Sofia is a Malaysian third-culture kid back in Kuala Lumpur on a month’s break and on a mission to learn about the city she’s from but knows so little about. She wanted to do something worthwhile which interests her, so she joined Zafigo as an intern; she started exploring the KL arts scene and became involved in volunteering as well. Before, she just thought KL was soulless, a place where people’s main interest were to eat and to ‘lepak’. She was proven so wrong. Through her assignments, she hopes to find her roots, understand her hometown and help others open up to a city full of soul. These are her adventures, written in a series.
Iheard about the Pertubuhan Tindakan Wanita Islam (Pertiwi) Soup Kitchen when I was volunteering at the Free Tree Society (FTS). Just from meeting for the first time, I made plans with another FTS volunteer, Hui, to go together and help out at the kitchen. Hui is a quiet and shy woman, and when we eventually talked and got to know each other, I was surprised when she seemed keen on coming with me to the soup kitchen.
The Pertiwi Soup Kitchen is an organisation that was founded in 1967 by ten members, that first aimed to help the advancement of women and children. Since then, it has grown and now addresses other issues, such as education, feeding the homeless, gender inequality and fostering children.
Despite Pertiwi being an Islamic-based organisation, they do not discriminate who they offer help to.
Pertiwi has several on-going projects that occur weekly and monthly. They are funded by fundraisers, corporate and individual donors. The Soup Kitchen that I was volunteering for the night with, is a van loaded with food that stops at several areas in Kuala Lumpur and distributes food to the homeless and those who do not have enough daily. There is also a medical car that joins the convoy with volunteer medics that treat the poor.
Hui, her friend Angie and I skipped the first stop at the Pertiwi headquarters, which is in Bangsar, along Jalan Maarof. At the HQ, volunteers help load the food van and the medical car, and would decide whether to car pool with other volunteers.
>> Learn more on what Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur has to offer
I couldn’t help but feel slightly scared. This was the first time I was around the homeless at such a late and dark part of the night
We went straight to the second stop on the soup kitchen’s schedule, which was behind Tune Hotel in Chow Kit. We parked and walked through a dark alleyway that had sketchy looking people staring at us, to get to the meeting/distribution point at the streetside curb.
There were a number of people already waiting on the curb for the van when we got there, both volunteers and the homeless/poor, either standing in groups, alone or with their child. The distribution point was in front of a row of shop lots, on a busy road that had a LRT line over it. I couldn’t help but feel slightly scared. This was the first time I was around the homeless at such a late and dark part of the night.
Even more so, there was such a large amount of the homeless, and to see them gathered in one place was a reality slap. I never realised that there were that many in the city. Seeing them I had the image of a bar graph in my mind with numbers describing the Malaysian population. I thought the bar on the Malaysian population with iPhones, saloon cars, condominiums with unused swimming pools and more would overpower the bar of those in poverty and in need. I looked up at the Petronas twin towers that glowed in the distance from the roadside curb, and realised I may have been wrong.
The van was scheduled to arrive at 9:00 PM. While waiting, I loitered and I looked around. There were people laying down on cardboards in front of the shop lots, with skinny limbs and ragged clothes. I could tell they were in need. But sometimes with others I couldn’t tell which side of the van a person would be on. The serving or the receiving end.
But then I figured out how to differentiate the groups. Those waiting to eat were simultaneously ignoring each other’s presence and tensely being aware of their surroundings. I realised it may be an act of self-defense to survive on the street. Not acknowledging anyone to avoid questions or stirring up trouble, yet needing to be aware for safety.
I thought the bar on the Malaysian population with iPhones, saloon cars, condominiums with unused swimming pools and more would overpower the bar of those in poverty and in need. I looked up at the Petronas twin towers that glowed in the distance from the roadside curb, and realised I may have been wrong
A man with missing teeth limped past me, with a walking stick. Cautiously I moved away, heart beating slightly faster and patting my hand over the pocket with my phone inside. I saw a mother dressed in a tudung and bags under her eyes standing with her child, waiting for food. The little girl had a pony tail on top of her head resembling a palm tree, that bobbed up and down whenever she took a lick from her ice cream cone. When the mother wasn’t looking, I saw the man with the limp go up to the child, and bend down with his mouth shaped a predacious O.
“No”, I thought, panicky.
The little girl looked up and giggled. She held out her hand with the ice cream and fed the man. The mum saw and laughed too. The man took a bite and then started talking to the woman. They were familiar friends.
When the van pulled up and parked in a wide alleyway between the shop lots, people started making their way towards it. They either began to queue up behind the van or stood waiting for instructions, which came from a woman wearing a Pertiwi shirt with a commanding voice. I was in so much awe of how well she managed to organise the crowd.
After a few “is this your first time volunteering too?” to the people around me, I looked around to see how the volunteers were dressed. I wore a pair of shorts that just came above my knees, a free volleyball T-shirt I got and a pair of flip flops. I choose my outfit to make sure I didn’t stand out to avoid any unnecessary trouble and I didn’t carry my personal belongings with me, but generally people wore T-shirts and jeans, and some dressed up quite nicely.
The Vice President of Pertiwi Soup Kitchen, Puan Hajah Munirah Abdul Hamid (affectionately known as Auntie Muni by most) called out for groups of specific volunteers. The groups included a group of college students, and a corporate group of men and women dressed in business attire, helping out as part of a team building event.
There was a variety of jobs. You could help out at a food station, distributing packets of food. There were drink stations too, where you could help fill up the homeless and the poor’s bottles with air sirap (syrup water) or give out cups of kopi (coffee) or sirap. Or you could be a runner.
Basically how the distributing system works is that the homeless or poor would line up in order: children and mothers, women, elderly men and men. A Pertiwi representative would stand in front of the line and direct the people queuing up for food. Each person is given a paper bag, they choose the drink they want and then go past each food station to be given a packet of food. The runners are basically helpers who help those who can’t manage to carry their food bag(s) on their own, such as mothers with babies/children.
There were some people in the line that, if I saw them elsewhere, I would not have expected them to need aid. But I guess that even when people seem fine on the outside, we would never really know the difficulties they’re facing.
My first job was being a runner. I held a bag for a child and collected packets of rice, gravy, biscuits and a slice of apple. Then I would queue back up to help the next person. In the line I talked to a girl next to me with a shirt saying “OVERTHINKING SUCKS”. She told me she and a group of friends, who were wearing the same shirt as her, have been helping out at the kitchen every week since the year started.
I was later moved to the drinks station, where I served drinks with another girl. She was dressed so beautifully in a gleaming cream baju kurung that I couldn’t help admiring her. But what made her even more special was her bubbly energy. “Air sirap! Air sirap sejuk!” (Syrup water! Cold Syrup water!), she kept calling out. She reminded me of the market sellers in Petaling Street trying to get me to buy something, but instead, she was here giving free drinks to the homeless and those in need.
>> Discover 5 Things to do in Chinatown (Petaling Street), Kuala Lumpur.
We were trying to compete with the guys opposite us giving out coffee. “We must win!” She told me with a grin and much determination. “Alaa” she moaned jokingly when someone chose coffee instead. I never expected to laugh so much at a soup kitchen. She showed me we can have fun, even when we are helping others out.
The men queuing up for coffee chuckled at her too, and even apologised and explained why they chose coffee. I couldn’t help to think that, despite living on the streets, they still had a sense of humour.
We carried on giving out drinks and I started to take notice of the people we were serving. The people I would normally avoid on the street, who I thought were filled up with anger and would want to snatch my belongings, were so… polite. So much so that I couldn’t handle the idea of such nice people suffering on the streets.
I mentioned my surprise to the guy next to me, and he told me that Pertiwi created this respectful atmosphere – Pertiwi set firm rules and maintained order, and as long as it was followed, everyone would be fine. The poor were treated like the rest of us, as ordinary people, as human beings, and the volunteers could be themselves. So it was okay for volunteers to dress anyway they wanted. It didn’t matter. What mattered was they were helping out, and they weren’t in any danger.
For the first time ever, I felt safe in a dark Malaysian alleyway at night.
The ones queuing for food that surprised me included one who looked like a university student with his earphones in and a man wearing a security guard uniform. It was sad to see that people who had jobs still needed aid. “Apparently security guards only make RM500 a month” the girl next to me whispered. There were some people in the line that, if I saw them elsewhere, I would not have expected them to need aid. But I guess that even when people seem fine on the outside, we would never really know the difficulties they’re facing.
Eventually the queue ended and the night wrapped up. Apart from one man not receiving gravy with his rice and a fancily-dressed, seemingly well-off woman trying to get a free meal (“Kakak, even I don’t dress that nicely”, said one Pertiwi helper to her), there were no issues.
Because it was getting late, Hui, Angie and I decided not to follow the van to the next stop. We called it a day. I got a lift home from Hui.
“You know, I’m surprised Hui gets along with you so well. You guys couldn’t be any more different. She’s an introvert, twice your age, and she seldom gets along with my friends“. Angie said to me on the drive back. I was touched.
They dropped me off at my house, and waited until I was safely inside.
Later, dressed in pyjamas, I laid in bed feeling ridiculously happy. Happy to know that there were such kind people out there, and that most people were not what they seemed. You just had to give them a chance.
Pertiwi Soup Kitchen is a community outreach effort that aims to distribute food to those who do not get enough daily, around Kuala Lumpur. If you’re a woman traveller and interested in volunteering while you’re in Kuala Lumpur, more details can be found here – Details if you would like to volunteer
Puan Munirah talks about the Pertiwi Soup Kitchen and the challenges the homeless in Kuala Lumpur face below:
Hui and Angie run an online store that sells products for women and pets. To check it out, visit: Live Like Panda
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