Food for thought, food for the stomach

Normal, Weekender

ALFREDO P HERNANDEZ recounts a feeding gig with settlement kids on Christmas Eve

I LIKE this food, uncle”, 10-year-old Rose Hale told me as she relished the last morsel of the dish. She squatted on a vinyl sheet spread out under a mango tree.
Fumbling her take-away, throw-away plastic bowl that carried her lunch meal, a first-time treat ever for her that came with a satisfying burp, she said:
“I wish you cook more of this next time.”
“Of course, my dear, by all means we’ll cook more of this,” I assured her, patting her on the head.
The kid was only confirming what her mum Barbara Kogora, 36, told me earlier when the dish – a special macaroni soup – was cooking under the close watch of a group of volunteer mums working for a ministry that looks after some 78 orphans and abandoned kids at ATS Oro settlement, 7 Mile outside Port Moresby.
Of course, they cooked it under my close supervision as I took their pictures. They first heard of this dish from me that day when I laid on the makeshift table the ingredients to go into the pot.
Each item seemed foreign — they must have seen them in supermarkets but had no idea what they were for.
This was an offshoot of my recent cooking session with the village mothers. One recent weekend, I taught them how to cook “lugaw”, a favourite Filipino dish. I promised the kids and mums that when I come back to the settlement – home to the orphanage ministry called Tembari Children’s Care, Inc – I would cook for them something special.
On Christmas Eve I drove up to the settlement with all the materials and ingredients for a mouth-watering Christmas macaroni soup.
“The kids would love this dish,” single mum Barbara told me after doing a taste test of the soup when it was almost done.
While cooking, Barbara listed down with much enthusiasm the soup’s ingredients, which she had described as “all new” to her. She said she would cook it herself for her three kids Rose, Melanie, 8, and Shuan, 6  who were   abandoned by their father in January.
At noon, the macaroni soup was served for the kids’ Christmas Eve lunch.
The meal that took more than an hour to prepare lit up the mood of some 60 kids and 25 parent-guardians.
Seeing them dig into my humble concoction with gusto, I felt a rush of pleasure.
It was a scene that played inside my head while I drove back to the city. Truly, I made a bunch of kids a bit happy on Christmas Eve and I thanked God for it.
I’m used to feeding sessions. Just a few years ago, together with several Filipino expats, I busied myself on a weekend feeding activities for the poor kids at the Gawad Kalinga village at Stage 6, Gerehu, just outside of Port Moresby. (This feeding programme has become a permanent affair at the village every weekend.)
That’s why when I stumbled on this group of 78 orphans and abandoned kids from ATS Oro settlement during a Digicel Foundation’s Christmas gig at the Botanical Garden, I was quite intrigued by initial stories about them.
I wanted to find out more, first, as a journalist, how they survive their sheer poverty.
Second, as a father, who has been estranged from his only son for 30 years now, I wanted to find out if I also got a heart big enough to qualify me as a parent.
Somehow, I felt that I also have one. This is the reason that urged me to help the mums running this ministry to come up with better feeding ideas, in which the kids would truly enjoy their meals while at the same time giving their little frail bodies a boost – nutrition-wise.
Until a few feedings ago, the children were just having a piece of sandwich for lunch, four times a week; it’s a pathetic quest for nutrition, what with a measly budget of only K40 per feeding.
The sliced-bread lunch usually comes with a thin piece of the cheapest meatloaf, washed down with coloured, sweetened water. In between feeding days, the kids could either miss a meal or make do with whatever their parent-guardians – actually their “bubu” – would serve them.
Their missing out on the basic balanced diet is a form of child abuse and this must be stopped.
That’s according to Hayward Sagemba, 36, chairman of the Tembari Children’s Care (TCC), Inc. He told me that the kids’ deprivation of basic nutrition, much less, adequate healthcare, is no doubt child abuse in disguise.
Lack of proper nutrition — either malnutrition or under nutrition — leads to the slow development of the child’s intellect; this later could affect his total development as a person.
Hayward said: “This (lack of enough money for feeding) remains a constraint we have to find a solution to. Whatever funding support TCC receives from Digicel Foundation and WeCare (K400 a month) is prioritised for the kids’ nutrition programme.
“We can’t afford to use it in other equally-pressing concerns such as paying our volunteers’ allowances, especially those who teach our kids how to read and write.”
Hayward and his wife Penny, who is the TCC founder and coordinator, are working hard to find sponsors and donors who would be able to alleviate the healthcare lack in their orphanage.
The health conditions of the children are critical; providing them with well-balanced meals every time is one area that kind-hearted aid donors could look into, and maybe consider, for yearly assistance.
Says Hayward: “We’re only a small entity but we got a big heart for our orphans and abandoned children. We are just a small tree in a wild jungle that we are almost unseen in the dark, we are practically fighting against big, known charity groups for the attention of institutional donors and funding entities.
For now, TCC does not dream big – all it needs are enough protein/nutrient-rich meals that its wards need.
With the kids getting better nutrition, their ability to learn the three Rs – reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic — could come much faster, easier and more effective.