Young Karl Vekins was just 16 when he skipped school for the adventure of a lifetime on-board Ireland’s first major aid mission to a famine and war-torn region in Africa.
Looking for adventure
In 1968, the Walkinstown schoolboy had just finished his Junior Certificate when he found out about the a ship called the MV Columcille. Karl canoeing with the Sea Scouts up Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin when he saw the Columcille with the Irish flag waving in the wind. He immediately wanted to be part of its 12-man crew.
The ship, owned by the charity then known as Africa Concern, was to take it's maiden voyage to help millions of people suffering from famine amid a civil war between the then secessionist state of Biafra and Nigeria.
"I used to read a lot of adventure type books when I was a young lad growing up in a house which had no television – so the idea of being part of this voyage was a dream come true," said Karl, now 65.
Adventure was in the Vekins family blood, since Karl's father was a seaman who had served in World War Two with the Royal Navy.
When Karl asked if he could follow in his father's footsteps and join the crew, both his family and the ship's captain Padraig O'Shea allowed him to go.
Change of plan
Karl had originally planned to go on the vessel for six months and be home in time for Christmas to continue on with the Leaving Cert, but it didn’t quite work out like that.
The teenager would not see Ireland's shore again for a total of 13 months.
He joined the vessel as a cabin boy, which involved being an assistant to the cook in the galley, while also managing all the officers' accommodation and serving their meals,
"It was a bit daunting. I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into, but they were a really nice group. There was a good bond between all of us. They were also taken by the spirit of what they were doing. Some of the guys were big, big men - but they were total softies really."
Send One Ship
The Columcille was bought by Concern in 1968 and filled with food, medicines and other vital aid. Thanks to ingenious fundraising techniques and the generosity of the Irish people, around IR£210,303 - or the modern equivalent of €4 million today - set the ship on its journey.
This money was raised in just six months – with huge help from Irish media and advertisers under a campaign called ‘Send One Ship'.
Irish people were galvanised by the shocking images and footage being shown in news reports of emaciated children suffered from famine in Biafra – and the Irish missionaries and aid workers in the country pleading for help.
It was later estimated that up to two million people died from starvation during the Biafran conflict between 1967 and 1970, three-quarters of them small children.
Journey to Africa
The Columcille set sail on September 6 on a 26-day voyage for the Portuguese island of São Tomé over 5,800km south of Ireland, close to the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea - which was the closest they could safely get to war-torn Biafra.
From there aid was airlifted into Biafra, often with the huge risk of being attacked from troops on the ground, as there was a blockade at the time.
"The pilots who did that were absolutely incredible. They were flying by the seat of their pants. It became known as 'God’s airline,'" said Karl.
When the war ended, the team were able to safely dock at places like Calabar, where Concern got to work convincing the Nigerian authorities to allow them to help sorely people in need of aid.
Making a difference
It was while in Nigeria that Karl saw many of the children suffering with severe malnutrition, which Karl found difficult to see.
"It was upsetting, but you just have to get on with life and to keep doing what you can. We were there to do a particular job and that was what we did. Talking to each other helped us get over anything on our minds."
Not alone did the crew provide the aid sent from Ireland, but they also did some maintenance work at hospitals, including one managed by Irish nun Dr. Anne Ward, where they painted and made beds and wooden cribs for babies.
When he finally returned home, Karl was too late for his Leaving Certificate, but he was able to do the British equivalent, then called the O-Levels. He then went on to do a cadetship as a shipping engineer in Cork and had a successful career in marine engineering.
Following this, Karl spent 20 years lecturing in Marine Safety at the National Fisheries College in Greencastle, Co. Donegal.
Concern continued its work and is today Ireland’s largest international humanitarian aid agency with 3,900 staff in 26 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and in Haiti with fundraising offices in Ireland, the UK, the US and South Korea and an annual income of €182 million.
Karl, who is one of just two surviving members of the Columcille crew, was among those honoured at a 50-year anniversary event for Concern Worldwide last month.
The reception for Concern, which was hosted by President Michael D. Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin, was attended by many people who had volunteered and worked for the charity over the years.
Speaking at the ceremony, President Higgins acknowledged Concern’s extraordinary contribution to overseas humanitarian aid for five decades.
"I want to thank all of those who work for and with Concern. For your courage, commitment and dedication to supporting the lives of the world's most vulnerable people." pic.twitter.com/fpou54ISit— President of Ireland (@PresidentIRL) March 29, 2018
President Higgins said: “Through your work you crafted a vital bridge between the Irish people and some of the poorest people in our world.
“I would like to thank Concern most profoundly for all that you’ve achieved not just for the work that you’ve done but for the work you continue to do. It is so important.”
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