Inspired by the need to alleviate the gnawing poverty and hunger in the streets of Lagos, a charity home, The Candlelight Foundation, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), has set up a soup kitchen catering to the needy, homeless and the working poor within the Surulere area as a measure to mitigate the menace of hunger-related crimes in Lagos.
“We exist as an answer to the call of many Nigerians in poverty and hunger as even many who have jobs are still unable to eat,” says Uzoamaka Okeke, the executive director of the foundation.
The typical service day, by 11am, at No. 39, Oyekan Road, off Ogunlana Drive address; what you find are different set of people throng clamouring: “We are hungry! When will the food be ready?”
They murmur until the gate is thrown open for time to have their free meals.
A hall inside the fenced bungalow, filled with plastic chairs and tables arranged like a restaurant is the place where the hungry citizens have their stomach filled with a free meal, dished out on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Beneficiaries who trek from far places usually arrive at the foundation in weary, but leave with brighter countenances.
The crowd of jobless men and women who storm The Candlelight Foundation for free meals every Monday, Wednesday and Friday depict the despairing situation that pervades the city of Lagos.
“Hunger does not care whether you are jobless,” says Okeke, “once hunger hit you, you must find something to eat. Some of the working poor and disadvantaged individuals don’t know where their next meal will come from; this sometimes leads them to do some extreme things to survive.”
A society where hunger is rampant is usually prone to strife, she stresses.
Emphasizing the importance of regular meals, she notes:
“If you do not eat, you can hardly do anything, you cannot be productive because you are not able to focus on anything and you can hardly think straight.”
Okeke underscores the futility of striving to fulfil other needs on an empty stomach.
“That is why The Candlelight Foundation is planning a Walk Against Hunger in May,” she says.
With fact and figure, Okeke sketches a picture of a typical day at the charity home.
“We feed about 160 people or more each service day (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) within 30 minutes of our opening the door. Once it’s 11 am, don’t even allow us to open the gate fully, they push their way in.”
The benefactors are required to write their names and thereafter take their seats.
The starting menu was Jollof rice and fish. Over time, beans and garri were introduced into the menu and they are exploring options of swallow.
“Benefactors are not permitted to take the food away, they must eat it on the premises,” she states, “and, many people have told us how it has helped them so much.”
One of The Candlelight’s many plans is to operate a full-fledged homeless shelter, “where people who don’t have a house can come in and sleep, get up in the morning and go about their day, and come back in the night to sleep.”
Such arrangement excludes permanent residency, but includes free feeding, according to Okeke. Included in the plan, she says, is a vocational centre where “we will also provide adult education and rehabilitation centre.”
While the foundation solicits supports, both cash and kind, from donors, the founder presently sponsors it.
“Nigerians have a misconception that opening an NGO is an opportunity for money laundering. We hope that people will be able to look a bit deeper into our activity and understand our purpose. We have no political motives, neither are we set up for money laundering. We have no ulterior motive other than the desire to help these people, to change their mindset, to give them an opportunity to know that somebody still cares and that somebody is still interested in their future,” she articulates.
She unravelled other plans in the offing.
“We want to open a literacy centre and we are already in the process with the Ministry of education to get it permitted to run the Literacy Centre. That way, people can get to learn basic math, basic English, basic reading skills and something called civic education. That part is actually the most important for us because it’s the education of being patriotic or being a productive member of a society.”
Bus driver Frank Onochie is one of the regular beneficiaries since he became aware of the foundation two months ago. He says,
“My neighbours and my children told me about it. At first, I didn’t believe them about this free food.
“I didn’t believe until my daughter told me that the food is good. Giving them the benefit of doubt, I came, and seriously, I enjoyed the food. Since then, I have been coming here twice a week, especially when I am off duty. It is a relief to me because if I want to eat outside, I will spend close to N300. Now, I save the money and give it to my children to take to school.
“If we have this kind of thing in about four places, I think it will reduce hunger, poverty, and crime. When you are hungry and thinking of how to make money to eat, the situation is bleak if you have no job. But if you have a place to eat before nightfall, there is hope. This foundation has become our place of hope.”