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?