A Sustainable Hope
Africa is the continent Westerners most misunderstand. An experience my classmate, who was born in Zimbabwe, had a couple years ago here in LA sums up the knowledge many Americans share about this continent. While the local cable guy (who was black) wired up her apartment, he asked her where she was from, and she said, "Africa," and his response was . . . "Where's that?" It's a shame; though I've never been to Africa, over the years I've had friends from countries including Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. They told me stories about warm, generous people with deep family values; incredible topography; a respect and thirst for education; and a sophisticated way of thinking that doesn't get filtered through a 24 hours news cycle and educational cable TV shows. And yes, Africa does have its challenges: international borders that don't respect the lands of various ethnic groups; corruption from the chief executive down to the lowliest bureaucrat; the ravages of HIV/AIDS; and lack of reliable foreign investment. One issue endemic through Africa is the lack of reliable sources of energy. Many Africans are relegated to using charcoal, which creates several festering problems: increased deforestation coupled with air pollution; making the hard choice between buying food or fuel; and parents, mostly mothers, spending less time with their families and risking physical danger as they trek farther and farther to find sources of wood. Fuel shortages are particularly acute in Darfur, where refugees confront these challenges with even greater severity. Women foraging for wood risk the danger of getting raped and murdered. Meanwhile the time spent looking for wood is less time finding any economic opportunity. So in a place where people are least thinking about “sustainability,” such a solution is critical to their survival. No solar panels here: these refugees have got to get by with the fuel sources at hand. Recently, several NGOs, including the Technology Innovation for Sustainable Societies (TISS) and CHF International, have paired up to create the Darfur Stoves Project. Leveraging the skills of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory engineers, the Darfur Stoves Project came up with a stove design that succeeds at many levels. The stove burns wood far more efficiently, the danger of housing structures catching fire is eliminated, there's less danger of smoke inhalation, and women are free to pursue opportunities to build income for their families. Meanwhile, men are learning metalworking skills that they can hopefully take with them once they are resettled away from their current hell. This one small project is one of many at a micro level that goes beyond humanitarian aid for as suffering people; it’s an effort to establish a livelihood that ensures economic survival while healing their land at the same time.