It was in Malaysia where we were struck by the hot and humid tropical weather, by the sweet & spicy food, and by an unexpected openness of people.
We arrived to Kuala Lumpur with the thought of staying no longer than 1-2 nights, just to rest after the long travel from Irkutsk. However, we were not more than 2 hours in the city that we found a newspaper, the kind they give for free in metros and buses and taxis. And it was in English. One title stood out in our eyes: it was about the activities of PERTIWI Soup Kitchen and their impact in on the homeless and the poor of Kuala Lumpur. That very night I contacted the amazing woman behind the soup kitchen, Munirah Abdul Hamid (she is the founder, and now is 65 years old, but you could not tell her age). And this is how we ended up spending about a week in Kuala Lumpur. We volunteered at their food sharing evenings, and so we got to meet the great team that makes it possible for more than 800 homeless and poor people to get 3 meals per week, free medical examinations and basic medical treatment, free clothes and even free haircuts. We were also able to understand the struggles of these people and also the struggles of those who try to make their burden easier.
They are doing it for more than 5 years, and as the needy got to know about the activities of the soup kitchen, it became much easier to have fixed locations. When we arrived, the place was already full with children running around, old men looking melancholic at the passing cars, worried women, and anxious young people who were visibly uncomfortable with the idea that they need to come to a soup kitchen so that they can have at least a proper meal. Even as strangers, we immediately noticed that there was among them a sense of community. The volunteers and the organisers arrived at the specified time and then we saw, with great amazement, how fast everyone took their place – the people as well as the volunteers. They arranged themselves into lines: first the children, then the women with babies, then the old and sick women, and then the old and sick men, and so on. They first receive a drink: either juice or coffee (kids don’t get coffee of course), and then they proceed to receiving the main meal. The meals are cooked by two volunteer cooks. After that, the desserts follow. The dessert is of course, something sweet, like cake or biscuits, or muffins, depending on who made the food donation for that specific evening. The cost of a whole meal is around 1 Euro. The people behind the soup kitchen want to help people in need to have at least a few warm meals every week. For too many of them these meals are the only proper food they have during that time. The main idea behind the soup kitchen is that with a full belly, the burdens are a bit easier to bear. It is much easier to go looking for a job for example.
We’ve talked to Munirah about the motivation that keeps her going every night at her age (65). She said that she feels that if she has the possibility to help, then is her duty to help. She has a job during the day, a beautiful family and she believes herself very lucky. At the same time, she understood at an early age (she said she first volunteered when she was 17) that not everyone has had the opportunities she had. And this is her way of giving back to society. She started the soup kitchen on her own, with her own funds. The more people found out, the more they offered to help: either by food or money donations, or by their increasing presence in the food sharing activities. All donations go straight to the people in form of food. Nobody involved in the project is paid in any form. In time, they got to know their stories, they got to be a part of their lives, their families.
It is the migration of people from villages to big cities that increased the number of poor and the needy people in Kuala Lumpur. Young people come in search of a brighter future. Farmers who do not manage to feed their families anymore come in search of a job that will give them at least bread to eat every day. But the big cities are supersaturated. It is difficult even for the people with higher education to provide for themselves alone. Kuala Lumpur is becoming a metropolis. Construction takes place at every corner of the street. New skyscrapers, new condominiums, new luxury neighbourhoods are being built. We could notice it even from the plane, before landing. So many pieces of land are being prepared for new luxury buildings. Forests and farms near the city, give place to these new buildings that are completely inaccessible to the majority… And the ones that can not cope are sent away from the city. They don’t look good in this new luxury landscape designed just for privileged ones. It doesn’t matter if these privileged people are not even Malaysian.
I have never seen such stubbornness and persistence. I guess that when you know you’re fighting for a good cause, the only thing that matters is to look ahead. In the medical unit from the soup kitchen we met a doctor who was very much interested in our travels and our volunteer work. Dr. Prithvy, or shortly PV, became our very good friend and our window into Malaysian society. From him we found out that the main three ethnic groups of Malaysia Chinese, Hindu and Malaysian, have no problem with each other, they are all very tolerant and understanding, but it is the politicians who are trying to ignite conflicts between them in the hope that power will stay in the hands of the Malaysian politicians. Trying to make people hate each other is the politicians’ way to maintain their status quo.
This was our Malaysian experience. I think in some ways, it left us with more questions than it gave us answers. However, I think that when this happens, it is a sign of a successful investigation.
Carmen – September Team 2014