra money while continuing to farm on a small scale.

Perhaps Great Milk Debates are called for once again.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Ministry of Food

Just over a week after returning from Malawi and the atmosphere of the country and the memory of the people I met are still very much with me; perhaps they will never disappear.

The daily struggle of many in that country to provide food for themselves and their families was also with me early last week when I found myself at the Imperial War Museum for the opening of its latest exhibition "The Ministry of Food".

How did our grandparents' and some parents' generations find enough food to eat in a beleaguered country and yet remain healthy enough to withstand the deprivations? Well, it's all there - this delightfully direct and nostalgic exhibition tells us what to do; there are many lessons in domestic science and gardening that we can learn today which would help us all to fulfill the criteria of home grown, locally produced, sustainable and healthy food. And it could mean no bananas.

No war time history of food would be complete without the WI, of course, which provided the willing and able workforce to produce tons and tons of jam from the fruit grown in this country. Canning machines from the USA were provided by government to 500 WIs so that jam could be canned and stored for distribution around the country. The sugar was also provided. I wouldn't be surprised if there is still a canning machine hidden somewhere in several federations still. The one on show is loaned by Buckinghamshire Federation.

Guests at the exhibition opening sampled mock goose and mock cream as well as uniform sized potatoes stuffed with stilton as well as potatoe biscusits. Being a child of the 50s I was brought up with mock goose and mock cream both being familiars in my mother's repetoire menues.

In 1939-45 the people were told to keep calm and carry on. A maxim to be followed still I think.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

It appears the WI arrived in Malawi at a most auspicious time, just as President Bingu was elected to the Presidency of the African Union. This afternoon he returned home to much pomp and ceremony. Of course, his Vice President was there to greet him; The Right Honourable Joyce Banda, African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Safe Motherhood. I could not see if she was still wearing her WI brooch during the ceremony on tv, that she immediately pinned to her beautiful bight blue and white dress when I presented it to her this morning.

A meeting with this lady would brighten any day. She sees every glass half full rather than half empty. Maternal mortality rate has decreased since 2004 even though Malawi has the second highest death rate in Africa. But she begins with hope, the hope of saving more lives. As a wife and mother from a Malawian village, in her combined roles, she is determined to not only give the issue of maternal health high priority in government but she is also doing her job understanding completely the many difficulties women may have during pregnancy and childbirth.

At the meeting with her we told her of all we had seen and heard in the last 3 days; the issues of decision-making within the household, that the birth is imminent, the broken down bicycle ambulance, the lack of space and care when a woman gets to hospital and the abrupt ending of the funding for nurse midwife training. She was more than familiar with all we said and explained how she had set in motion programmes to teach the leader of a village the necessity for women to go to hospital as soon as possible in order to avoid complications, and that she should be helped to get there and cared for generally. This change of culture has already made an impact on maternal mortality numbers but there is still some way to go. When the women do go to hospital in time for the birth, sometimes 4-6 weeks before, there is nowhere for her to stay because the holding shelter is already overcrowded. Mrs Banda issued a plea for more holding rooms like this and at the same time, more midwives. As the funding for training has come to an end she wonders if there could be a sponsorship scheme to train the young men and women who would come forward but cannot afford the three thousand five hundred pounds required for the three year training. She genuinely seemed as bewildered as everyone else we had met when it came to the cutting of funds. She concluded by saying that overseas aid is still crucial to her country, thank you and please keep it coming.

After the photo session I invited the Honourable lady to become an Associate member of the WI to which she replied, "Yes, please".

Before our conversation with Mrs Banda we had met the Minister for Health who told us quite categorically that of course he knows the situation with maternal mortality was bad but it is getting better. He too is grateful for the aid that comes but also asks for its continuation. We raised issues of women's decision-making power, transport, enough and adequate hospitals and the lack of midwives. The majority of health aid comes from DFID (the UK Department for International Development)and we were left in no doubt that they hope after our election this will continue.

During a final meeting with DFID they explained that the allocation of the aid they give is determined by priorities set by Westminster. The current budget is 75 million pounds with plans to increase it to 80 million next year with maternal health being one of their top priorities. Crucially, we hope that after the election it will still be a priority for whichever party is in power. However with climate change impacting communities here and now, a budget must also be allocated to address these challenges, while keeping their committed funds to achieve the MDGs.

After all we're learning about the Millennium Development Goals and gender equality being vital to achieving each and all of them it was disappointing to say the least to learn that gender was not on DFIDs priority sheet which they presented to us, and when questioned about this they referred to one or two unnamed projects. We had hoped to see a stronger commitment to gender equality from our government.

So the trip is over; we have met some wonderful and dedicated people to whom the issue of maternal mortality is so important. Malawian people are so friendly and caring and they have been so pleased to see us. They say it has been an honour but I would say quite the contrary as we have been completely honoured to meet them in their beautiful country. We felt the welcome from "The Warm Heart of Africa".
The WI is coming home both informed and inspired as well as humbled.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A Journey to the interior - down desperate roads, across fields of puny maize, to meet a family beleaguered by HIV/Aids. Husband and wife and youngest son of two years all need ARVs every month. Mister was very ill but there is a marked difference now since receiving the drugs. His wife and son appear well. To collect these drugs for all three at once (which thankfully does happen now) he must walk back the way we came in our trusty 4x4, then pay the sum of $2 for the bus to take him to clinic.

This family live in abject poverty. Their food yesterday, some maize, of which there is enough left for today, was earned from a day's work in someone else's field.

A volunteer community worker, Ruth, who goes to five outlying villages over a two-week period and whose job would be eased if she had a bicycle, is seemingly this family's only hope at the moment. Her enthusiasm and her care of these people and obviously many more, really is a beacon of hope. This does remind me of our great organisation and all the voluntary hours that we put in.

This afternoon we visit the National Organisation of Midwives where its deputy, Harriet, reiterates the despondency they all feel at the abrupt halt in funding from government for training nurse/midwives. There are currently only 25% of the needed midwives in Malawi. Also their problem in retaining the midwives is many-fold, not least the high-risk aspect of their jobs as many have contracted HIV themselves. Also their fears around housing, electricity, transport and providing schooling for their own children. Solar powered electricity is part of the answer, as we saw at the health clinic on Monday did sport one of these, and the clinician had the best house in the village.

All this may go if maternal health isn't prioritised in the next health SWAP - more on this tomorrow.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

2nd February

Another day, another destination within this beautiful country. This morning we set off to visit one of Oxfam's projects which addresses the issue of HIV/Aids in a remote rural area but one that also is concerned with maternal mortality.
On the way we pass by huge tea plantations. We see a sign which reads "You are entering a child labour free plantation"! We see the tea pickers with huge baskets on their backs picking the shiny fresh green leaves of the tea we so love to drink. They truly are huge baskets. Pickers seems to be all men or all women but not both together.

Now we take a right turn off the main road and encounter people everywhere at a roadside market but only a few yards further on we pass Thyolo hospital sporting the sign on the gate "This is a Child Friendly Hospital" with a painting of a breast feeding woman at its side. A left turn past the hospital and we are on a dirt track which passes through an extensive tea plantation, "owned by someone in the UK" we are told. It is gated and we have to pass through with the permission of the two guards. Right in the heart of this plantation is our destination. The road is tortuous, and driving in anything other than a 4 wheel drive vehicle would be unhealthy never mind uncomfortable. We pass people gathering macadamia nuts from the many trees on the way.

As we arrive in the village we are greeted by many, many children all waving and smiling and a group of women welcome us with song. We are ushered into a low, darkish, building where seated in a line are the people who are in involved in the project. The welcome is delightful and long and everyone is applauded for their position and for what they do. The village head man gives an address and then the officer with the community based organisation working with Oxfam gives us a full run down of statistics and people in the HIV/Aids programme. Finally we come to the issue of maternal mortality and the women in the group begin to speak. One of them was a Traditional Birthing Attendant who is no longer allowed to work according to a government directive. And in his final address the village leader states categorically that there will be heavy penalties imposed on anyone continuing to work as a TBA. We are told later that the TBAs had only received basic training and would often take on more complicated births than they were able to cope, resulting in high mortality rates.

However, one of the main difficulties for pregnant mothers in labour is the ability to get to the hospital. The nearest is only 3 miles away, we passed it, but the road is so treacherous no pregnant woman, nor one in labour, should look at it let alone drive down it. The only mode of transport is a bicycle with a stretcher attached. One man says it is dangerous for the men to ride this bicycle down that road, especially in the dark night because that is when most women go into labour!

Unfortunately, the bicycle is no longer in working order, the back tyre needs attention and we are told later, when viewing the famous bicycle, that the last time it was used the poor lady lying on that stretcher died before she reached the hospital.

Transport is not the only difficulty when it comes to giving birth. A second problem is the question of who takes the decision that the woman should go to hospital and when. It is usually the husband and if he is not there, waiting can be too long and too late; at the same time no one else in the village might know a woman is pregnant - witchcraft of old is still thought of and not knowing whom might be your enemy causes you to hold your tongue! A third difficulty is that very often when a woman does reach the hospital ready to give birth there is no one to attend to her.
One broken down bicycle for the women of 11 villages. It is sad!

After handing out WI pens we move on to visit another hospital with a maternity wing.
Also the site of a college of midwives. This is St Joseph's hospital, a hospital set up in the 1950s by the Catholic Church. We meet one of the two doctors who works there; his colleague is GP trained. In the welcoming group there is also the chief nursing sister (both a nun and a nursing sister).

Here, women from a designated area are treated 'free of charge' and their particulars on the relevant form must come with them to be passed to the government who will then pay the costs. Any woman from outside the area would be treated but payment would be expected. Dr Banda who trained in tropical medicine in the west tells us he came back to work in Malawi because he wants to help those less fortunate.

We are shown the maternity wing beginning with the check in room and the delivery suite. Our standards at home seem sky high in comparison! Then we go to the ward where tiny newborn babies lie in the middle of the beds with their mother. They are to stay for several hours only and while they are there their families must feed them. There is a compound outside the ward where families stay.
With the rain finally falling we are shown across the yard to the school of midwifery where Rose, the principal tells us that in the third year they have 54 pupils but in the first year the have only 3. This is because the government has withdrawn funding as of September 2009. Now students have to pay their own fees. This means that would-be students have to find over 1,000 pounds per year. They cannot do this. Speaking later with 4 third year students, two of them, young men of 22 and 21, tell us that they wanted to be midwives because they wanted to do something to stop the deaths of mothers and babies, wanting to help those less fortunate and one whose twin brother died of asthma who wants to be able to help avoid such deaths. The three year course qualifies them as a general nurse too.

The day is over. We drive back in torrential rain - thank goodness, the rains will help the maize to grow. May it pour all night.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Hello Malawi!

31st January 2010

Hello from Malawi!

27 hours of travel and we arrive in Blantyre. The Sunbird hotel awaits at the end of our 4 hour road journey from Lilongwe, passing through the most deprived and poorest of areas. Of course, the heart is tugged by barefooted, beautiful children in rainbow hued clothes and young women holding out bowls of their home-fried insects which come with the rainy season to sell to passing travellers. Yet we all thrill at the sight of artistically piled turrets of tomatoes, potatoes and mangoes in the roadside markets.

Maize is planted in every available space within the deep orange earth of the lush green landscape which reminds me of the Brecon Beacons - without the gorse. And the villages of grass roofed huts speed past as well as hundreds of rectangular buildings - homes, looking as if deserted but not so; and there is the very odd smart one too. But everywhere, familiar signs - "Blueband, the spread" and "OMO for good dirt" Incongruity and beauty - an adventure waiting.

1st February 2010

We hear it is snowing back home but here in Blantyre it is very warm and humid and before long it is HOT. Our day begins with a visit to the Oxfam office, just beside the hotel. We are given a brief overview of the work it is carrying out and hear of the earthquake that struck Malawi in December- 6.3 on the Richter scale. Malawi is used to dealing with flood and drought but earthquakes of this magnitude is new. 3,000 people are in camps and house rebuilding is desperately needed.

We learn that the rate of HIV/Aids is still very high here but that it has fallen from 14% of the population affected to 12% as antiretroviral drugs are now available and free. This and a lot of education has helped the situation and continues to do so.
But we also learn that 1 in every 100 women still die in childbirth and this is the crux of why the WI has come to Malawi.
Maternal mortality is an issue within Millennium Development Goal no 5 - Female Health. So we set off to a village where we are to meet pregnant ladies. We are so graciously received with the sleeping mat put down on the bare earth for us to sit.
Our hostess has 3 little boys, the youngest not much more that a year old and baby number 4, whom she hopes will be a girl, is due - she does not know when! She goes to a hospital close by every month, but she has to take a taxi as she is still breast feeding her baby and walking is not easy. For a fee she could go to a nearer hospital.
She wants no more children after her baby is delivered and will take contraceptive advice after the birth. She didn't want her husband to know. We are invited into the family hut which is pitch dark even when our eyes become accustomed to it. We are told her older child sleeps with the grandmother across the way. Very happily the family pose for photographs.

A very short walk to another village and we are introduced to a second lady, a first time mother of 18. She brings out the upholstered dining chairs on which the men usually sit as well as the sleeping mat. I sit on one of the chairs with our hostess. She seems somewhat bewildered by the whole process of maternity but is glad that she has learned what it all means from the health worker in the hospital as she had been frightened by what she had learned of giving birth from the women in her village. When asked what her hopes for her baby might be she said first that she hoped it would be a boy and that he would grow up to be a male nurse. She had hoped to be a nurse herself but had to leave school, having reached Grade 5 only, when she became pregnant and married. Perhaps she will return to education one day. I hope so.

And finally today, off to a Health Centre proudly welcomed by the Health Worker and his caretaker/assistant. Daily 500 patients are expected and received - and treated. A few patients were in the waiting area - an open-sided room with hard benches. One small boy looking unwell was led from the surgery by his mother. We were told that now is the time when there is much Malaria. Mosquito nets had been given out in the past but this year they had not. To this health centre people come for diagnosis of HIV/Aids but they are treated at the hospital some distance away.
Everyone seemed so very pleased to see us and were happy to welcome us into their homes and work place. The day's excursions felt positive - but where we found ourselves was remote by our standards and there are people living in far more distant places who do not have access to much healthcare at all and certainly not anti-natal or post-natal services.

There is one exciting thing I have to tell you - we have our first WI in Malawi! Well, not strictly, but in one village, with the dedication and foresight of one man in a voluntary capacity, he has set up a place for the women, with their children, to go. This group were saying that they have time to meet together and they want to talk about all sorts of subjects, but they need a leader. Needless to say, I easily identified the president and the committee! And through the translator it was felt that the WI model was for them. Who knows where this might lead but if the structure of the WI can help these women find their voice then no one is happier than yours truly, Ruth

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The snow stopped even the WI in its tracks earlier this month but at least my part of the country seems to be back on the trail again.
One of the first events I have attended in 2010 has been the City Food Lecture, promoted by the Livery Companies of the City of London and held in the Guildhall. The lecture was given by Sir David King, formerly Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government but now Director of Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.
And what a lecture; “Managing the Earth’s Resources to Deliver Food for Nine Billion”. Sir David has been a keynote speaker at our own Climate Change Conference a couple of years ago and so much of what he said in this lecture could have been a synopsis of our environmental and health mandates over many years. His set of challenges for the world and the feeding of those nine billion as the 21st century progresses include mineral resources, climate change, safeguarding ecosystems, food security, water resources and energy supply; he also added conflict and terror to the list. And, he reckons that “if we work hard on female education, we can manage”.

Sir David also spoke of the deforestation that is still taking place but that if governments know the people are “behind them” they will take action to stop. We’ll be learning more on this in our Rainforest Conference to be held at our own Denman College in Oxford, on March 15th. when Tony Juniper, former CEO of Friends of the Earth, will be one of the eminent speakers.

And, then, a week from now I shall be in Malawi representing the WI to see just how far the world has gone in achieving its Millennium Goal No 5, maternal health; all linked with our Women Reaching Women project. From the cold of Denmark to the heat of Malawi – worlds apart!