The Dutchies

Latvians tend to use diminutives for close friends and family and so our friends from the Netherlands are affectionately known as “Dutchies”. Every year for as long as I can remember, I have participated in a joint Latvian-Dutch humanitarian project distributing food parcels to people in need in the city of Madona in central Latvia. We usually do this just after New Year in the darkest period of winter, when the days are short, there is snow on the ground and temperatures are below freezing. An important aspect of this project is spending time with the people who have signed up to receive a food parcel, and are often living in poverty, loneliness, ill health or addiction. Some of the most emotionally charged experiences of my life have taken place during these weeks.

We begin by collecting the contents of the food bags from a local supermarket. It varies from year to year, but usually we put together 200-400 bags of essential staples.

We then split up into teams, collect a list of names and addresses to be visited, load up our vehicles and set off. Each year the project is advertised in the local newspaper a few weeks in advance, so people have time to sign up to receive a visit and food bag. This means that they are usually anticipating our visit and looking forward to sitting down together for a chat, often generously offering tea, coffee and snacks. As we have been doing this project for nearly two decades, and many people sign up every year, we have the privilege of getting to know them over time, as they share the ups and downs of the previous twelve months.

We also visit people in the countryside, often in places that Waze or Google Maps do not know about. Occasionally, we find ourselves in the middle of a field with the navigation app announcing, “You have arrived at your destination,” but with no sign of human habitation in sight.

It sometimes feels like we have gone back in time to a bygone age, especially when we come to a house with no electricity, running water, or indoor bathroom. Heating is provided by wood burning stoves and most people cook on ranges stoked with firewood they have prepared the previous summer. Gas is only available in canisters, making it challenging for those who don’t have a car to go to the nearest shop or petrol station to exchange an empty canister for a full one.

There is a strong tradition of vegetable gardening and foraging for berries, mushrooms and plants for making herbal tea in Latvia. Most people have a cellar for storing vegetables and bunches of herbs hung up to dry.

We often get to meet pets as well as people. Cats are usually either indifferent or friendly …

… but occasionally we meet dogs … and never know which of them will want to play, and which of them will defend their territory, which can be very scary.

Although we set out to give to those in need, every single year we all feel that we ourselves have been enriched in each visit. Even as we encounter great human suffering and despair, we are also touched by the resilience, generosity, hope and humour of the people we meet. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to participate in these collaborative projects and, after the indulgent celebrations of Christmas and New Year, look forward to January and once again sitting down with those we visit and witnessing their stories.

Photography: Anna Roth
Text: Katie Roth
Latvian translation: Marta Štila

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