Easing School Cooks’ Workload in Darfur

Neal Deles, CRS Sudan’s northern area coordinator and education program manager in West Darfur, Sudan, sent this report.

Darfur stoves

Groups of 10 women come together to help shape mud and cow dung into a strong wall that will serve as an industrial-sized stove for cooking school meals. Photo by Habib Abdurahman/CRS

After six months in Darfur, my thoughts are filled with images of the people I have encountered during my visits to our field offices and those I’ve passed by on the road. Among this patchwork of images are ones of women stooping—to sweep the wind-scattered trash and dust that has collected in front of their homes, to light fires to heat water for their daily tea, to till their small plots of land early each morning, and to prepare the heavy loads they hoist on their heads.

Last year while I was working in Baltimore, I was fascinated by a photo essay of fuel-efficient stove trainings in Darfur. The stoves looked easy to make. I also liked that they used less firewood, helping to care for the environment while reducing the need for women living in camps for displaced people to risk venturing out to remote areas to gather firewood.

I never imagined that months later I would witness firsthand another of these stove-making trainings, this time for school cooks participating in World Food Program’s Food for Education program. These women cook a daily meal for anywhere from 300 to 1,800 students each school day using large cooking pots that are propped up over fires using with large stones. The amount of firewood required is enormous.

We could have just given fuel-efficient stoves to the schools, but we thought it would be better for the school cooks to know how to make the stoves and maintain them. Over five days, CRS’ education and agriculture team members worked hand in hand with trainers from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to train 20 female cooks from 12 schools for displaced children. The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word funded the training.

Making the stoves was not as easy as I had imagined. Using their bare hands, the women had to shape a mixture of mud and cow dung into a cylindrical wall. They started, starting first with small personal stoves and later working worked in groups of ten to shape bigger stoves that could support the schools’ huge cooking pots. Without any prodding, some of the women decorated their finished models with pebbles or they carved flowers and lines into the clay.

The training ended with a simple ceremony to honor these cooks who work hard to prepare meals for Darfur’s elementary school children. When we talked about the importance of a full stomach for better learning, the women clucked their tongues and nodded their heads in agreement.

As we called each cook by name to receive their her training certificates, some of the women ululated or danced in joy, waving their certificates above their heads. These cooks will now require less firewood to cook meals for students. They can also teach their neighbors in West Darfur camps how to build fuel-efficient stoves of their own, reducing the need and risk for these women to stoop yet again to collect needed firewood.

– Neal Deles

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