ON a Sunday morning, a cavalcade of cars veers down a lane in Hijrat Colony, stopping outside a cluster of makeshift huts. A retinue of young professionals and students clamber out of their vehicles, clutching sky-blue bags containing pastries from a local bakery. Some pop open their cars’ trunks and take out biryani-filled cauldrons.
This enthusiastic group of mostly 20-somethings, dressed mainly in emerald-green, is from the Robin Hood Army (RHA), and has come to Hijrat Colony to give away all the food they’ve collected during the week from private donors and restaurants. The Pakistani chapter of the Indian initiative was started by Sarah Afridi and Sarfaraz Abid, and began operating in the metropolis in February. It aims to redistribute excess food, generated in the city’s many high-end eateries, to those on the margins.
While several soup kitchens, run by organisations such as the Edhi Foundation, the Alamgir Welfare Trust and Chhipa Welfare Association, have been regularly serving Karachi’s urban poor for many years, what makes the RHA different is their programme’s emphasis on recycling food. “We want to avoid food wastage,” says Ahmed Zakaria as he walks me through their process of collecting food from across the city. “We’ll go to restaurants even if it’s 1am and then store it in our freezers,” he adds.
The Pakistani chapter has its origins in tragedy. The RHA’s Indian co-founder, Neel Ghose, told me via email that he had reached out to his former London School of Economics college-mate, Afridi, in the wake of the Peshawar school attack. “We were shaken and … [I] call[ed] to offer my condolences. When we started talking about the Robin Hood Army, we realised that both our countries are plagued by similar evils,” he adds.
Ghose, in turn, was inspired by the Portugal-based Refood. He found out about the organisation — and observed its processes — when he was working in Lisbon. Since the RHA was started more than a year ago in New Delhi by Ghose and Anand Sinha, it has grown tremendously: there are 750 volunteers active across 18 cities in India. In Pakistan, meanwhile, 70 volunteers regularly participate in food distribution drives in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.
Most volunteers as well as the founders point out that the key is tweaking the programme based on the needs of the community and building bonds with its members. The trickiest part, though, is the food distribution itself — this soon becomes obvious. As the afternoon wears on, children from the basti form a long queue, eagerly waiting for packets of juice and snacks. The volunteers inform me that this is a way to distract the children while they give out food to the adults.
Meanwhile, a few members of the team head into the basti. Everyone has bags filled with packets of biryani, saalan [curry] and roti. As I follow them in, a resident of the slum eyes me: “I’m a widow and I have eight children,” she says. When a volunteer behind me gives her packages of food, she repeats that she has eight children, can’t she get more food?
A few huts down, the grandson of her neighbour, Baba Musth, seems to be causing a stir. The baby, in an improvised cloth bassinet, is being photographed enthusiastically by a volunteer. The grandmother, Maqboola Bibi, asks him if she should take the baby out; he gestures ‘no’. Musth is surrounded by three languid cats that are unperturbed by the activity around them. “These are my children,” he tells me, referring to the cats. I ask him who made his portrait that hangs on the small wall of his home. I’m told it was made by a “fakir” years ago — it’s one of the few possessions he brought with him from Punjab.
As volunteers continue to go from one hut to another, a man sits on his charpoy, located on the basti’s periphery, shouting that he hasn’t received anything yet. “Baji, give it here,” he says repeatedly. Finally, the volunteers reach him and give him several packets of biryani, but he doesn’t seem satisfied. “Where is the saalan, isn’t there any roti?” he asks. A family of six, in the meantime, has sat down for their lunch — they encapsulate the very picture of bliss. A small netbook flickers in the background showing a TV programme on a DVD that they watch while eating.
Within an hour, the distribution is coming to an end. The leftover biryani and other food are for the area’s children, who once again enthusiastically line up. A few women join them and the queue soon stretches all the way to where the vehicles are parked. There is a lot of shoving till a few volunteers intervene.
Three boys who have received plates of biryani, and seem to be keenly eating it, stand at a distance from the long line. How do they like it? I ask. The oldest of the three, Abdullah, who is wearing a white domed cap, smiles. He tells me he’s from the basti’s relatively affluent area — where the homes are pukka (permanent). He shrugs, as if to say that the food is ok. “I make biryani at home,” he says proudly.
Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2015