It is 5:30 pm and many stores in the business commercial district have already closed. But the area is somehow buzzing.
It’s not the usual activity involving buyers and sellers or the movement of goods, but the gathering of vulnerable men, women, and children who struggle daily to afford a meal per day. They have gathered in Vai Town, the outskirts of the capital Monrovia in numbers just to eat.
“Life is hard but harder for many of us who live in abject poverty and hardly make enough to get an evening meal,” says Nelson Dolo, a 25-year old high school graduate who ekes out a living as a day-laborer. “The children you see here, most of them, if not all, parents cannot afford a double meal per day. So they join us here, to have something for the evening, at least that one help for the night.”
Dolo and the group in Via Town are being fed by Indian businessman Upjit Singh Sachdeva (Jeety), who sees hunger as an unfortunate situation and has literally ‘cooked up’ a plan to address the problem. The meal, which comes as a different dish each day, is provided with water and juice and feeds at least 400 people at a time. During the heat of COVID-19, the number was much higher.
As for Dolo and five of his friends, they spent many days, and nights without any food. By then, they had not been partaking of the meals provided by Mr. Jeety. But five months ago, when the Coronavirus struck, they had no option but to join others in Vai Town, who were struggling to survive -- and since discovering the place, they have not looked back.
"We met at construction sites where we were providing daily labor and became friends. Since then, we have become brothers, watching over each other,” he added. “This is not the life we dreamed of, but fate got us here. I struggled to survive, like many of my friends, and many days, we slept on water. The hardship we go through just for a single meal or double is not easy. It is hard. But we are going for this free meal. It is a game-changer for many of us.”
Hunger in Liberia
Food Security and hunger in Liberia is a severe problem, according to statistics from Global Hunger Index (GHI). The country ranks 112th out of 117 countries on the GHI 2019. The index consists of a range of scores, 0.0-50.0, where Liberia holds a score of 34.9. The score indicates the country’s hunger levels are ‘serious’ and on the brink of becoming ‘alarming.’
And approximately 45% of Liberia’s population is chronically or acutely malnourished. According to Famine Early Warning Systems Network, 32% of the country’s population is classified as having moderate or severe chronic food insecurity. In Liberia, hunger was a problem before the pandemic. Since COVID-19, the situation has gotten worse.
Before COVID-19, an estimated 1.6 million Liberians were food insecure, and nearly 1 in 3 children suffering from chronic malnutrition. Estimates from the World Food Program suggest that food insecurity has risen by over 80% since the start of the pandemic due to the compounding effects of COVID-19.
Also, a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization noted that 97.8 percent of Liberians cannot afford to regularly consume a healthy diet, making Liberia the worst of 170 countries examined. Chronic malnutrition among children in recent years has left one out of every three children permanently stunted.
A social safety net
And this is the case with Alvin Weah, who visits the Jeety store yard in Vai Town daily to eat after his laborious job, which comes with minimal pay.
"Sometimes, the hustle is good and bad. And with three children, it is one bowl (one meal) per day. But since I started eating here at the start of the pandemic, at least my kids no longer go to bed hungry. The food collected from here is what we eat for dinner and then sleep over it. It has been a help and a game-changer.”
Alvin earns money along with several other young men, offloading goods from containers in Vai Town. “In slum communities, many of us who are the direct beneficiaries, lots of people there can't afford two meals per day and, if they do afford one, there is nothing there for the evening,” he says.
But Sachdeva’s intervention, Alvin noted, alleviates short-term hunger, which is a good thing for parents in the area and a social safety net for poor and vulnerable children living in highly food-insecure areas.
For Peah, a 63-year-old father, the Schedeva feeding program is a medium of indirect help to many families. He says he also loves the food. “Since I started eating here, I longer worry about going to bed hungry.” The Sachdeva feeding program has been ongoing for more than three years and runs every day.