Kenya: The meaning of food
02 November 2012

A young woman holds up a bag of beans that she has just received during a food distribution exercise by JRS at St. Theresa's Church Eastleigh in Nairobi. (Katie Allan/JRS)
When food is seen simply as something to fill the belly, it soon appears to be unsustainable. But the meaning of food lies not solely in the physical aspect, but also in its social, emotional and psychological impact.
Nairobi, 2 November 2012 - Food aid often draws complex reactions from the international community. Many believe it to be unsustainable and a drain on resources. My internship with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) taught me that while food aid is not sustainable, and is not designed to be so, the success of longer-term strategies requires food provision and/or the meeting of other basic needs as an essential, short-term component. Without the basic necessities, refugees would struggle to find the energy needed to restart their lives.

For three months, I worked on the development of a peace-building programme for the JRS Urban Emergency Programme (UEP) in Kayole in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. The long-term programme we developed focuses on conflict transformation and sustainable community cohesion.

However as I reflect on my time with JRS, I ponder another part of the JRS programme - food. Emergency food aid provided by the JRS UEP is purposefully short-term. Basic staples (beans, rice, and maize) are allocated to needy refugees and newly-arrived asylum seekers for a period of four months when they are relatively new in the city.

The programme is only extended in very rare and specific circumstances, and certainly does not last forever. I listened to numerous conversations between Paul, the JRS social worker in Kayole, and refugees or asylum seekers as he told them there would be no more food. The refugees got the message, as I did: the JRS food assistance programme is not long-term and not designed to be sustainable.

Sustainable development meets emergency needs. Many in the international community discard food aid and look instead to support projects which have sustainable outcomes and a long-term vision. Education is viewed as the door to future jobs and careers, and entrepreneurship training the bridge to new markets and business opportunities.

But food simply goes in, and then more is needed.

Despite being in agreement, I began to see an issue. Refugees do not flee their homes, go through war and trauma, lose contact with family members, and walk for miles, only to arrive in Nairobi and say: "Where is the nearest peace-building programme?" or "Where is the nearest micro-loan programme?"

They want food, medical care, clothes and shelter. They want immediate needs to be filled.

Food as a form of accompaniment.When food is seen simply as something to fill the belly, it soon appears to be unsustainable. But the meaning of food lies not solely in the physical aspect, but also in its social, emotional and psychological impact.

I will always remember one Congolese man telling Paul: "When you gave us food, oh my friend, you have no idea what you did for us." He was certainly grateful for the physical nourishment, but his words signaled that his gratitude ran much deeper.

Food says we are with you in your hour of need. Food says this is a safe place and that the givers can be trusted. Food says you can rest from your journey and take some time to consider what is next. Food takes away an immediate threat and provides a certain amount of breathing room that was not there before the assistance.

But even more importantly, food brings clients to an NGO's door. Once the refugees/asylum seekers have arrived, feeling safe, able to rest, and trusting the giver, it becomes much easier for them to embrace the truly long-term, sustainable activities offered. Entrepreneurship, peace-building and scholarship programmes become more realistic once basic needs have been met.

Without the provision of food, or any basic need, there is a danger that despite the potential of long-term programmes, few will be around to take advantage of them. They will be somewhere else looking for food, medical care, and shelter-the things they need to stay alive.

JRS, and the international community, are rightly concerned about building a sustainable future for refugee families in the long-term, whether in Nairobi, a place of resettlement, or back in their home countries.

But to build that sustainable future, someone must step in and provide a foundation, a place where the emergencies can end. This is what JRS has been doing with the provision of food to refugees in Nairobi, and I pray that this is what they can and will continue to do into the future.

By David Mauldin, JRS Nairobi, Kenya

David Mauldin is a Masters in Social Work (MSW) student from the Catholic University of America. He spent three months with JRS in Nairobi. JRS has been assisting urban refugees in Nairobi since 1991. The Urban Emergency Programme responds to the urgent unmet needs of newly-arrived asylum seekers and most vulnerable refugees through parishes of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, situated in lower income and slum areas. It helps refugees survive in a situation new to them through provision of food and non-food items, financial and medical assistance, pastoral and psychosocial support.

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