THE boy’s smile is as broad as the Zambesi river. Under a blistering hot Zambian sky, with his feet sinking into the mire and muck of a chaotic open-air market, he is happily delivering the ultimate accolade.
“MacDonald is a black man,” he nods and smiles. “The colour is a white man, but the brain is a black man.
“Because,” he adds simply, “he loves us.”
For Don MacDonald, the gushing praise is deeply humbling. It’s proof – as if he really needed it – that his role as a private secretary to former first minister Jack McConnell is long gone.
Indeed, the Yes Minister days spent bridging the gap between politicians and civil servants could not be further removed from his new role: “father” to a sometimes chaotic band of up to 30 impoverished street kids from Lusaka.
With wife Christine, a former gynaecology registrar, who when Don was spending his days at the heart of the Scottish Government at Holyrood was helping care for patients and save lives at Simpson’s maternity hospital, Don has thrown open his African home to care for some of Zambia’s poorest and most vulnerable youngsters.
At their ramshackle farm home on the outskirts of Lusaka, the couple are raising more than two dozen young boys and teenagers as their own, taking care of everything from their education to clothing them, splitting up terrifying fights and lavishing them with parental love.
The couple’s inspiring tale of how they swapped key jobs in the heart of Scotland’s capital city for the searing heat of landlocked Zambia and new roles as mum and dad has been captured by Edinburgh-based filmmaker Jamie Stone for a BBC Scotland documentary.
Filmed over the course of four years, it shines a spotlight on the couple’s accidental journey from civil servant and doctor to parents to some of the most tragic youngsters imaginable.
Yet throwing open their home to a whole new Zambian family of wayward strangers was the last thing on the couple’s minds as they quit Edinburgh in 2001 for a comfy expat life in Lusaka, where Don had planned to spend two years on a contract for an accountancy firm.
“I had been working as private secretary to Jack McConnell. It was a bit like being in an episode of Yes Minister. But while I was working with high-up people in reality,” he adds with a chuckle, “I was probably just a bit of a ‘go-fer’.
“As private secretary, I’d go between minister and civil service. Actually, I was probably splitting up just as many arguments and squabbles back then as I do now.”
Don’s Holyrood role changed as the now Lord McConnell prepared to take over the position of first minister from Henry McLeish. Faced with the prospect of moving to a different post within the civil service, the MacDonalds decided to rethink their lives.
Having already spent time in the 1990s working in Kenya, Africa pulled again at their heartstrings.
“We saw it as a chance to spend a few years as expats,” explains Christine, 47, who first met Don at university in Glasgow, although both of them are from Lewis. “We’d already done our ‘saving the world’ thing in Kenya, doing mission work, this was to be a chance to get up on our feet.”
The couple arrived in Lusaka in 2001 with young daughter Sarah and baby Rachel, to a comfortable home set behind tall gates in lush grounds, with a team of staff and the luxury of a private swimming pool.
But just a few hundred yards away was a different side to the city, one which the MacDonalds found hard to drive past.
There they saw street children – overwhelmingly boys – living in dire poverty, sleeping in drains, makeshift beds created from old boxes or sheltering in holes in the ground, most with serious health problems, emotional traumas and few prospects.
The couple could not ignore their plight. “It wasn’t right,” recalls Don, an accountant at that time working as chief executive of Zambian Airlines. “We knew we needed to do something. There we were with all we needed and these kids had nothing. We didn’t know how to go about it.”
They discovered street kids often end up thrown out of the family home after losing parents to Aids.
There they would beg or steal, some drank or sniffed glue to help them cope. Many are HIV positive or have a long list of health troubles, all have had to use their wits to survive. And some, as Don, 48, and Christine learned, simply didn’t survive.
They started to bring food for the children and got to know several of the youngsters, including one charming boy called William. They had hatched a plan to help pay for his education when they learned he’d fallen ill.
“We found him a boarding school but then one of his friends said he was sick,” recalls Christine. “That was the Friday, we were busy on Saturday and at church on Sunday. On Monday, we found out that he had died. That was the turning point.”
Another boy, Nicholas, arrived seeking food and shelter. Determined not to see him suffer the fate of William, they took him in, cared for him and eventually formally adopted him.
Soon street children would seek out the couple – besieging them as they strolled through the market area – hoping they might help them, too.
But to help, the couple realised they needed more space. So they quit their luxurious home for a sprawling tin roof farm, ramshackle but big enough to house them, their children – including two siblings they had also taken in as their own – and as many as 30 street kids, all under one roof. The property was named – of course – Old MacDonald’s Farm. It meant having to impose strict rules and regulations but inevitably brought outbreaks of trouble.
“We had a lot of physical behaviour problems, people fighting among each other or not going to school or stealing, running away, taking the car smashing it in the wall,” explains Christine, who works full time in women’s health services in Lusaka. “Or taking knives out of the kitchen and going after someone because someone had the iron in the morning and they were going to use it.”
“Christine is five foot nothing,” says Don, “but when you have two kids going to disembowel each other you don’t stand by and watch, you get involved and try to stop it. Most parents would do the same.”
The farm is now an official orphanage and the couple have plans to expand a small kitchen bakery and possibly open shops to provide employment for their “family”.
As for returning to Edinburgh and the home they still own in Mavisbank Place, Lasswade, Don admits it’s almost certainly a case of No Minister.
• Old MacDonald’s Farm is on BBC 2 Scotland on Saturday at 7pm.
LOW EXPECTANCY, HIGH MORTALITY
ZAMBIA sits in southern Africa, with the Democratic Republic of Congo to the north and Malawi to the east.
In 2010, the World Bank named Zambia one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. However, poverty is rife and poor health, HIV, Aids and childhood mortality rates are high.
Life expectancy in Zambia is 43 years, but only around 50 per cent of the country’s desperately poor street children are likely to survive beyond the age of 18.
Zambia has around 70,000 such youngsters and around 680,000 children orphaned by Aids.
Some end up on the street after family break-ups – often the result of a mother or father dying from Aids or another illness and their remaining parent remarrying.
“It can be that the father dies and the mother has no employment and remarries so she has someone to help her, but the new father doesn’t want children from another marriage,” explains Christine MacDonald.
“Girls are often kept as they can work in the house or be married, but boys tend to be more rebellious and end up as street children.”
Ninety per cent of Zambia’s street children are boys. Once on the street, they can drift into sniffing glue or smoking cannabis, crime and alcohol dependency.
Jamie’s story was 4 years in the making
DON and Christine MacDonald’s remarkable family was captured on film over a four-year period by Edinburgh College of Art graduate Jamie Stone.
He travelled to Zambia to film the couple as they struggled to raise more than two dozen street children, from splitting up fist fights to ensuring each received a personal Christmas present.
Jamie’s mother, television presenter Sally Magnusson, narrates the programme and journeyed to Zambia to see Old MacDonald’s Farm.
She says: “I thought I had a lot of children at five and found the idea of around 30 quite mind-boggling.
“The MacDonalds are extraordinary, but it hasn’t been easy. The story of their struggle to be – and remain – a family, in the face of enormous difficulties, is very humbling.”
The couple both hold down full-time jobs as well as caring for the Farm’s youngsters, ranging in age from around 12 to 24. When they need to take time off to escape the stresses and challenges, Edinburgh-based friends come to the rescue.
Former nurse Ann Mayo, 56, from Murrayfield, recently travelled with a friend to Lusaka to stand in for the MacDonalds while they took a much-needed break. “It’s an amazing place,” she says. “All the boys are lovely but they do have huge problems. What they needed was security and someone to give them time and nothing to worry about.”