It’s everybody’s sun

Marie-Rose Neloum from Chad received an award on Thursday, the day before World Refugee Day, in a ceremony at Amsterdam’s Tropical Museum. The prize is named after Gerrit-Jan van Heuven Goedhart, a member of the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War who went on to become the first United Nations high commissioner for refugees. The award is organised by the Dutch Association for Refugees.

Just as was the case 60 years ago, the present UN high commissioner has to deal with millions of refugees worldwide, and the numbers are on the increase again. One of the regions where refugees live in miserable conditions is the Chad-Sudan border area, where it is windy, dry as a bone, and almost always sunny. Thousands of people have fled from Sudan’s western Darfur province to camps over the border in Chad, and it is here that Ms Neloum, chairwoman of the organisation Chad Solaire, does much of her work promoting solar cookers.

Endless quest
She used to have her own sewing workshop in the Chadian capital N’Djamera, hundreds of kilometres west. Her interest in solar cookers is thanks to Derk Rijks from the Netherlands. He wanted to stop the endless quest for firewood which takes up so much of the lives of too many African women.

Ms Neloum was converted when she saw a demonstration of solar cookers. She left with Mr Rijks for eastern Chad, where she was horrified by how hard life was, not only for refugees, but also for the ordinary population.

“It’s a desert, it’s not easy to find any trees, so the women walk long distances to find firewood. But people living near trees don’t want their wood taken away, so there are often disputes between refugees and villagers.”

Ms Neloum has found what she believes is the solution to the problem and she is taking it to women in the region. It is purposefully kept simple: cardboard wrapped in aluminium foil set up to act as a trap for sunlight and easily made on the spot. A pan covered with heat-retaining plastic is placed in the solar cooker, a sun trap which is turned to move with the sun, and the food is ready in a few hours. This, in combination with a popular economical wood-burning stove, results in a dramatic reduction in the demand for firewood. In Iridimi, one of the first camps where people have been provided with solar cookers, the number of forays for firewood has been reduced by nearly 90 percent.

Getting people to use the new cookers was not altogether simple: there was scepticism as to whether or not they would work. However, Ms Neloum has the necessary powers of persuasion.

“We were very patient. We explained it to them bit by bit: it doesn’t replace firewood completely, but it helps.At midday, the sun is at its strongest, and it’s free. No-one is going to come by and say you’ve stolen their sunlight.In the afternoon, you can cook using the solar cooker, and it is free. You can cook any hot food you like, the same as you do on a fire.”

The two biggest advantages of the solar cookers are the enormous savings in time and the increase in safety. Looking for firewood is dangerous: there are rebels and armed gangs in the vicinity who commit murder, rape and robbery. The less people wander around the danger zone, the better. There are also fewer disputes over who has the right to cut down a particular tree.

Solar cookers are now being promoted outside the refugee camps. At the moment, they are subsidised by international organisations. The market price for the ovens is expensive at nine euros, but the savings quickly cover the investment. This is especially true in cities such as N’Djamena, where Ms Neloum has now got a small business going.

“I make these solar cookers and they are sold for me. There are enough people who want to try them at home. After I began with the cookers, I gave up being a tailor. I’m now doing this work and it earns me my salary every month.”

It is a salary she really needs, after having had her house destroyed when N’Djamena was last under siege in February. And the latest rebellion that has broken out in eastern Chad will no doubt put a temporary end to her business. In Chad, rebellions occur almost as regularly as sandstorms; so the production of solar cookers in the refugee camps goes on normally and Ms Neloum, after picking up her award in Amsterdam, will go back to her work without making a drama of the situation. The Dutch are known for their unflappable common sense, but people in Africa display the very same quality.

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It’s everybody’s sun
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