Hello folks. On the 22nd of February, I managed to join in on one of the soup kitchens they frequently have around Kuala Lumpur. The soup kitchen I volunteered for was the Street Feeders of KL, or SFOKL for short. According to their website, SFOKL is an NGO working towards breaking social stigmas over the homeless and underprivileged & to help fellow Malaysians get back on their feet. They started all the way back in 2011 with just a handful of friends. I have always wanted to participate in a soup kitchen but only received the opportunity to recently, when two of my old friends invited me for the gig. Suffice to say I was thrilled when they did!
That Wednesday night, I made my way to Central Market, an old market that has been part of the Kuala Lumpur heritage since 1888. This was where volunteers of SFOKL were to be gathered. The briefing for volunteers was scheduled to start at 8.45 pm and I arrived just a few minutes later where I met up with Iman, Nadiah, and two of her friends, who had already arrived.
I was surprised at how many people there were that night, as the square we were gathered at was buzzing with chatter. It made it hard to hear the briefing that was being given by an SFOKL representative. What made it worse was the faulty megaphone he was using. I only managed to catch every two words that was said while the rest amounted to uncomprehensible gibberish. After straining to make sense of whatever they were briefing I decided it was worthless anyway and resorted to just mingling at the back, planning to simply go with the flow of the crowd.
After a while, most of the crowd was collectively moving towards the North entrance of the square. At first I felt really excited assuming our street feeding was going to start soon, but we were all just ushered to take a major wefie (group selfie), which was crazy considering how massive the turnouts for volunteers were. The guys at SFOKL was expecting about 400 people but more than 500 showed up! Imagine trying to fit 500 people into the frame of the adorable GoPro (shoutout to those in the middle section who all had to painstakingly squat for visibility of the people at the back) !
So after the unspokenly compulsary wefie we were finally directed to segregate into groups, according to the routes we were going to take. See, for SFOKL, the had pre-assigned 5 routes you can choose from to maximize the type of experience you want to have during the feeding.
Team A: Masjid Negara, Dataran Merdeka (It is the more scenic route)
Team B: Bangkok Bank, Clock Tower, Masjid Jamek & India (The longest route with tons of calories to be burnt, expect to be back at base at 11 pm)
Team C: Central Market, Kota Raya, UTC & Menara Maybank. (Join this route if you want a solid journey and still make it backt o base at 11 pm)
Team D: Chinatown (See a very different side of the city)
Team Suicide Squad: Undergrounds (An elite team no more than 15 people who are above the ages of 18 who will travel to the darkest tunnels under the city)
(I got the above from SFOKL’s Facebook page)
For this street feeding, my friends opted for Team C, so I simply tagged along. Apparently, quite a number of people had decided to take this route as well because our group became so massive that some volunteers had no choice but to take a different route just to balance it out. After that was settled, each group was then given another briefing session by our respective Group Leaders, which was great since I doubt anyone heard a word from the earlier briefing anyway. It was during said briefing when I found out that SFOKL’s main focus wasn’t about just distributing food to the homeless, but fostering connections with the homeless community (or street friends, a more proper term used by them) in Kuala Lumpur. Sitting with the underprivileged and lending an ear simply to get to know them. It was stressed that this was just as important as making sure they did not go hungry. After all, the homeless are no different than any of us human beings– they are real people. With an increasing number of community members failing to acknowledge that, the way those living on the streets are treated is compromised. Understanding the true mission of this street feeding, you can feel the crowd already starting to think and feel differently for the homeless– for our street friends.
Soon, food was equally distributed to each of us to give to the homeless. There were packaged buns and paos, warm rice with sweet and sour chicken as a side dish, and mineral water bottles to be given out. After food distribution and painstakingly lining the volunteers up two-by-two (not unlike schoolchildren), we were finally moving along on our route. The group of volunteers were buzzing with excitement and the slight tinge of nervous energy as first-timers for this street feeding. One can tell from the excitable chatter going around, paired with the slight hesitation of doing something for the first time and not knowing if you’re doing it right.
The journey along the route was a priceless journey for someone who hasn’t gotten the chance to explore nighttime Kuala Lumpur on foot before. Nightlife in the city is truly a separate dimension from the hustle and bustle that goes on in broad daylight. The city lights called out to me, basking the people of the night in their spectrum of neon. The LRT zoomed overhead carrying stories with them to their destination. I weep at the amount of photographs I would have been able to take if using the phone during street feeding wasn’t restricted (but it was, and for obvious reasons too so I’m not complaining).
Along the way we did see a lot of people on the streets, but it was hard to tell if they were homeless or merely lingering about. A lot of us hesitated if we should give out food to these people or wait until we got to Dataran Maybank, our main destination. Most of the people we met on the streets merely stared at us with curious (or hungry) eyes, while some held out their hands, slurring words I could not understand. Some were in groups while some set up camp alone. This was the side of the homeless community that I had yet seen before that night. This is the side of Kuala Lumpur most people tend to turn a blind eye on. Finally, after
crossing yelling and screaming our way across multiple busy streets, we finally made it to Dataran Maybank.
There were a bunch of our street friends setting camp at the site already, ready to brace another night in the open. Initially I was surprised at the amount of the homeless that was actually in the area (and this was only one of the routes). I knew there were a lot but seeing the community in real life proved there is a lot more to my city than I realised. We started giving out the warm food to the outstretched hands. Some gladly accepted anything we gave, some wanted one instead of the other, some even refused the food, claiming they had already ate from an earlier soup kitchen. Aside from the food, several volunteers distributed donated clothes and self-care items such as bathroom supplies.The street friends were free to choose any clothing they wanted. After making sure most of them received their fair share of food, we sat down with the homeless for a nice chat.
Two of my friends and I striked up a conversation with a Muslim man in his late thirties. I am not going to specifically enclose his background on here for the sake of privacy but I’ll tell you a bit of what he talked about. He used to be a factory worker but has long stopped working because it felt too mundane for him. Due to the high living cost of the city, soon after he left his job he became homeless. Throughout the years since, he has taken on odd jobs to earn some cash but naturally it was hardly enough to get him off the streets. He claims odd jobs such as labouring are also becoming hard to come by as the competition between foreign workers is highly increasing.
He then talked about his life as a homeless. He said that there are enough NGOs that carry out charity work such as soup kitchens to prevent them from starving, as long as you know when and where to find them. Sometimes they get free health checkups, free haircuts and the like. They are welcome to shower in mosques and the nearby UTC (Urban Transformation Centre). He told us that the little money they received from donations or welfare organizations they mainly used to enjoy hte occassional teh tarik and roti canai, or to buy cheap tobacco. He seemed pretty accepting of his life on the streets. The man we conversed with was pious, constantly thankful for whatever he had (and he definitely proved it when he gave away his rice to another homeless asking for it without any hesitation, claiming he had eaten earlier). He said that despite living on the streets, he always takes time off to prostate to God. He says that no matter what happens, it was always important to submit to God, because He becomes the only being you hold on to when you have nothing else.
Talking to him made me think about the value of life — it made me become self-aware of my own value of life. Here this man was, living on the streets, but the sense of fullfillment he has goes way beyond my own. It goes to show how ungrateful I’ve really been, how I haven’t utilised the countless blessings God has bestowed upon me to the fullest, how blind I am to the wealth (monetary or not) I have been born into. This man, despite living hand to mouth, was fully content with what he had. Surely, as a human our wants are limitless, but he refuses to let that stop him from achieveing a state of contentment.
The value of life can be somewhat measured with different variables — wealth, health and love for example. In turn, these variables can be defined separately from one person to the next. For example one might define wealth through having a big house, while another might think wealth comes in the form of having a big loving family. Their definitions don’t come in black and white, but rather the grays in between. We all measure the value of life differently. Personally, I believe the value of life is reflected on happiness that stems from a sense of fulfillment in life, because that kind of thing is a state of mind, something completely attainable regardless of the situation one finds oneself surrounded in. It is independent of luck, fate, or things we can’t hope to control. If that was the case, then it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say this man, living on the streets, have achieved a value of life I have yet to discover for myself.
After about half an hour chatting, we were finally asked to wrap things up. We took one more group picture, along with all our street friends before making our way back to base (Central Market). The universe is big and there is always something to learn from everyone. In pursuit of understanding the world we live in, gaining experience through getting directly involved has proved one of the best ways to learn about life. In discovering the lives of others, you begin to discover yourself in the process as well. Get out, see the world. It might just teach you something if you’re willing to learn.