I wonder what would happen if the UN, our administration, or the Government of Sudan were told they could not eat until they arrived at a solution for peace in Darfur. How long would it take them to act? Essentially this is what the Darfuris are doing by default. Starving until a solution is reached, without the power to design and implement that solution.
Gretchen Steidle Wallace
Gretchen Steidle Wallace is the founder and President of Global Grassroots, an international organization working at the intersection of personal and societal transformation to catalyze the ideas of grassroots change agents working for women’s rights post-conflict. In 2005, she launched Global Grassroots’ work in the Darfur refugee camps of eastern Chad, and in 2006 expanded to Rwanda. Gretchen is a producer of the documentary film, The Devil Came on Horseback, and co-author of the memoir, The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur, about her brother, Marine Capt Brian Steidle’s experience as a military observer in Darfur. In 2007 she was honored by World Business Magazine and Shell as one of the top International 35 Women Under 35. She holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a BA in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. Gretchen is also an apprentice practitioner of the alternative healing modality, integrative breathwork, which she hopes to use to help heal trauma from war and sexual violence.
Gretchen believes that cultivating inner awareness and contributing to the common good are both necessary to advance the greatest level of positive social change. She remains committed to bringing greater individual consciousness and collective social action to end the crisis in Darfur.
I’m entering week three of my fast, second week on refugee rations. Well maybe it’s really that I’m starting a third week-long fast. I broke from my refugee rations this weekend to gather with family and friends. I had an overwhelming appetite for fruits, vegetables, tofu, hummus and all the things I usually eat and had not allowed myself for so long. I feel very mixed now. A bit of shame for not continuing on without a break, thoughts of gratitude for the availability of nutrition that has brought back my strength, and an acute awareness of the excess all around us. Going back to meal after meal of cracked wheat and split yellow peas, I think of things like how to arrange for a refugee distribution of curry powder, hot sauce, peanut butter and sesame oil. And, of course, vitamins.
When I first went to the camps, I naively expected to find long cafeteria lines like a soup kitchen. I did not know that refugees received a monthly ration of food that they had to cook over a wood fire. Then I learned about the horrific risk of rape that women face as they leave the camps to collect the firewood they need to cook each day. I could not understand why the UN did not more proactively address the issue of cooking fuel. In some places we were told that women were walking up to 8 miles each way before they would find a stubby tree to take branches from for their fire. Early in the conflict, Médecins Sans Frontières estimated that 82% of rapes occurred during such daily chores. Periodically I hear about UN deliveries of firewood, but I do not know if they are regular or even still ongoing. I witnessed one of these monthly distributions in a camp in Eastern Chad. The women told me their small pile of wood could last 5-6 days – two weeks if they were really resourceful. The pile was about the size I could go through in a few hours on a camping trip.
There is an amazing program called the Solar Cooker Project sponsored by Jewish World Watch, which teaches women how to cook their food using the heat of the sun, reflected off a three-part piece of cardboard covered with a silver coating. And there is a wonderful group started by a high-school student called Teens 4 Peace, which have been manufacturing a small device that helps women know if their water has gotten hot enough using the solar cooker to purify the water. And yet, the women also told us they prefer the smoky taste to their food that they get from a wood fire. I can almost understand, but I’ve only been eating these same rations each meal for about two weeks now – not five or six years.
Even more staggering, we were told that there was enough of a market for firewood that women were still going off into the desert to collect it even if they had a solar cooker. I wonder what they buy with that money. The women I spoke with in the camps always asked for milk for their children. But to risk rape or murder by Janjaweed to collect a few pieces of firewood to sell…the need for their children must be so very great. just cannot fathom this. What will they cook on when the rains come and there is no solar option?
I am so moved by Mia’s decision to end her fast and Richard Branson’s decision to step in. I really applaud Mia for deciding to do what is necessary to care for herself so that she can continue to lead this fight on behalf of the Darfur people. Too often I think people pursue social justice work to the ends of their limits and then, facing burnout, quit. Movements lose their energy, and individuals unintentionally become a disservice to their cause by not caring for themselves so as to ensure they remain strong. I am reminded of the words we hear every time we get on an airplane – if you are traveling with a child, please put on your oxygen mask first before helping someone in need. I’m glad that Mia has chosen to take a rest, affix her oxygen mask and renew herself. And I can only imagine that she does so with deep humility and deep concern for the million of displaced Darfuris who can no longer see a doctor, cannot end their hunger and cannot avoid the increasing probability that their children and families risk starvation.
I am so in awe of the power of consciousness within a collective body to move and inspire others. I am wondering whether we have or will have other spiritual or religious leaders, political leaders, business leaders and cultural leaders joining this fast. And I am comforted by the growing support of grassroots citizens and even whole communities that are bringing new awareness of Darfur to their neighbors. I am also continually shocked that in this day and age of technology it is so very hard to mobilize enough people, enough voices, enough political influence, enough media and enough power to reach the tipping point to end a genocide. There is no excuse. I sit here observing this extraordinary paradigm of deepest personal action and greatest collective non-action and just pray that the former will shift the latter.
I’m so excited about Mia Farrow appearing on Larry King tonight and applaud CNN for covering the Darfur crisis and helping to channel people to action. I wish more of our media would pay attention.
I have been fasting on refugee rations for a couple of days now. I though it really important to have my own experience eating what so many refugees have been surviving on for years – day in and day out, every single meal. I went out and bought all the supplies and looked closely at the nutritional content. While we already know that the rations equate to a little over 1000 calories a day, and that there is some protein in eating peas or beans and grains, there is absolutely no other nutrition – no vitamins A or C, no calcium, barely any iron. Think of the children growing up with no milk, no vegetables or fruit. The women getting pregnant and giving birth with no folic acid. The refugees suffering from anemia with no iron. And if they needed medical care for malnutrition there aren’t any medical aid groups to help them, since the majority of them have been expelled! And then imagine getting a months-worth of food aid with a hungry family to feed and having to restrain yourself to ration your sack of food every day to make sure you have enough to get through the month. How painful that process must be.
I remember speaking with refugees in the camps who had told me about the terrible hunger they faced as they crossed the desert to safety in Chad. Many of them had held onto a small portion of seeds that they could hopefully use to replant their harvest, and it took everything they had not to eat the seeds themselves. I remember the story of one family of 7 that arrived at a camp when they were no longer registering refugees. They had to sit and wait for two more weeks under a tree until they were allowed to officially register and receive a tent and their own monthly rations. They lived that month on food donated by other refugees. The beauty of that generosity is so much more powerful now that I realize how little the refugees in the camp actually had to give.
Why do we in the US have so little to give when we actually have so much – so much power, so much influence, and such loud voices?
I went to a friends’ BBQ on Day 5 of my water fast. Though I am a vegetarian, the scent of the smoking turkey and grilling sausages was almost overwhelming. My friends were so kind and asked wonderful questions about my fast and the situation in Darfur. One teacher asked me about how she could bring this situation into her 5th grade classroom, albeit she did not have enough time in the semester to do an entire course on the Darfur crisis. I shared an interactive exercise that I experienced in a workshop once: Each member of the group was given a small piece of paper with an A, B or C on it and asked to divide up accordingly. The largest group was C and was told to sit on the floor on a mat. The second largest group was B and was given some benches or chairs to sit on with a cloth spread between them. The smallest group was A (about 10% of the group) and was invited to sit at a beautifully set dining table with candles, plates and silverware. Next, the moderator brought out one loaf of freshly baked bread. She tore off small bite-sized pieces and gave them to each person in group C. Then she tore off slightly larger chunks and shared them with the members of group B. About 2/3 of the loaf was still left, which she placed on a bread board next to a plate of brie cheese and invited group A to serve themselves. She then asked us to eat in silence. As the A group looked around at the C group, sitting on the floor savoring their tiny pieces, their discomfort turned to tears. The moderator explained that this represented the current allocation of food resources on the planet, and as Americans we were all sitting at the dining table each night.
I’m considering ending my water fast on Sunday (Day 6) and switching to refugee rations for the remainder of Mia’s 21 days. I feel really strongly that I need to understand what the Darfuris are given to eat (that is when they had monthly food rations) by experiencing the rations myself. Too often we sit at the dinner table with our portion of the global bread loaf with such a disconnect to what living in group C is actually like. I have always had a major issue with the black-tie galas and big fancy events that NGOs throw to raise money – where the patrons dine, drink, party and forget even further the lives of those they are there to help. Though I understand the need to invest in such events, and though I admit abstaining from such events has not served our operating budget so well, I still endeavor to find a way to break down that disconnect between Americans and those in greatest need (while generating support for our work with genocide survivors). And so, that is why this fast is so powerful to me. I hope in some small way I can bring a new level of awareness to others so that one day we can all gather together at the global table and share equitably the planet’s resources.
Day 4. I had a very hard day today. I was very, very hungry and allowed myself another bowl of broth and one glass of juice. I fantasized about a cup of wild rice with butter, thinking about how easy it would be to throw a small bowl in the microwave. Which then got me thinking about how long it must take a Darfuri to cook that same mouth-watering (in reality very bland and very small) bowl of grain over a wood fire. And to have to walk miles in search of firewood to cook that meal. I get tired now just walking up the stairs. I can’t even imagine walking miles across the sand and brush to find wood. Not to mention the ongoing risk of rape away from their villages and camps.
I have started to feel really cold, having to wear two sweaters and turn up the heat in my car even when it is in the low 60s up here in New Hampshire. So, I watched the news under a fuzzy wool blanket this evening while my husband ate leftovers and filled the house with the smells of Thanksgiving again. I felt angry that not one member of the media had asked about the crisis in Darfur during the President’s 100 day address, and that they were still covering the H1N1 virus outbreak constantly. Though it is a very serious situation, with almost 800 cases now and 19 deaths, and with a direct impact on our nations’ citizens, what about the 1 million people who are going to starve in Sudan if the food aid is not reinstated? Isn’t that newsworthy? I’ve decided to write my media and ask them that question.
Well, having friends to dinner on Day 3 of my water fast went surprisingly well. I was genuinely excited about the menu we’d prepared and they were curious and completely understanding. My husband cooked a roast chicken and the house smelled like Thanksgiving. I joined them at the table with a big bowl of water with a bit of vegetable bullion mixed in (34 calories). Though I would have sincerely enjoyed partaking in the steamed asparagus and wild rice, instead we spoke of what was happening in Darfur and one of my guests’ recent visit to Ethiopia, which is no stranger to famine.
I also emailed 5000 people on Global Grassroots’ contact list about the fast and was so grateful for some very beautiful responses, including one from a dear friend who has decided to start her fast on Sunday. She has a toddler and has been discussing with her husband how best to explain to him their fast. I shared that I have a family member living with me at the moment, whose beautiful mother passed away recently from complications related to anorexia. I felt it important to discuss with her why I was doing this and how a fast was different from anorexia. I tried to explain that a fast isn’t an effort to deprive our bodies or control our weight out an intense fear of becoming fat or very low self-esteem and deep feelings of unattractiveness. It is instead a deeply spiritual act, driven by a desire to contemplate what we have and what others may not have and feel a greater connection with those who are suffering. Often a personal act of sacrifice to take time away from the schedules of mindless consumption and better understand our relationship to food.
And even still, it is worth bearing in mind the challenges we have with food in this country, from anorexia and bulimia to obesity. Why do we play out our attachments and aversions to self and our life through the act of eating or not eating?
This morning I decided that each day of my fast I would do two things – one personal and one for social change. I invite you to join me:
1) A breakfast meditation: During the time you might normally have breakfast, consider doing a 5-10 minute meditation. It will help clear your mind and bring awareness to your connection to those suffering in Darfur. Here is a short explanation on how to do a meditation. I will later try to record this as a video that it can serve as a guided meditation while you actually sit:
Sit cross-legged on a mat, pillow or carpet or sit in a chair with your two feet on the floor. Rest your hands with palms down on your legs or loosely together in your lap. Try to sit in a way that is noble, with your spine straight, as if there is a string pulling on you from the top of your head. Now, close your eyes. Draw your attention to your breath. Take a few deep cleansing breaths, and then relax your breathing. Try not to hold your breath or even pause between the in-breath or out-breath. Notice where they connect if you can. Take a few moments to bring exquisite focus to just your breathing. If a thought arises, just notice it. Say to yourself “there is a thought” and then let it go and refocus on your breath. Next, bring your attention to your body. Feel your sitting bones placed firmly on the earth or your chair. If on a chair, feel your feet planted squarely on the earth. Feel this connection with the planet and other people walking on this same soil. Draw your attention to your face and release any tension in your forehead and jaw. Next, draw your attention to your neck and shoulders and release any tension you find there too. Keeping your spine straight, release any tension in your back, arms and legs. As you sit relaxed and breathing, take note of what you sense in your immediate environment – the temperature, smells, sounds, any breeze passing over you. Now notice your internal emotional space. What are you feeling right now? Allow these emotions to arise and bring to you any wisdom or clarity. Do not try to push them away if they are uncomfortable, just be with them.
As you completely embrace your self as mind, body and emotions, allow your attention to consider the people suffering in Darfur. Drop for now all defenses and open to your knowledge of that suffering. Let it come as concretely as you can…concrete images of your fellow beings in pain and need, in fear and hunger, in IDP and refugee camps. Relax and just let them surface, breathe them in…the vast and countless hardships of our fellow humans. Notice how this affects your body, breathing or emotions. Just be with that awareness without too many thoughts. Breathe in that pain like a dark stream, up through your nose, down through your trachea, lungs and heart, and out again into the world yet…you are asked to do nothing for now, but let it pass through your heart…keep breathing…be sure that stream flows through and out again; don’t hang on to the pain…surrender it for now to the healing resources of life’s vast web. If you experience an ache in the chest, a pressure within the rib cage, that is all right. The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing. Shantideva, the Buddhist saint, guides us by saying: “Let all sorrows ripen in me.” We help them ripen by passing them through our hearts…making good, rich compost out of all that grief…so we can learn from it, enhancing our larger, collective knowing.
Now, as you breathe in, imagine that you are breathing in the brightest light into the crown of your head and down your spine into your sitting bones that are touching the ground. When you breathe out, let that light flow back up your spine again into your heart and then let it radiate outward to the people of Darfur. Let it radiate out to those who are perpetrating the genocide. Let it radiate out to the decision-makers who are paralyzed with fear, apathy or indecision. Continue this light-breathing until you feel a sense of peace and completion, that you no longer hold onto any anger, grief, pain or suffering. Open your eyes.
2) An act of social activism: Each day following your meditation, take the time to do one act of social activism for Darfur. Take a look at the Act Page of this site and then call the White House, text Secretary Clinton, contact the media or email your friends and family.
Each day approach this fast from the inside and the outside.
This morning I woke up extra early to a slight stomach ache. Day 3 of my water fast. I admit that I have allowed myself a cup of coffee, as I haven’t been sleeping well and I think I need a bit of caffeine to function. And yesterday I had a small glass of tomato juice (70 calories). This is not easy. But what I’m thinking about even more so than the lack of food is the access to water. We have access to cool clean water to help keep us hydrated during this time and help fill our stomachs. But when I was at the refugee camps, I saw women lining up all day to wait for water rations that would fill their single jerry cans.
I know in Rwanda a family uses at least 2 jerry cans a day for drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning. But in Darfur and Eastern Chad, where finding water is already almost an impossible task, they also have to deal with the intense sun and heat – temperatures that frequently climb above 100 or even 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Not to mention, in the refugee camps I visited there were few sources of shade. The only choices were some spiky trees, sitting in your tiny and sweltering UNHCR tent, or gathering under a lattice roof made of twigs. How do they manage not to get so dehydrated! What is happening to their access to water now?
And why can’t the US or UN initiate an air drop of food rations? How could we get them water from the air?
I’m having people for dinner tomorrow night. This was arranged long before I decided to do the fast. Though it is an opportunity to create a dialogue around the Darfur crisis, I can’t help thinking I’ll feel weird and awkward sitting there not eating when I have guests. Why does that make me feel uncomfortable? Why do I have to eat in order to experience community? What will cooking be like? That will be quite a test. Day three and cooking a feast in which I will not partake….
As I was nearing dinner time last night, I was reminded of the grace my family used to hold hands and say – sometimes almost on automatic – before we’d dig in. The word “grace” conjures up a meaning for me that is a combination of gift, abundance, magic, gratitude and loving-kindness. Rather than “saying grace” before dinner, I think the essence underlying that intention was actually to give thanks for Grace. Although, we now often forget to do that when we get together…
Another family I adore simply takes a moment of silence before they eat. I always appreciate that. I could feel all the tension from the day’s hectic pace just slip away. We’d close our eyes and take a deep breath, then open our eyes again and just look at each other in silence.
In a Buddhist retreat I attended a few years ago, we would eat in silence, contemplating the food and where it came from and how it connected us to the earth and to those beings’ suffering, as we allowed the food to nourish us. Here is a short grace that is resonant with that same intent:
At this time of Thanksgiving we would be aware of our dependence on the earth and on the sustaining presence of other human beings both living and gone before us.
As we partake of bread and wine, may we remember that there are many for whom sufficient bread is a luxury, or for whom wine, when attainable, is only an escape.
Let our thanksgiving for Life’s bounty include a commitment to changing the world, that those who are now hungry may be filled and those without hope may be given courage.
I’m also thinking more of what bounty and abundance actually means. I went into a grocery store to buy water yesterday, as I wasn’t in a place to refill my bottle, and I really noticed the beauty of the vegetables and fruit. What abundance there is all around us! Once a friend who had been having money troubles took some time to meditate on her concepts of abundance and the wealth she desired. She reached a place of clarity, deciding that it wasn’t that she needed more abundance in her life to be comfortable, but she needed to find a way to see that she already had “just enough”.
Certainly the people of Darfur do not have enough of many things – safety, security, food, water, sanitation, justice, freedom and other fundamental human rights. And we know they experience an abundance of violence and hardship. Yet I recall how humbled I felt when I heard their stories during a visit to eastern Chad. They openly shared their experience as well as their hope with me. But they would always end their remarks with “Inshallah” or “God-willing” – seemingly with profound acceptance that their fate was tied to something greater than themselves. Is this too Grace?
And so as I continue this fast, I am holding a vision for the possibility Grace might allow a sharing of abundance so that we never have prolonged, unnecessary suffering and so that everyone has just enough.
I’ve decided to commit to a water-only fast for as long as I can, but I am aiming for a week to start. I’ve fasted before, but never beyond 5 days and never without juice, tea or broth. So that I set about doing this from a conscious place, I decided to write down why this fast is important to me. First and foremost, a fast for me is a personal choice to step back for a moment and to bring mindfulness to a specific purpose through personal sacrifice. I don’t think fasting always has to be publicized. It can be a very intimate, sacred opportunity to reflect. It gives our bodies a rest from constant digestion. It gives our emotions a chance to filter upwards from where we might unknowingly stuff them with unconscious eating. It allows our minds space for new wisdom to arise when we invite more time into our normal schedules of eat, work, eat, work, eat…. Physically I also feel refreshed by a fast when I can detoxify all those naughty things I like to eat and drink and start over again with some thoughtfulness to the food I buy, grow, cook and enjoy.
But this fast is more than personal and should be public. I am committing to fast to try to break down the disconnect that separates us in the West from those suffering in Darfur. To remind myself and hopefully others around me that a million people are now or soon will be without food and water since the aid communities have been expelled from Darfur. It is about recognizing and honoring that we have choice – that we can choose to eat just as we can choose to vote and choose to act. (Non-action is also a choice.) It is about feeling the interconnectedness of all people, allowing my friend Adam Mussa who has been living over 5 years in a Darfur refugee camp, to stay on my mind and help guide me to find compassion and inspiration daily. And it is about being a part of a collective movement to continue to pressure those in a position of power to intervene to end this crisis.
There are also some things that this fast is not, and I have to remind myself of this. It is not an ego-driven competition to see how long I can persist – it is not about me and my will-power (or possible lack thereof). It is not about collapsing into guilt because of my privilege, but it is finding the wisest way to leverage my unique place in the world to create change. It is not about PR for the sake of publicity or shame, but it is about consciously raising awareness and inviting dialogue that can be constructively channeled into action.
So with these thoughts, I am standing in solidarity with those in Darfur and those in other corners of the world who have joined the Darfur Fast For Life.