MAGDA'S SOUP KITCHEN
"Here you go, baby," Magda scoops a serving of soup out of one of the giant trash cans we had hauled here in the back of her truck. She plops it into the little boy's bowl and gives his head a quick rub before digging her spoon back into the trash can. Sweat trickles down her cheek and she wipes it off with the back of her hand. "Aunty Magda" Meyer has a gentle word for each of her "babies" but she keeps the line moving quickly and, between serving, I see her eyes scanning the surrounding shacks and broken down buildings. Just yesterday, a social worker was caught in the crossfire of a gang squabble here and shot. But that isn't about to stop Magda from serving her soup ...
"Would you like something to drink?"
Magda offers me a glass of coke perched on a tray, almost formal in her gracious hospitality. I thank her and take a sip. It's warm and flat but, sweating from the heat of the stove, I'm grateful. Nearly Magda's entire house has been converted into this giant, one-room kitchen -- with two bath tubs serving as sinks, an open fire, and iron pots so big my arms couldn't fit around them for cooking the soup. It speaks to the scale of Magda's operation: she estimates that she feeds over 2000 people in Pedro Street and Beukes Street every week.
When I initially heard that number, I assumed there must be a number of staff helping but now that I am inside her kitchen I see that it is just Magda and two friends, chopping, stirring, cooking, and sweating over a couple steaming batches of stew. They are also the ones who scoop it into three giant trash cans, lift them into the back of the truck, drive into the squatter camps, and then dish the soup out in the broiling heat of Paarl's afternoon sun.
In the back, behind the kitchen ,is a store room of carefully stacked dry goods -- cans of beans and pasta -- as well as soap, diapers, tooth brushes, and a few odd clothing items. "It's for after the fires," says Magda. "I put together care packages for families who lose all they have."
With the water shortage, fires in the tightly packed squatter camps are becoming more common -- and more deadly. Magda's care packages can be a temporary lifeline for families who are devastated after losing the little they had.
But it gets even better. Magda's Soup Kitchen is so much more than a food distribution center. Instead, it's just the official name for a deep commitment to serve and invest these communities that encompasses Magda's entire life and whole heart.
That means Magda and her friends and volunteers also set up wash bins to provide babies with warm baths -- often the only one they will get all week. They visit the homes of the elderly or infirm to wash, care, and feed them when she can. She has also been known to organize outings for the children in these underprivileged communities, to places like Butterfly World or Table Mountain, but also to local prisons to show young people the consequences of crime. Every year, Magda and her family throw Christmas parties for over 4,000 people, providing them with a fun and safe opportunity to celebrate the holiday. For many of the kids, it is the only presents they will receive that year.
"We're never bored," says Magda. "Because there is always something you can do for somebody."
When you're doing something for people who don't have anything, it's doing something inside you -- in your own heart.
-- MAGDA MEYER
Magda's passion for serving Paarl's underprivileged communities stems from her own background. She will tell you that she experienced hunger herself, and struggled to provide food for her own family. Now, she feeds a whole community.
I couldn't help smile as I walked around Magda's kitchen, looking at the pots and pans, the carefully organized stocks of dry goods. She could have moved. She could have chosen a different life for her family. But instead, she stayed. She turned her home into a kitchen. She leaned in.
"Let's pray before we go," says Magda. We gather around one of the tables in the kitchen, with its carefully laid out doilies, and bow our heads. Magda's prayer is not dramatic but its delivered with authority and conviction. Lord keep us safe. We pray against any spirit of darkness or evil. We thank you for your protection. Amen.
Just yesterday, one of the social workers who Magda has worked with in the past was shot, caught in the crossfires of two of the many gangs who wreak havoc on the already stricken squatter camps. We have a police escort, but Magda still seems a little on edge. Yet I don't think she has even considered not going today.
We hop in our trucks and head to the squatter camp, park, and set up a couple tables to serve from.
At first the dusty streets are quiet; a couple of tarps strung across a flimsy structure flap in the wind. Then seemingly out of nowhere people begin appearing. A little boy only in underpants approaches the table with his empty bowl. Magda greets him by name. Suddenly, there's a line behind him. Some of the women hold babies. One of the elderly women is dressed beautifully in an outfit made from colorful local fabric. A group of men stand to one side.
One teenage boy comes to the table without his shirt on. Its slung over his head and secured with a backwards baseball cap. Magda is having none of it. She scolds him in Afrikaans and he puts the shirt on properly before Magda serves him his soup. I can't help but smile. It seems Magda is the stand-in grandmother for the community, as well as it's guardian angel.
As Magda continues scooping out soup, greeting her friends, and scattering hugs, head pats, and shoulder rubs, I can't help but think of all the people who would find something to criticize with this scene. Are there more effective ways to promote self-sustainability? Probably. But a lot of those people are far away -- they aren't on the ground, sweating, giving hugs, and serving soup. But Magda is here.
At the end of the day, I believe Magda has it right. If you are focused on doing what you can with what you have, to meet the needs of those around you, you can rest assured that you will never be bored.
Magda's Soup Kitchen relies mostly on the donations of her friends and neighbors, who give food and supplies whenever they can. Watch for yourself what that looks like, here. She also operates under the umbrella of a South African nonprofit called Valcare, an impact funding platform focused on sustainability and local partnerships. If you feel moved to partner with Magda in the work she's doing to uplift underprivileged communities in Paarl, you can donate to Valcare and specify that the donation should go to Magda's Soup Kitchen. Click here to donate.