A spiritual take on the 'misery industry'

Africa: Michael Meegan has often slept rough

Africa: Michael Meegan has often slept rough. On cold nights he has exchanged the warmth of his bed for park benches, tube stations and pieces of cardboard on the side of the road, meeting runaway teenagers, drug addicts and prostitutes.

Knowing what it's like to be hungry and cold is all part of Meegan's personal philosophy. If you can understand what people are suffering, it will be easier to help, he believes.

Born in Liverpool, Meegan grew up in a comfortable environment in Dublin, where he had a "wonderful childhood". He studied philosophy with the Jesuits, travelled throughout Europe and became a fashion model before encountering the realities of poverty and deprivation on trips to India and Africa.

Meegan's campaign for charity has brought him close to death - twice. Experiencing famine and disease first hand, he has immersed himself in the nomadic Maasai communities in Africa, where he has spent 25 years. He describes his experiences in a new book, Surprised by Joy, the proceeds of which will be donated to charity.


Helping people to help themselves, rather than imposing development models from outside, is Meegan's core principle. Founder of the International Community for Relief of Starvation and Suffering (Icross), Meegan has attracted widespread admiration, and in 2003 he was named ESB International Person of the Year. He was awarded an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland, has been the subject of various TV documentaries and has crossed paths with Mother Teresa, Elton John and various celebrities through his fundraising.

Surprised by Joy, which takes its title from a memoir by CS Lewis, asks all the relevant questions about the business of aid. Do we need to experience suffering to help? Do we give just to make ourselves feel better? Do we truly want things to change? While members of Icross work on a voluntary basis, Meegan criticises the budgets charities allocate for experts, hotel accommodation or hardship allowances. He warns that international aid is in danger of becoming a "second colonisation" because it fails to listen to what people on the ground want.

In attempting serious criticism of the "misery industry", Meegan's arguments, however, are glaringly weak, as in "all you really need to make a difference is to be able to love and heal through kindness." Tackling stereotypes of Africa is a hot issue in the development sector and is a central theme in Surprised by Joy. Meegan argues that while photographs of malnourished children and helpless mothers may encourage people to donate money, they create a one-sided impression of a vast and diverse continent. The photograph on the cover of the book - Meegan holding an emaciated African child - sets the tone of his argument, however, which frequently runs the risk of exoticisation. "Africa never needs to market itself and speaks its own language to our souls," Meegan writes.

At times this book reads like a self-help spiritual guide, focusing primarily on the personal reasons behind Meegan's dedication to helping those in need. Passages about "living your dream" and "getting close to God" weigh down the narrative, while friends and colleagues are repeatedly described as "magical" and "salt of the earth". While Meegan draws compassion for a noble cause, at times the reader wants to say that it is medicine and economic support that Africa needs, not soft-tone spiritual rhetoric.

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist

Surprised by Joy By Michael Meegan Maverick House, 260pp. €9.99

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist