Last night we had fish and rice for dinner. I guess I had the electric burner on a little high, because the rice got a bit scorched and stuck to the bottom of the pot. The rest of it was fine, so we just scooped off the top and, after I put away the rest of the edible leftovers, I unceremoniously dumped the burnt bits into the trash.
Then I had a sudden flashback to another meal of fish and rice, a couple years ago and thousands of miles away from here.
In Mozambique we helped a vibrant jail ministry in our town, lots of prisoners turned to God to transform their lives and many came out as completely new men. A visitor from the States had been particularly touched by this ministry, and he helped fund it even after he returned home. One time he decided to send us enough money to make a meal of fish and rice for the entire prison of about 250 inmates, just to bless them. For hours the ministry team stood around two fires, one with a gigantic pot of rice and the other with a comparatively tiny skillet, frying up the mackerel in small batches of a 8-10 at a time. It took forever.
Before you can fully appreciate what this meal meant to the prisoners, let me tell you what their normal fare was. The staple food of much of Africa is a thick cornmeal mush, called xima, pap, massa, ugali, or sudza in various languages around the area where we were living. It didn’t have much nutritional value, but it was cheap and filled the belly. At the prison they would add too much water, making it soupier and thus less filling, and throw a couple beans on top. Tiny portions. Once per day. If that were not bad enough, the guards were known to lace the cornmeal with tons of baking soda, which gave the prisoners diarrhea and made them feel weak all the time. That way, even if given an opportunity to escape, they probably wouldn’t have the energy to do so. Always hungry. Always sick.
Finally the fish were all fried and we hauled all the food into the prison courtyard. The inmates lined up in a very orderly fashion, like 250 well-trained Oliver Twists, each carrying the item they used for a “bowl”. Some had real plastic bowls or plastic containers, but many others had the cut off bottoms of jugs, some just a cup. They patiently waited in line, we served up the food in as large of portions as we could (and just trusted God to multiply it if we ran low before everyone was fed). Most thanked us with very appreciative smiles. They all quietly walked away and enjoyed their relative feast. It was all so organized and peaceful.
At the end, after the last prisoner walked away with his prized meal, we still had the bit of rice that was burned to the bottom (it’s really hard to cook THAT much rice in a pot THAT big over an open fire without some of it getting burnt). Someone mentioned that there was a little bit left over and that they were welcome to have it…
Unlike the Oliver Twists of a few minutes before, no one came up to quietly ask, “Please, can I have more?”
On no. Chaos ensued.
At least 20 of the closest men all trampled over each other, yelled, punched, pushed, shoved, swarmed the pot and fought over those last little bits of burnt, barely edible rice. They were just that hungry. They were just that desperate.
We have no idea how good we have it. We will probably never know what it’s like to be that desperate, to be willing to risk a black eye for the same thing I threw in the garbage last night.
“When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (Luke 12:47b).