The Angus McDonald Trust was born in the wake of a death in late February 2013 as I left Yangon alone after a short trip with my fiance Angus who had been in brief remission from terminal pancreatic cancer. Angus, a photojournalist, had been covering the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival which, under the patronage of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was an event that would have been unimaginable just one year previously. Symbolic of the shiny new Myanmar tourists thronged the city's Inya Lake hungrily gorging on copies of Daw Suu's books whilst such heavyweights as William Dalrymple, Jung Chang and Vikram Seth ambled alongside guests in a giggly atmosphere of shambolic chaos and goodwill. As the sun set on the lake we were filled with hope not only for Myanmar's future, but for our own. Yet Angus died just ten days later in a sudden, dramatic collapse at Yangon airport as we were leaving to return to Sydney. On my return flight Angus's ashes sat next to me; not him. As Joan Didion wrote: Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
I'd been planning to return to Asia to work in the not-for-profit sector for some time, and had been awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship in early 2012 to study the devolving of funds to grass-roots community structures in coastal India. I could not take up my Fellowship since I chose, of course, to care for Angus. Yet I knew instantly, as the plane to Kuala Lumpur soared over the Andaman Sea, that if I could not spend the rest of my life with Angus that I would spend it doing something in his name, on the continent he loved, and of which he would be proud.
Family and friends were our first donors, and from these kind souls we have amassed an incredible sum of around AUD$40,000. Our first project is to be a built structure in the town of Hpa-An, in Kayin (or Karen) State in Myanmar's south-eastern lobe. Local charities and philanthropists are numerous, but they require support. They need money. Our dream at the Trust is to make a tangible difference to the way that basic healthcare is delivered in the parts of Asia that Angus lived and travelled in, and with a minimum of administrative fuss and bleeding of funds. We pledge not to spend less than 90% of all funds raised on the projects themselves. And where local knowledge can be harnessed, we will always defer to the needs and wants of the communities themselves.
You will be able to read our blogs here about the challenges and successes of our fledgling charity. On Monday we leave for our next trip to Myanmar where Alex Zubrzycki and I will be mapping out the primary healthcare system and assessing priority projects. Our amazingly talented group of Trustees have all accepted our invitation to support and guide us. Angus's wonderful photo-essay India's Disappearing Railways will be published in November and exhibited at London's Royal Geographical Society in December, and all proceeds from the work will go directly to the Trust.
Above all, we're excited about the opportunities ahead. The great lesson is that from deep sadness and trauma can come some hope, after all.