I am not alone in this. Others before me have seen this contrast from broader lenses. At times Dutch people will ignore you politely; at others they will go out of their way to help you. You will get in trouble with the authorities for putting up a fence without permission but, in the late evenings, many family television channels broadcast pornography and advertisements for telephone sex into your living rooms.
A friend among the Tilburg city council soon reached out to a diary to make a dinner date. This is not Africa, where you can just drop by without being invited. A country and people can not be full of paradoxes. My country, South Sudan too has its own brand of curses. Just seventy-five senior government officials can share more than U.S $ 4 billion. This happens in a country without roads, no clean drinking water, no housing, no food, no health care, absent education, soaring illiteracy.
Justice has it that citizens are more worried about putting today’s food on the table than anything else. Following closely is the daily effort to stay alive, and thus finding food and staying alive change places freely, depending on which you are able to secure first. We easily ignore other contrasts.
I have seen hunger. Not the hunger Europeans have captured on camera or on television. Not the pictures that brought international attention to the drought and famine that was Ethiopia in the 1990s. Not the photography that invigorated responses to the 1988 Southern Sudan famine and hunger. As children we saw hunting rats more as a sport than search for meals. In Uganda’s refugee camps, delays in World Food Programme rations would trigger a mass bush-rat hunt. To be honest, it wasn’t bush-rats were would hunt. You must understand that we as a people who have suffered so many famine and wars, yet we have remained productive. This has helped evolve our continued dereliction with extravagance!
During times of plenty, Africans waste more food than Europe, only to suffer hunger the next week. Soon after WFP food delivery, mice would commandeer food aid, dig tunnels across homesteads and spread across the fields. The mice had understood hunger games much better than us humans. They would feed at two fronts; WFP food as well as the sweet potatoes lazily cultivated in the backyard. But our hunting expeditions would extend beyond rat tunnels. Soon enough local restaurants baptized in those days as “Hotels” would serve the mice that had migrated into the nearby bushes and evolved into bush-rats.
Such restaurants or hotels didn’t need waiters or waitresses. Yet mastering the menu and how to make an order was an art in itself. If you raised one arm, the manager would know what you wanted. All the accompaniments are constants. If you raised both arms; you would draw the attention of eaters. Both arms in the air refers to the two halves of the bush-rat or mice, which ever version suits your diction. This was social status. And there were those that had to wait for leftovers. Seeing birds devour a pizza in Den Haag, I was almost instantly depressed with defining leftovers.
I know the face of hunger. He was hungry. He attempted to hide it for a couple of days. I first noticed it on my arrival at the Ter Apel asylum center. Hunger is different from being unhealthy. Bad health as a result of food is less complicated—the food was available, and the person chose their version of sickness. It was a matter of choice. Europe!
He put the bravest face you could imagine. He wanted to be as normal as others. He avoided eye contact as much as possible. He seemed afraid that any gaze would go right through him. He made awkward sudden movements. For a man with so little energy, he made the more effort than, saving what little atoms. His curly thick hair had some visible grey. His full lips revealed exotic set of teeth. His broad shoulders were a reminder of the present shell. He bit his fingers, looked onto the floor, but still maintained a steady sense of direction. He was hungry. Meal time were his pain. He just wasn’t going to get enough. He knew it. He too, knew there was nothing he could do about it. He was afraid to ask for more. He had lost everything and was courageously guarding what little remained of his humanity. Dignity. Pride. Sanity.
Breakfast was two slices of bread with cheese as well as another two slices of bread with ham. A packet of 200 milliliter of milk with an orange. He raced through razing all in simple and polite bites. He wanted more. But he had to think of the others. He sat there and waited. As more people came through the door, his gaze shifted between the entrance and breakfast table. I knew what was happening. I understand him that instant. He grew ashamed and stormed out.
That was the meal that would last till dinner. Dinner was more voluminous. His yellow bag, distinct among many asylum seekers and refugees in Budel was bulgy. He smiled. Just as a child being forcefully weaned would at the sight of their mother’s full breasts—little knowing, it wasn’t their meal any more. In the bag was, a plate of rice with three small pieces of chicken and baby-peas. Approximately twelve slices of bread. Four small packets of butter, fruit jam as well as melted chocolate and mayonnaise. Tea bags, sugar and small packets of powder milk. Yoghurt for desert and a banana. Vegetable salad to compliment this food romance. This is a paradise of eating.
He was trembling the following morning! I almost missed it. Walking toward the dining area (in search of wifi), I saw him walk past and soon turn back. He had his yellow bag, of similar material as Nigerian Usofia. It was empty. On my part, I had come to the conclusion that last night’s bagful of food was a day’s meal. He had consumed all of it that very night and was left with few miserable looking slices of bread. He would go the next ten hours on tea.
“These people do not know that here is better than anywhere in Europe. Some of them want to make demands. They want to be given this and that. They want more of everything,” a senior officer at the asylum and refugee center would tell me. I still don’t know why. Perhaps it was because he participated in recording my details. And because he was impressed that I spoke so well. And that I was so aware of the migrant crisis.
To him, I wasn’t the same as the rest. He kept looking over his shoulder with every word that came out my mouth. The others too looked at us in disdain. It was unimaginable. We weren’t supposed to be equals. How can I engage in a conversation with a man wearing the Trigon jacket, with police badge, pistol and an array of other pain inflicting gadgets, let aside disagree with what he was saying! It was shocking to many. The stares came quick and painless.
“We have our own problems in this country,” he said through his teeth. “This is not fair. No one in Europe is doing what we are doing…why?”