Happiness is a hot meal (feature story)

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    Kathmandu, May 20, 2016: There is never a downside to a warm, hearty, home cooked meal and it becomes a particularly pleasing prospect if you haven’t been served one for four long days, shares Kendra Bahadur. He asks us to trust him on that as he gets ready to leave his current home (made up of a tarp and some cardboard boxes) on the outskirts of Chuchepati. Unlike most people, Bahadur will have to walk much further than the length of his room to get his home cooked lunch. In fact, like all of his Thursday meals, this one too is two micro bus rides away in Jawalakhel. And sure enough, he isn’t the only one heading that direction.

    Over at the open field in Dabali at Jawalakhel, as noon approaches, the crowd slowly swells up. It easily reaches more than a 100. They are the ones who are struggling to provide themselves and their families a proper meal. There is a mad rush among the volunteers in the make shift, side kitchen shed to cater to guests like Bahadur. A number of gas stoves are ablaze, vegetables simmer on gigantic pots and there is some frantic stirring action every now and then. They call it the Peace Kitchen.

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    Organized by Nagarik Awaz, this Peace Kitchen has been operating once a week for the last 12 years. There have been monsoon rains and the unbearable July heat, there have been Nepal bandas, unofficial blockades and even the devastating earthquakes, but the Peace Kitchen has made sure that those looking for a hot meal get theirs every Thursday. As one can imagine, it has turned out to be one of the few reliable things in the lives of people like Karna Bahadur.

    Govinda Prasad Archarya from Nagarik Awaz has felt it firsthand, “Back in 2004, when we began this project, we were specifically eager to support those who were displaced by the Maoists insurgency. There were many Nepalis who were forced to flee and whose circumstances had bought them to the streets. But even after all these years, such struggles for many people have been consistent. Now add to that the earthquake and the economic crisis, these meals bring a surprising amount of relief to many people’s week.”

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    The menu is a rather simple one. They get treated to meat during the festivities but on the regular weeks, it’s the same diet of rice and mixed vegetables. Still apparently every single sitting is enough to yield numerous blessings and well wishes from those who are being served. Bimala Basnet has been leading the Peace Kitchen project for a decade now but it still hasn’t seized to surprise and humble her.

    “There is just something about providing somebody with sustenance that brings you immense satisfaction. All our volunteers can attest to this feeling. Whenever we open the kitchen for service, the beginning and the end is always hectic but in between we get to converse with the people as well. We hear so many stories. It’s incredible and overwhelming,” says Basnet.

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    For instance, currently Basnet and her volunteers are concerned about the 86 year old elderly woman who had been coming over for years but for some unknown reason has stopped of late. They had found out that even though that she didn’t have a permanent address, she was looking after a differently-abled son. Basnet describes how the lady used to heavily lean on her walking stick but would come every week for the fresh vegetables.

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    In their years, all those involved with the Peace Kitchen have apparently learnt not to stereotype the personalities who come to have the free lunch with them. Though a large portion is made up of those groups presently neglected by the state like the homeless, elderly, differently-abled and earthquake victims there are also those from rather surprising backgrounds.

    Basnet has helped console a MA graduate from India who couldn’t find the kind of job he wanted. She and her volunteers have served several reasonably well to do abandoned pensioners alongside those who weren’t exactly in the right state of mind. Basnet talks about a man who prefers to eat from the trash rather than the leaf plates they serve in. He is apparently often covered in dust but makes a trip from Bagdol on Thursdays.

    One of the volunteers, Bishnu Gharti, 24, has been assisting the Peace Kitchen for five years now. She too has had her fair share of memorable encounters. She recalls a mild mannered, well dressed middle aged gentleman who used to come over every single week, eat and then take packages of food back home as well. Later, she discovered that he was nursing three paralyzed children at home. Such incidents emphasize the importance of this initiative for her.

    “It seems there are always people in our city who, despite their best efforts, can’t manage a regular hot meal for themselves and their families. Hearing their stories sometimes I wish we could give out free meals every single day. But each of our program costs us about Rs 10,000 and we do rely on donations from the community. Nevertheless, each week is such a fulfilling experience. I have even had to walk all the way from my home in Dhapasi to Jawalakhel several times to partake in this but every time it proves to be worth it,” shares Gharti.

    This sense of community supporting its community is what Nagarik Awaz seems to be successfully promoting with their Peace Kitchen. Kamala Bhurtel, another volunteer, can’t stress enough about its benefits. She too is a poor, single mother of three. At present, she is struggling to find a proper job for herself but despite all the challenges in her own life, she has kept aside her Thursdays for the kitchen.

    “I have learnt that people in despair or trouble of any sort themselves can find solace in these acts of kindness. Looking around I feel like I’m not alone. Then on top of that, to be in a position to help them is a privilege. I think all of us who come by and regularly make an effort to help all enjoy this immense inner peace,” says Gharti.

    It’s for this feeling of contention that many people have slowly begun celebrating their birthdays and other significant occasions with the Peace Kitchen. It’s this sense of right doing that has compelled the local authorities and the nearby residents to cooperate. Apparently pedestrians have been known to spontaneously join in and help every now and then as well. If ever an argument or two arises among those waiting in the food line, other guests themselves hasten over to help resolve the matter. This is the sort of exemplary unity Nagarik Aawaz plans to promote with their Peace Kitchen.