Today we visited the Iridimi refugee camp, where our Solar Cooker Project was launched 18 months ago. The sense of being, literally, a world away, finally holding the hands of the women working to manufacture the solar cookers and speaking with the Sudanese refugees about how our project has impacted their lives for the better is something I will never forget.
Iridimi itself reminds me of how I picture the “neighborhood” where our ancient Israelite ancestors lived in Egypt. Low mud-brick buildings, some thatched-roofs, little vegetation and roaming donkeys – truly a Biblical scene resulting from contemporary inhuman behavior.
Our goal today was to see the manufacturing workshop, meet the women who work there and then begin to interview random families throughout the camp who are using our solar cookers. We want to know if the use of the solar cookers is truly impacting their need for firewood, which is so scarce and a source of great tension with the local Chadian population. It is clear that the issue of scarcity of resources, water and firewood, is THE issue for the refugees, as well as for the entire country.
We began our day with an incredible meeting – we were ushered into a room of 20 “elders” of the camp, sitting on mats, dressed in long white gowns and tall turbans. These are the leaders of the Iridimi camps and they were invited to meet with us to discuss the project. I have to say that I was terribly intimidated by this group, as I’m sure they have never seen 3 white Jewish women from Los Angeles (who, while trying to dress appropriately for our guests ended up looking like Golde, Tzeitle and Hava!), let alone engaged in peer-to-peer conversation with them! But they were gracious, respectful and expressed extreme gratitude for the work we have done for their benefit and for the benefit of their families.
The other surprising thing was their willingness to listen to our “moderator,” Marie Rose, who with Derk Rijks, founder of the Solar Cooker Project, now heads Tchad Solaire, the local organization formed to run the project. Just as we watched these men “shoo” the 3 women leaders of the camps to the back of the room, they listened as Marie Rose led the 2-hour long discussion, answered their questions and engaged them in sometimes difficult conversation. Finally, we 3 Jewish feminists took great pride and pleasure in witnessing the young Madame La Presidents des Refugies speak up from behind the rows of men and express her opinions about the usefulness of the project, and her disagreement with some of the opinions expressed by the men. I believe we are witnessing a real cultural change, both in terms of empowerment of women in this society, as well as a grudging acceptance by the men. But isn’t that just history repeating itself?
My last thought is about kindness. As I sat on the dirt floor of 2 different “homes” this afternoon, I witnessed a kind of dignity and kindness that I will never forget. How do people who have lost so much – family, community and property – continue to offer to the stranger who enters their home whatever little food or shelter they have? Without a second thought to their own needs, these participants in our evaluations opened their homes to us, provided us with food and drink and gave us entry into their lives. I hope and pray that this, among others lessons learned here today, will stay with me for as long as I live.