How do you respond when people come to your door begging for food because they say they are desperate? What if they say it is for the children? How do you know if they are genuine? What kind of food is appropriate to give? How much do you give?
These are some of the questions we have been grappling with in recent weeks.
There is a man who goes through each garbage bin in the complex where we are staying every morning – you can hear him rattling things around. He is partly looking for recyclable bottles for which he can earn some money, but mostly he is looking for left over food to eat. We carefully put the rubbish in a tied up plastic bag before putting it in the bin, but the next day it is all undone and everywhere. So what do you do? Do you put out other food so that he has no need to do this? Do you make sure there is a bit of extra left-over food in the garbage so that he can eat it the following morning? Or by doing that are you creating a sense of dependency? We have not resolved this dilemma.
One Saturday while attempting to do the shopping in the supermarket in town I (Kate) was approached by a man who asked me to buy some food for him, stating that he had recently come from South Africa and had been unable to find work and was now so desperate he was begging in the middle of the shop. I was unwilling to hand over money in the middle of the supermarket (too unsafe to take out your wallet). When I said I would not be able to find him if he waited for me outside the supermarket (his suggestion) he assured me he would find me! This made me feel quite uncomfortable so in this instance I declined to help him. He followed me for the next aisle continuing his story but eventually left. I did feel guilty wheeling my trolley of food after that as I think he probably was genuine.
That afternoon while doing some jobs at home we had two people come to the door asking for food or money. The first man stated that this was particularly for his children although they were not with him. Communication was difficult as he did not have good English and would have preferred to conduct ‘business’ in Afrikaans. We decided to give him some oranges and apples. At least, we figured, these have some nutrition and do not require any cooking. Apparently what we gave him was insufficient as he came to the door again some time later, this time asking for raw meat. This request we refused.
Shortly after this and older lady came to the door asking for housework to do so that she could earn money so that she could buy food. Having just completed all the washing, ironing, floor mopping and other cleaning tasks I had to tell her that there was no work we could give her. We were also uncomfortable in letting a stranger into the house anyway when security is such an issue here. I guess we could have also offered her some fruit (we did not have much else we thought we could give away easily) however she left once we said we had no work.
So what kind of food is appropriate to give? We spent a morning trying to figure this out. Many people have suggested a loaf of bread, however in this dry climate it goes stale within a day and there is no room in the freezer to keep it ‘fresh’. As we are not close to the shops this did not seem like a practical solution.
Fruit remains a viable option, however without a car to transport the shopping home (a N$9 taxi fare will get us close but not all the way) an extra bag of fruit is quite a heavy thing to carry along with everything else.
We wanted to find something that had nutritional value, that was relatively light to carry, that could be eaten as it was (no guarantee that a person this desperate would have any means of cooking or heating food) if need be and that would last until it was required. So this week we added a few ring-pull tins (unlikely to own a tin opener in this situation) of baked beans to our shopping trolley. As we walked around we deliberately looked for other options that may be of use in weeks to come.
Although the central business district of Windhoek is modern and busy with people shopping, there is significant need and poverty in the township areas. How to respond to this poverty is challenging but we are learning as we go. Another organisation we have just begun working with is located in the most destitute area of Windhoek so no doubt there will be more challenges to come!