My friend Monica wrote me a sweet note before I left. In it, she said to think of her “when there are laughs, and there are bound to be some.” Not only have there been periodic laughs, there have been many. How lucky I have been to travel here with Tzivia and Janice. They are two of the brightest, most competent and interesting women I know – and they are funny! From the first night in N’Djamena after 24 hours of travel when Tzivia, Janice and I were dodging locusts that were so big they made infamously huge Texas cockroaches look like ants, to laughing at ourselves as we looked ready to break out in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” yesterday as we left for our first day at the camp dressed “modestly” to be respectful of the women here. And even at the camp, amidst the hunger, thirst and deep sadness carried by the refugees… even there we found humor!
In a meeting with the Iridimi Leadership Council (picture two dozen Muslim men in traditional garb sitting on the floor staring at us), we found humor as well. Although we had entered the “tent of the meeting” for what we thought was more or less a required formality before we would start the interviews in the camp, the discussion turned out to be a serious and frank conversation about solar cookers. I was prepared to hear the resistance of the men to the solar cooker project; the main criticism I have heard about solar cookers is that the men don’t like the way the food tastes. Their mothers and grandmothers cooked over wood fires and they want their wives to do the same, I’d been told (reminds me of the old story of the man who wanted his wife’s matzo balls to taste just like his mother’s — rock hard!). We may be half way around the world, but some things are the same. Or are they?
One man volunteered that the food tastes good and that it is so good that sometimes the children steal some out of the pot if it is not watched. Pleasantly surprised, the men talked of how they like solar cooking because now the women are safer, since they don’t have to go out for firewood (also a woman’s job), and that now the women have more time for other things. The only complaint was that solar cooking takes longer. The 3 women sitting to the side sat up when they heard that. One was the President of the women refugees. She said, “We are the ones who cook and we don’t mind. Now we have more time to do things we like, like henna!” (Think: time to go to the spa!) The women laughed, as did the men and the rest of us.
The men spoke of how now their wives have acquired a new skill and in turn their daughters have, so when they return to Darfur, they will bring with them this new knowledge to share.
We had discussion about the new project JWW just funded, a water reclamation project. The “grey” water is collected at the bottom of the shower and through a tube goes into a small garden for each family. Test cases have begun and the goal is to further introduce this throughout the camp. The men spoke of concerns about water and worries that eating vegetables with shower water would make them sick. Finally, one man said, “In Africa men and women sleep together at night and in the morning they take showers. It is a sin to use that water to grow vegetables”. The whole room broke up in laughter! The women to the side were embarrassed and laughing. The men were all laughing and within seconds (just long enough for the translation) we were belly laughing together.
Humor… the universal survival skill. Jews know this well. Cleary, so do Darfurians.