A Berkeley non-profit cooks up a solution to violence in Darfur


The war-ravaged region of western Sudan, Darfur, is the reason many people in our area got involved in activism there over the past five years. The Bay Area is home to a number of non-profits working on issues in Darfur, from student activism to charities, to development.

San Francisco hosted rallies and protests against the government of Sudan for their attacks on the indigenous populations in Darfur. But, it’s not just rallies. There’s a lab on the campus of UC Berkeley that’s home to a unique product that’s helping thousands of women in Darfur. That product is a stove.

Every day, women in Darfur walk miles to gather firewood for cooking, often risking being kidnapped or raped by bandits along the way. So, the engineers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab invented a new kind of wood-burning stove that uses much less wood than regular three-stone fires which the women cook on. This stove would not only make their lives easier, it could possibly save many lives.

KALW's Hana Baba visited the office of the The Darfur Stoves Project in Berkeley and spoke with executive director Andrée Sosler, who was recently in Darfur, and Kayje Booker, one of the engineers who worked on the project. She asked Adrée how the women in the refugee camps reacted when they first saw the stove.

*     *     *

ANDRÉE SOSLER: They all seemed immediately impressed. It’s always hard to know if people are being polite, or if they really are that impressed. But to me, it seemed like the stove blew them away. In fact, when I first got there, we had a big discussion. They introduced me, and we didn’t have a name in Arabic for the stove. We just called it the "Berkeley Darfur Stove." We asked the women what they’d like to name it. I might pronounce this wrong, but I’ll give it a try. They decided to name it كانون خمسة دقائق, or "Five-Minute Stove," because it cooked so fast.

HANA BABA: My family is from Sudan. I speak Arabic, and you actually did a very good job of it!

ANDRÉE SOSLER: Thank you! In terms of the reaction, they seemed immediately convinced that the stove was going to save them time and money.

HANA BABA: All right, so here we are in your office, and there are five stoves. So why don't you describe to me, kind of, what these are.

KAYJE BOOKER: It’s a circular metal stove. It’s got an inside circle and then what we call a skirt for the stove, and a collar to block the wind.

HANA BABA: So how is this different than what they had in Darfur?

KAYJE BOOKER: They just had three-stone fires. So, three rocks, wood in the middle, and then the pots balanced on the tops. If they had stoves at all, I think they were made of mud. These are a lot more efficient. Our testing shows that they use about half of the wood from the traditional stove. And then, and this is pretty common of most improved stoves, they have a firebox, which is just a circular metal piece inside. And that’s where the metal is, it sits inside the box. It’s protected from the wind. A little buffer on the outside of the stove protects it so it shouldn’t get quite as hot.

HANA BABA: I guess what’s left is to do a demonstration. And I’m guessing that can’t happen in this building.

KAYJE BOOKER: Let's go outside...So we are out on the balcony, preparing to light the stove. We have a bunch of pieces of wood that were all cut to be about the right size. Andrée is going to crumble some pieces to use as a starter. We’re crumpling up some paper to put at the very bottom. So I’m lighting the paper. Let’s see here. Of course, women in Darfur would be way better at doing this than we are. It’s starting to smoke, so I’m going to go ahead and blow on it. And now adding slightly bigger spaces…you can see it caught really easily. It’s already going pretty well.

HANA BABA: Were you able to connect on a personal level with the women there? Or was it strictly professional?

ANDRÉE SOSLER: There was a little bit actually. That’s always the part of my job that I love the most. I feel like you just get to the tip of the iceberg when you talk to somebody of such a different background than you when you can’t communicate directly because you don’t speak the same language. But, I had a great thing happen this time on Friday, which was the weekend there. Last year I had Henna done on my hands and feet, which they do there for marriages. Usually I go to a salon to have it done, but this year after meeting with some of the stove users and being in their homes, one of them said she braids hair and one of them said she did Henna. So I went back on a Friday. A bunch of them that I interviewed for work came back and all of them did my hair and were putting on Henna. This was the first time I was there with people who weren’t able to translate. So we couldn’t really talk, but the level of bonding and closeness was so much stronger than when I asked about personal details of their lives. So that was just great, if I think about the personal highlights of the trip.

HANA BABA: Getting your hair did, Sudanese style! So the south of the country might split, or it might become independent. Does that affect your work in Darfur in anyway? Are you kind of following the news and following that?

ANDRÉE SOSLER: We are following it very closely, and the answer to that is a question mark. We don’t know. It looks like the south will choose to become independent and then other areas in Sudan will follow. Because the government is very worried about that, they have been more present in Darfur right now. And what impact that will have in Darfur, whether the people do try to follow suit, or whether the government will try to preemptively prevent that from happening, people don’t really seem to know. But we are going to everything we can to continue to get stoves to people. We have a trip planned for February, so we’re not planning on stopping our work in anyway. So hopefully that will all be possible.

MUSIC FROM DARFUR: I Omar Ihsas “Naeesho Sawa”