When Pedro Nchama said farewell to his job in the Spanish army he had 20,000 euros saved in the bank. A fortune in Nchama’s eyes. He decided to use the money to set up a food bank. Without any funding and initially aimed solely at immigrants. Nowadays Spanish people come to get food from him too.
He’s in the back of a former Internet Café in Alorcón, a suburb of Madrid. The area dates from the fifties and look dreary with hardly any trees. Cars are parked partly on the pavement and laundry is dripping from the balconies. The cubicles in the internet café are hidden behind cardboard boxes filled with beans and rice.
In the back of the narrow shop, Nchama is sitting by an electric heater under a portrait of the Spanish Queen, Sofia. Blue jacket, white shirt, red tie. Covering all this is a white dustcoat. He has a bald head and the thin moustache that’s not uncommon in army circles. He grins. They come to get food from him every day. Here they get more than anywhere else. “Elsewhere they just get one kilo of rice and one pack of beans each. But I give them two crates full of food. Rice, pasta, meat, fruit and vegetables.”
These are the leftovers from the distribution centres, the central town markets and surplus European Union goods. Fruit from Africa and a lot of cheese from Holland. “I give away as much as I can. Five thousand kilos a week.”
He was born in Guinee-Bissau: a Spanish province at the time. At the age of eighteen, Nchama was one of the first black men to join the army and he was there to stay. He ended up in the navy and made it to lieutenant. A few years ago he was discharged. He has retired and his children have left home. Finally Nchama is free to do as he pleases. “That is how the community centre started. Almost six hundred people come to the centre every month to get food. We also hand out army clothing and mattresses if we have any.”
Nchama receives no support from the local authorities for the simple reason that they reject his every application for subsidy. The members of the board of his foundation – of which Nchama is president and his wife vice-president - supply the money to keep things going. One pays twenty euros a month, another thirty. Nchama himself contributes 500 euros from his pension each month. It’s for the rent and power for the centre and for petrol for the van they use to collect the food.
Below the poverty line
Blistering paint, moisture stains on the walls. In a room adjacent to the corridor is the storage. On the shelves are loaves of bread, baby food and cocoa powder. Crates filled with fruit and vegetables are under the counter. They’re here every morning: Nchama and three other volunteers. Why does he do it? The retired lieutenant shrugs. Call it humanity if you like.
“Turn on the TV and you see the need. In Haiti, in Africa. But I see many people unable to cope here as well, in Spain. They can’t manage with the money they’ve got and they can’t manage as a person either. Some people just come here to tell you how difficult their lives are. I hear stories about children having to do without milk. Most people lost their jobs ages ago. But they have to find ways to look after their families.”
One in five Spaniards has ended up below the poverty line in recent years, due to the recession. The situation in Spain has become severe. Nchama has never seen it this bad before. Some people have lost their houses because they could no longer afford to pay the mortgage and are now forced to live in cars parked in the narrow streets of Alorcón. “My clients include forty Spanish families. White people. They see no way out. Some of them have to provide for three generations.” He also sees the shame of the people who come to him and have to admit that they’re stuck. “The shame soon disappears though. The need is too serious for that.”
Paint the walls
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night wondering why I’m doing this. At such moments I consider stopping and closing the doors. Shouldn’t I have gone to Africa to help my people over there? Because after all, times can change and then things will be better again in Spain. Whereas in Africa that is not the case. Nothing ever changes there. The governments in Africa are the worst you can imagine. Rulers who enrich themselves and citizens who are starving.”
Nchama looks around at the cardboard boxes and the bales of clothes he got from the Corte Inglés department store. “But here as well, in thriving Spain, there are people who really need help. The humiliation no longer matters to them. They seek help from a relief organisation led by a black man.” He grins again. “On the other hand I’m Spanish enough to hope that things will get better some day. And who knows if one day I will be granted a subsidy. Then I could finally paint the walls of this place. ”
Rop Zoutberg has been living and working in Madrid, as a journalist and photographer since 1996. Before moving to Spain he worked as a photo editor and media reporter for the daily newspaper Trouw in Amsterdam.
"The extremes of the news can often be found in Spain. The highest unemployment figures, Europe's largest slum, the loudest country. Media feed on such news items and as a correspondent I go along with them. Stories that confirm the prejudices the public has about a country are usually successful.
But I'm fascinated by people who do things simply because they think it's what they have to do. A Dutch woman cares for old and cast-off donkeys in the North of Spain. The donkeys are housed in three stables and spend their retirement years grazing in a valley. Her neighbours don't understand her. I also know a couple in Melilla, who shelter Moroccan orphans. They wash their clothes and make sure they go to school.
These people are unselfish. They don't earn a cent doing what they do, and it creates extra problems for them. But that doesn't bother them and they put all their energy into the donkeys, the street kids or the hopeless unemployed who have lost everything.
My story about Pedro Nchama is a tribute to such people. I took my four-year-old son along when I did the interview, hoping he will understand that there's more to life than SpongeBob SquarePants."