Return from Darfur

Abu Shouk Camp

We are back back in Khartoum after three-and-a-half amazing weeks in Darfur. We had a sense that our project – to bring fuel efficient cookstoves to the internally displaced refugees of the Darfur genocide – would be of value before we came; but there was no way for us to fully understand just how acute the problem of firewood is for the people of the camps until we arrived – or to realize just how messed up existing approaches to the problem are.

From all we had been told and read prior to landing in Darfur, we understood that the arid landscape offered relatively little in the way of cooking fuel, and that the large-scale relocation of people from small, rural villages to teeming refugee camps had put tremendous stress on the limited resources. We understood that the women who made long, arduous journeys from the camps to collect wood ran a serious risk of rape, beating, mutilation, and banditry. In other words, we understood the issue of fuel efficiency to be one of personal security.

Collecting Oushar and Makhet at Golo

What we found was not only an issue of personal security, but of food security as well. In North Darfur, where we were based, collecting cooking fuel is simply not a realistic option for most of families. The personal security threats have only increased as the distances one must travel from the camps to find fuel has increased. The effort required, even if worthwhile, is simply beyond the capacity of many. Moreover, the collecting yields nothing in the way of proper wood. There are only shrubs – and the roots of shrubs – to be collected, some of them with sap that is toxic, blinding, and noxious when burned. There is little heat in this scrubby fuel. It takes a full headload – one that may have required six to ten hours to fetch – to cook a single meal.

Wall & Kidsl

Most of the people in the camps must buy wood, which is trucked in from hundreds of kilometers away by local entrepreneurs. It is extremely expensive, with a single meal’s worth of wood costing one-third to one-half of what a woman might earn by walking ten to fifteen kilometers into town, finding a day-job cleaning or doing laundry, and walking back to the camp. Almost all the families we spoke with sold portions of the World Food Programme grain rations in order to buy wood to cook with. On average, they miss three meals each week, even when they have ample food supplies, simply because they have no fuel to cook it. Many of those with small children find themselves tearing straw from their huts in order to feed them.


We worked extremely hard, usually until midnight (when our generator switched off) each night, and achieved far more than we could have imagined. We are sad to be leaving when, even in this first stage of our project, there is so much more we could do; but we know we will return soon and that, in the meanwhile, our project is moving ahead on many fronts – in Khartoum, in the Darfur towns of Nyala and El Fasher, within the NGO community working in the camps, in Berkeley, and in India.

We can’t wait to share stories with you guys. We had little spare time to think about posting blog entries while we were in Darfur, and no way to upload them to the web even if we had written them. The stories will trickle out over the next weeks, both here and on essere. They will likely be small portraits of this starkly beautiful, impossibly welcoming country, vignettes of our adventures, and photographs. We won’t bore you with the details of our project, since we are doing far to much writing on that score for the project itself. And there are two other things you will not read about in this blog: politics or criticism of the government of Sudan. The government is already under heavy pressure this week with the release of the Human Rights Watch Report to the United Nations on the Darfur genocide. I do not want to do or write anything that might jeopardize my chances of obtaining a visa to return to finish the work we have begun.

Besides, I never have opinions on matters of politics and human rights anyway.


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