Archive for the 'Darfur' Category

Flames of Hope

Woman carrying firewood in North Darfur Fuel Efficient Cookstove, Darfur Prototype

What a nice surprise to see that the current issue of Newsweek magazine (July 16, 2007 issue) carries a very nice story on the Ashok Gadgil’s Berkeley National Laboratory Darfur Cookstove Project, entitled “Flames of Hope.”

Yoo-Mi and I had the privilege to work in Darfur, Sudan in November and December of 2005 as part of Ashok’s four-person team doing the initial field research which would enable us to design a fuel efficient cookstove for Darfurians living in the refugee camps. Ashok and LBNL scientist Christie Galitsky conducted the research in the camps of South Darfur; Yoo-Mi and I did the same in the North Darfur camps.

Continue reading ‘Flames of Hope’


Dung Flies

You gotta love Oxfam.

And when you gotta go, you gotta go.

And by slightly lopsided syllogism –- although no more warped than anything else in the nearly surreal world of North Darfur – when you gotta go, you gotta love Oxfam!

Continue reading ‘Dung Flies’

We Got an Excellent Rate at the Khartoum Hilton


How fucked up is Somalia?
They hold their peace talks in Sudan.

Sifting the Dirt of Africa

Darfur Wall

Linda Daly has written a beautiful piece in the Huffington Post on her recent trip to the refugee camps along the Chad border, where those who have fled the ongoing genocide in Darfur presently huddle. It is entitled, “The Dirt of Africa.” You should read it.

The essay drew strong praise for its lovely prose and its sensitivity; but it garnered equally strong condemnation for its punch line that “Africa needs healing and it is the world’s responsibility to take care of that.” Critics charge that Africa’s problems are of Africa’s making, and that the “international community” has no “responsibility” to clean up the mess. The criticism is both facile and unfair.

The primary responsibility of any government is to handle the welfare of its own people. Interventionists and isolationists in America have debated for two centuries the extent to which helping to resolve problems on foreign soil bear at all on the welfare of American citizens; and in truth, various situations are variously compelling to both camps. In this narrow reading of the role of government, neither America nor any other country bears a duty to help end the genocide in Sudan. But if we require more of our countries than simply to advance our material interests, Ms. Daley’s language of responsibility is not too strong.

Governments are no more that the administrative tools of their people. We Americans – “We, the people” – particularly enshrine this democratic concept. So if our governments are, in effect our proxies, the important question to ask is: do we as individuals – and non-Africans – have an obligation to act when an African government slaughters its own people? If we have a duty to act, then it is splitting of hairs to say that our government has no such duty. The American government, for one, has never been shy about acting on mere moral authority, presumably derived from the collective will of its people.

I believe that only the most selfish, self-centered among us would seriously argue that we personally, as individuals, do not have a moral obligation to resist the tragedy that has been unfolding in Darfur for the past two-plus years. The fact that I am not the cause of the crime does not entitle me a free pass to sit by and watch it happen.

This is why governments are such useful things. They allow us to act collectively in ways that it is impossible or impracticable for us to act as individuals. Perhaps you and I cannot stop the killing, rape, and other brutality in Darfur; but our government sure as hell could, if it chose to.

Wealth-chasing Americans tend to look out for themselves and their immediate families, and pretend that the rest of the world’s problems are not their concern. Most of us have contributed nothing to the actual building of the country’s greatness, and yet we wrap ourselves in the full regalia of American exceptionalism. And so we look inward, to our narrow, self-interested concerns, blind to the fact that our comforts in a land of material privilege and opportunity are largely accidents of birth and geography.

Imagine for a moment that you are not an American (or an Indian, or a member of whatever broadband-dependant culture you happen to call your own); instead imagine yourself a Zagauwa or Fur, living in the desolate semi-wilderness of Darfur, and watching your family and friends being slaughtered by a government that you didn’t elect and, frankly, has never really figured into your barely-iron-age way of life. Wouldn’t you hope that someone with the power to stop the killing would intervene? Wouldn’t you feel that the mere gift of power would obligate the intervention?

If you feel that you somehow earned the parents that conceived you into a life of privilege, then this exercise will have been fairly meaningless. You believe that you are entitled to the life you have, and it is silly to imagine yourself as someone you are not, and never could be. It also follows that you will feel perfectly justified in turning a blind eye to the plight of those who have somehow earned their fates.

If, on the other hand, you believe as I do that you could just have easily been born elsewhere – and, in fact, that the notion of selfhood, though important, is no more important than the concept of a shared humanity – then you will perhaps be able to make the mental leap and put yourself in the shoes of the people of Darfur. And you will understand that we have a responsibility to help whichever of us is in need, not because we are Americans, but because we are humans.

Shouldn’t we demand that our government act to fulfill our collective moral obligations in Darfur? That’s what governments are for. To use Ms. Daly’s language: it is their responsibility.

Images of Genocide



On the scorching, windless afternoon of 28 November, Yoo-Mi, our translator Abdullah, and I agreed to do one more interview before calling it quits for the day. We had already visited eight encampments in the eastern section of the Abu Shouk refugee camp, and spoken at length with women about the economics of the household, their cooking practices and techniques, and the impact of the shortage of firewood on their lives and the lives of their family. It had been a long, very hot day; and it was about time for us to be leaving the camp.

Yoo-Mi and Abdullah took the lead on the day’s final interview. I measured a few pots, surveyed the implements in the cooking area of the tiny, straw-fenced compound, then found a partially shaded spot and sat in the sand. As I listened to the discussion – throwing in a question here-and-there – I flipped idly though a school composition book I found laying in the sand next to me, which contained page after page of a child’s drawings. The drawings were done by a young boy named Osman, aged ten.

The torn page, shown above, fell out of the composition book. It contained four crayon-drawn images: a tree, two vehicles, and a flower.

Let’s take a closer look at the upper vehicle that Osman drew:



The truck depicted is known in the region as a “technical.” These are light four-wheel drive pick-up trucks with tripod-mounted machine guns. Think: Rat Patrol meets Toyota Tacoma. Think: vehicle of choice for Somali warlords, Mogadishu, circa 1993. These are fast, sure-footed killing machines, boasting .50 caliber firepower and Japanese reliability.

Osman’s image is stunning, with its angry red gun slaying the line-figure to the right of the drawing.

The green uniform of the assasin would suggest a Government of Sudan soldier. The Sudanese Police – who also drive technicals through the streets of El Fasher, particularly in the mornings and in the hour before the 8 pm curfew, in a show of machismo authority – wear the same, weird, blue camouflage uniforms that caused the Serbian Police to be nicknamed “the Barneys” (as in: look at the guys in the purple dinosaur suits!) by United Nations peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. The SLA, who have a number of technicals captured from government soldiers during the conflict, wear whatever clothes they have, usually topped with a turban of some sort.

Note Osaman’s depictions of the dead bodies marking the side of the truck, like so many boy-scout merit badges.

Is Osman’s work self-directed art therapy or journalism? In the process of researching subtleties of this question, I found this wonderful article from Slate Magazine by Dr. Annie Sparrow, a pediatrician, and Olivier Bercault, a lawyer, researchers for Human Rights Watch. Be sure to view the slideshow that accompanies the piece.

Return from Darfur

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ahmedabad’s Other Seva Cafe

What an incredible two weeks it was. Surrounded by inspiring, service-minded friends, old and new, in a city where we already feel quite at home. Taken into the beautiful home of the heroic Jayesh and Anar Patel, where we were treated as family. Privileged to be on hand to witness the birth of Seva Café. Fortunate to be handed small projects that allowed us to feel an ever deeper connection to the people of Ahmedabad.
Continue reading ‘Ahmedabad’s Other Seva Cafe’

Blasts from the Past

... because the idiocy of manliness is an evergreen topic.


... because Canada and the US will celebrate their Thanksgiving holidays and, regrettably and preventably, not 1-cook-in-10 will serve a decent turkey.


... because everyday is Mother's Day.


... because the American Dream seems but a distant memory, given the country's dominant ethos of small-mindedness.


... to remind us that not every mix of Tibetans and Western spiritual seekers has to be nauseating.


... to celebrate the new edition of Infinite Vision published in India.


... reprised because military strategy seems more cruel and less effective than ever -- and certainly there is a better way.


... because cars are ruining Pondicherry, where I live. How badly are they fucking up your Indian town?


... reprinted because more-and-more people seem want to understand the gift economy. (Yeah!)

Join the Banter!

At its most fun, memestream is a dialogue -- or, better, a cacophony -- rather than a library of overwrought essays reflecting a single point of view. For that, we need your two cents!

If you read anything on memestream that provokes an interesting thought, an emotion, a laugh, violent disagreement, passionate agreement, an anecdote, an uncontrollable non sequitur... be sure to leave a comment.

It will be no surprise to anyone who follows this blog that "all the best stuff" resides in the readers' comments. So don't stop reading when you hit the end of the essays. And add your voice to the discussion!

Enter your email address to follow memestream and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 56 other subscribers

Blog Stats

  • 377,879 hits