Helping the homeless is not just a sporadic event around Christmas: every Thursday evening a group of volunteers take them something eat. As well as the tireless Isabel, there are Camilla and Roberto, Genoese students on an Erasmus programme in Lisbon, who add this important lesson in humanity to their academic study. Then there are Sara and Carlos, immigrant Cubans with complicated residence permit problems and precarious work situations.
Then there’s Kim from Guinea Bissau (a Portuguese colony from the eleventh century until 1973) who studies Economics on a scholarship and dreams of working for the United Nations. Kim misses his mother: he hasn’t seen her for five years because he could only afford to pay for one trip, from Bissau to Lisbon. He also misses the food of his home, especially caldo de mancara (peanut soup) which he can’t make for himself “ because it’s too complicated and the women make it”. Those who wonder if Kim is an African name receive the smiling explanation that he is called Kim Gomes Caité: Kim in honour of the North Korean President Kim Il Sung, who during the Cold War helped the African country to take its first steps towards independence in a society undermined by hunger, inflation, illiteracy, corruption and clientelism; Gomes is the Portuguese surname of his mother who was born in Bissau, because the black population had to be registered with a Portuguese name by law and in the capital the Portuguese had stricter monitoring; and Caité is his African father’s name, who came from an inland village forgotten by bureaucracy. The Catholic missionaries played a supporting role in the cause for Guinean independence and Kim speaks with great respect and consideration of the ‘fathers’. Perhaps this is the reason for his commitment here …
The evening of January 1 the volunteers begin their rounds. They load the small van with containers of hot pasta and puddings. Near the church of Chagas, Armando and Jean Claude appear from the darkness in their shabby clothes and welcome them warmly: they have already kept a parking spot for the van and are waiting for them. These are moments in which the volunteers talk to try to establish a deeper contact. Perhaps because they ask no direct questions, the mendicos tell their story to those who have won their trust gradually.
Thus we discover that Jean-Claude, who is French, came to Lisbon to open a restaurant. He worked hard to put the money by and was then cheated by a partner and now has nothing. Armando is from a noble family that fell into decline years ago.
In the square of Sa Badeira, we find the Russian group who have crossed Europe from east to west in search of fortune, and now they have come to where the land ends. Because after Lisbon all there is is sea—perhaps the blindfold goddess has fled across the Atlantic. There is a Cape Verdean lad who came to Lisbon to play for the Benfica youth team—a great opportunity—but was ruined by drugs. There’s Manuel, who talks about his large family and the two children he has lost touch with. But he has broken his ties with everyone, and will never go back home in the north until his brothers decide to obey him, because he is the eldest.
The shabbiest of all is Juan, dragging himself with difficulty from his bed on the sidewalk, a shapeless mound of rags. An old plastic tablecloth serves as a blanket and shelter from the rain. He thanks them again for the Christmas lunch, speaking confusedly about when he was in the war in Angola. When he was first repatriated he escaped to France, away from Salazar’s dictatorship, and a cruel, senseless war. He crossed the Pyrenees on foot and in the land of equality found work in the caves where champignon mushrooms were grown. Moved, he tells of how he returned home when his mother died, and he was left without work or family.
The stories of the mendicos are all different yet all the same. You have no work, you lose your home because you can’t pay your bills, your family relations are compromised or non-existent. You start spending a few nights in the open, thinking it’s temporary until you get back on your feet. Then you start drinking, to warm up your body and soul, you look for work but can’t get out of the downward spiral.
Juan rummages under the rags and pulls out a little book with photos of his family, his life when he was normal. He wants to show them around. And on the kerbside the pasta in its plastic dish grows cold.
Paola Nano works at the Slow Food Press Office.
Adapted by Ailsa Wood
Photo by Roberto Frasca