Friday, June 13, 2008

Life or death

In 1992 another visit was paid to the village of Nyakomba in Zimbabwe.
Over a period of years this village and its inhabitants was documented and many friends were made.

However, the 1992 visit was different.
This because a drought had ravaged the fields and the people were having no more food.
Worst hit was the Katerere District and what was witnessed there was dramatic.

An English doctor was met, Dr. Roger Drew, who was running a Mission called Elim Mission right in the centre where the devastation was the worst.
With him a plan was developed to return to Europe, do a campaign to collect money and come again to Katerere district with the proceeds and assist in the food distribution.
And make pictures of course.

In the Netherlands a friend, Hans Römer, was motivated to join this project and together a serious amount of money was collected.
In December 1992 we went to Elim Mission and for 3 months assisted in the food distribution in the Katerere district.

This involved waking up early and loading a truck with heavy bags of maize.
This truck would drive to food handout centres where local people had gathered.

Each person would get 2 scoops of maize for each member of the family.
To prove with how many they were they had to bring identity cards.
One rule was that people over 65 were not entitled to get food from this distribution program.
Priorities were put on mothers with children.
This system of distribution resulted in one of the most impressing experiences ever in life.
There would be long lines of people patiently waiting to get their food.
Men and women and children all hungry, weak and depressed.
They would show their identity card and when they classified they would get their scoops of maize.
Sometimes there would be a man or a woman showing an identity card and from the year of birth it could be concluded that the person was not the maximum age of 65, but for example 66.
The strict rule was that this person, hungry, who had walked long distance to get some food, who had been standing in line for hours, had to be sent home without any scoops of maize.
These 65+ people were old after a tough life of work and hardship.
They would look in the eyes begging clemency and tolerance and flexibility.
But the rules were the rules.
Scoops of maize going to old people were not going to young mothers with children: there was a limited amount of maize available.
It has been one of the toughest experiences in life to be forced repeatedly to refuse those 65+ people food.
Condemning them to more hunger and suffering and in some cases death.

The truth is that sometimes discreetly exceptions were made.
If a person of for example 66 would show the identity card and obviously that person was in bad health and suffering of the malnourishment in a dramatic way, the responsibility was taken to pretend the person was qualified to get scoops of maize.
No other member of Dr. Roger Drew’s team was checking anyway.

But they were exceptions.
Had to be exceptions.
Most 65+ had to be refused and that has made callus on the heart.
To see the desperateness, the ultimate disappointment, the fear in the eyes of older people when they are miserable and hungry hearing they will not get food.
To deliver that message repeatedly has been one of the hardest things in life.

It has influenced life in two ways.

Recently a good friend in Paris asked:
“Do you ever cry?”
And the answer is no.
How could one cry after having witnessed such deep human misery?
Every tear would be a demonstration of selfishness and would be pathetic.

Another influence has been that as of 1993, there is no more interest in food.
Naturally, the rule has become to eat simple and nutritious and nothing fancy.
As of 1993 eating in restaurants is not enjoyed so much anymore.
In fact, the food eaten normally is just some tofu, vegetables and rice.
Every day the same food, the same cooking.
Impossible to become more extravagant remembering how people look that are hungry.
And realizing that even today millions of fellow human beings still are hungry and lacking food.

The experience of distributing food to hungry people in Zimbabwe in 1993 has a perspective in which life today still is lived.
This perspective never reached an end or dissolved and still embraces and saturates awareness influencing deeply.

In this awareness there has always been and will always be those eyes of the 65+ people begging a reply:
life or death?

Stopping culinary pretentiousness and false sentimentality forever.


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