Meeting Report: A Humanitarian Life

Date: 
5 December 2014
Occasion: 
James Williams Lecture
Speaker(s): 
Miller Caldwell

The president, Liam Murray, announced at the December meeting of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society that the speaker, named to deliver the James Williams Memorial Lecture, had withdrawn for health reasons. Miller Caldwell agreed to stand in at short notice to speak on A Humanitarian Life.

In introducing him, Liam referred to the remarkably varied life Miller had led. He had served in West Africa, a fact which struck a chord with Liam, who had also served in Africa. His output as an author is considerable and for a wide readership, including children. Liam added that he could testify to his skill as a children's entertainer.

Miller, the son of a manse, lived in Kirriemuir, Angus, from the age of two in 1952 and from the age of seven he had had to adjust to city life in Glasgow. In addition to his father's parish commitments he grew up witnessing his mother, the practical Christian, giving food to beggars in the back garden and knowing of her involvement with Lodging House Mission.

His schooling was blighted by two factors, the first being when a teacher in Glasgow belted him twice for not knowing how to do long division and the second, much more serious, being subjected to grooming and abuse by the school captain, whose continuing presence in the community made him anxious to escape from Glasgow and Scotland at the earliest opportunity.

After training in Social Work in Edinburgh, the Church of Scotland Overseas Mission seemed to be an obvious choice. He was accepted. He had read in the late 1960s about the early work in Africa of Dr Ernesto Serolli, who went on to found the Serolli Institute. It is an international non-profit-making organisation that teaches community leaders how to establish and maintain projects in their community.

Instead of going to Malawi, as he had hoped, because of the strong connection between Malawi and Scotland, he was sent to Ghana where firstly he was required to become proficient in the local language and then, based in the industrial port of Tema, amongst other duties, he taught English to the unemployed and became involved in 'Operation Feed Yourself', in which he was in charge of agricultural workers, who were expected to grow crops like cassava, onions, yams, tomatoes, plantain, without tools. Eventually brutal treatment by the army led Miller to seek an alternative enterprise for sixteen of these men. A German deep into the forests of the far west of Ghana ran a latex-gathering enterprise. Retaining staff in such a remote situation was a problem. Miller offered him this team of reliable men and the venture proved to be such a success that Miller was given a parrot. (One of his books is entitled The parrot's tale.)

It was in Ghana that he met his wife, a teacher. He also met President J.J. Rawlings, a mulatto dictator, who was reduced to tears on meeting him because his father was from Scotland.

Miller, on being advised to study for a post-graduate degree in London, took up a post thereafter as an educational social worker in Stirling, in the course of which he dealt with problems like truancy and the effects of drunken fathers on families. Such cases brought him into contact with reporters to the Children's Panel, which was proving to be an effective innovation in Scotland in dealing with problem youngsters.

Subsequently he was employed for 27 years by the Children's Panel: his first position was as assistant area reporter for Kilmarnock; then he served as a reporter for Ayrshire in Kyle, Carrick and Doon Valley; and finally he was appointed the first area reporter for Dumfries and Galloway, where he dealt with the panoply of social work cases, including sexual abuse in the late 1980s.

Memory problems caused him to retire. On consulting a psychologist he found that, although he had pursued a very successful career in many fields and in various parts of the world, the trauma of his early life surfaced. He discovered that 40 years later his former abuser was teaching in a residential school in Boston in the USA. Miller caused him to be reported and he is currently serving a prison sentence there.

Farouq Ahmed, a prominent Pakistani living in Dumfries and special police constable, who had lost a niece in the devastating 2005 earthquake, asked Miller if he would go and teach children in Pakistan. In January 2006, armed with a wide range of suitable items for children's schooling, including puppets, he arrived in remote north-west Kashmir, 400 miles north of Islamabad.

When such disasters occur, aid floods in to try to relieve the situation. A Brigadier chaired a meeting to discuss how the aid was to be distributed to avoid corrupt practices. He appointed Miller camp manager because he was not a Muslim and therefore independent. Distribution of sugar and flour required a signature: it was significant that the young men signed with a thumb print, while the older men, educated in the days of the Raj, signed in ink.

Hidden under a blanket and given special protection, Miller travelled to UNICEF meetings in Mundahar. He became exhausted and dehydrated and was recovering in a compound when he found himself face to face with the very tall figure of Osama Bin Laden, who, on discovering he came from Scotland, left the scene abruptly. Pakistanis were prepared to give him cover because to them George W. Bush represented the devil. The authorities ignored Miller's evidence when he returned home later in 2006 and insisted that Bin Laden was in Afghanistan. Miller was ultimately proven to be correct.

Miller in retirement has worked voluntarily for the Shannon Trust by teaching prisoners to read and write and for the Cinnamon Trust doing pet-walking and other useful services for the elderly, so that they can remain in their own homes as long as possible. His writing is in some instances a fund-raising exercise.

The unfolding biographical details of Miller Caldwell's life, delivered in a strong, clear voice, prove that a human being can recover from a serious setback and that someone so affected can succeed in life.