Entering the Fray

Tomorrow morning, we catch an early morning flight on a World Food Programme plane to North Darfur. We have been in Khartoum for three days, awaiting permission from the government to travel to Darfur on a humanitarian mission to help the people this same government has, through its proxy, the Janjaweed militia, been slaughtering and raping for the past two-plus years.

Late last spring, I decided I wanted to do something to help alleviate the suffering of the surviving victims of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. I Googled my fingers bloody trying to find a volunteer opportunity with an NGO or multilateral agency working in the region, but found nothing. How could this be, that there could be no need for volunteers to help address the first genocide of the twenty-first century? I posed this question in an email to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and, amazingly enough, received a reply the next morning. No one, they said, would ever consider taking volunteers into a conflict area. When push-comes-to-shove, they said, organizations working there needed to be able count on the responsiveness of their staff to their authority. They urged me to take a paying position. Apparently relief agencies believe that paying people makes them more responsible. We simply disagree on this point; but I was hardly in a position to debate the matter, or to convince someone to change policy and take on a volunteer.

So Yoo-Mi and I put the word out that we were looking for an opportunity to serve in Darfur within our network of friends. Within two weeks, our friend Dipti Vaghela (who featured in a recent post) was introducing us to Ashok Gadgil of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one of her mentors in the field of renewable energy. Ashok had been approached by USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance to address a specific problem affecting the women of the refugee camps in Darfur; and he was looking for two more volunteers to round out his project team.

We met for coffee in San Francisco, and Ashok outlined the situation. Approximately 1.2 million (now close to 1.8 million) internally displaced refugees had taken refuge in camps that were loosely protected by African Union troops. Meals consisted of porridge from sorghum meal distributed by the World Food Program, cooked on open, three-stone fires. That is to say, three stones are used to support the pot above the fire. This is a particularly inefficient way to cook, with only about seven percent of the chemical energy from the flame actually transferring to the pot. Unfortunately, the areas in which the camps are situated were largely arid before the mass resettlement; and the large concentration of population has put additional strain on the landscape, which has been denuded of trees. This means that to collect firewood for cooking, the refugees (“internally displaced peoples” or “IDPs” in relief-speak) have to travel anywhere from four to six hours, each way. This puts them well beyond the safety of the camps, and for long stretches of time

The basic strategy of the genocide in Darfur is to kill the men and rape the women. Women do the collecting of firewood, both because the camps are largely populated by women, and because the men are more willing to have the women risk rape (“gender based violence” or “GBV” in the ugly euphemism of relief-speak) than risk death themselves should the gathering party encounter the Janjaweed militia.

Ashok believed that we could introduce fuel efficient cookstoves to the refugee camps that might reduce the use by half, or more. Any reduction in fuel consumption should produce a reduction in the physical risk in corresponding proportion.

The project struck us as simple and beautiful, addressing an urgent need in an effective way. We signed on immediately. Our only problem was that we knew nothing about fuel efficient cookstoves.

So we set about to do our homework, reading everything we could find on the subject, testing efficient stove designs at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, making three trips to visit the experts at Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon, meeting with NGOs working on efficient cookstoves in Pune and Ahmedabad, and consulting with village women who cook over three-stone fires and improved cookstoves in remote rural villages in Maharashtra and Karnataka, and in the largest slum in Gujarat. In all, we did a five-month crash-course on efficient stoves. And now we are ready to study the situation in the camps of Darfur.

Our colleagues Ashok and Christie left this morning for Nyala in South Darfur. Tomorrow we leave for El Fasher in North Darfur. We have been well-briefed by the staff of Cooperative Housing Foundation, the NGO under whose general aid grant our project was underwritten and who is responsible for our logistical support. Their in-country staff and coordinating support officers in Washington have been excellent. So, while we do not really know what to expect, at least we know that we are in good hands.

More on our adventures if and when we next have an internet connection – probably when we are back in India.

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