14/12/2013 15:02 GMT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 GMT

No Laughing Matter; Lunch With Desmond Tutu

With the recent loss of Nelson Mandela, South African found its voice - and during the memorial service, its silence - in Desmond Tutu. He was Mandela's ally through so many decades of struggle. He remains a hugely respected scourge of the world's wrongs, and irrepressible champion of the oppressed.

And if all super heroes have their super powers, Tutu's is his laugh. No one else has such a disarming giggle, except perhaps the Dalai Lama. Has this been his secret weapon in all those dangerous decades of facing down evil?

He giggled a lot at a lunch in London's Athenaeum Club, hosted in November by the global health charity St John's which is extending its voluntary work to support pregnant mothers and newborns in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The systemic neglect which ends in so many preventable deaths of women in childbirth is one of the world's most scandalous human rights violations. It is a huge boost to have the backing of the legendary Tutu, as Prior of St John South Africa. White Ribbon Alliance, the grassroots advocacy network , works across sub-Saharan Africa where more than half of maternal deaths happen, so we were there to join forces for the change that women so urgently need.

Settling back after lunch, the Archbishop was in a conversational mood. Women, argued the great man, are the key to a better world. As the Grameen Foundation has shown, women make the most of the smallest investment, and always pay back their loans. And mothers in particular make sure that the next generation is loved, healthy, educated and productive.

"In our language we have a saying that a mother can divide the eye of a fly" he told us. "A mother will share even the tiniest amount to look after her children. Without healthy mothers and babies, communities cannot flourish and develop so investment in this area of health care is absolutely vital."

Mothers are also the peace makers of the world he said, because they don't want to risk anyone's life in fighting - for every soldier, every civilian, is someone's child. A woman's true strength, he argued cheerfully, lies in her gentleness - which is why he has a problem with the late Margaret Thatcher's nickname, 'the Iron Lady', which he sees as a contradiction in terms. This was a doubly controversial statement to make in the Athenaeum dining room, redolent of the British establishment, while how many successful women today have made their way through 'gentleness'?

Then Tutu, all smiles, invited the guests to join him in the 'subversive' task of social change. Now here was a word that some of the lunch guests just couldn't swallow - but what is change if not subversive?

Back to women; Tutu counselled me (plenty of laughing now), that the best way to get men to support progress for women is not to antagonise them, but to make them think it is all their own idea. I agreed, of course, and then asked if he would wear our white ribbon pin, an emblem of support for mothers around the world.

'White!?', hooted the first black South African Archbishop of Cape Town. 'White! Well, I don't know about that...' And then, having teased me enough, he tapped his lapel to show where I could pin it on.

I also gave Tutu a print of an illustrated map of Rukwa Region, Tanzania. This shows how pregnant women face a five hour boat journey, followed by a walk or bike ride of 200 kilometers, to get to a hospital should they need a C section during birth.

The illustration also shows how Tanzania's President Kikwete promised in 2011 that half of all health centres would provide emergency care for mothers, near where they live. At the bottom of the picture, the people of Rukwa are raising their voices, asking him to keep their promises. To date, it hasn't happened. Local White Ribbon Alliance members recently surveyed their health facilities, finding that nurses are trying to save mothers lives by doing emergency operations, quite often by the light of their mobile phones.

Before he took receipt of the picture, Tutu declared, 'I am very vain; please write on it!' But what should I write? His answer - 'that you love me of course!' So I wrote - 'To Desmond Tutu, with love from the members of White Ribbon Alliance'.

I am hoping that it reaches a wall in South Africa where sadness and laughter have not been strangers to each other.