It's not often that a horrific problem can be fought with a simple tool. But that is what's happening in the refugee camps of Chad, where solar cookers are helping to protect women and girls from rape and other violence. Now in its sixth year, the Solar Cooker Project of L.A.-based Jewish World Watch (JWW) offers hope to black African families who have fled the genocide from government forces and Arab militias in the Darfur region of Sudan.
"Early on we realized that the women who had survived had been subjected to cruel and inhumane attacks," says Rachel Andres, director of the Solar Cooker Project. "When we started to look into what we could do to help them, we realized that, in fact, even though they were in a refugee camp, they weren't safe."
Andres explains that in the refugee camps, women and young girls must perform the dangerous job of collecting firewood for cooking. This requires them to leave the camps and walk for hours, making them vulnerable to attack.
A solar cooker lessens the dependence on firewood by taking advantage of the intense sunlight in Chad, available more than 300 days of the year. The principle is sort of like that of a crockpot --- low heat for a long time can cook anything. Solar cookers, assembled from cardboard and aluminum foil, are folded to capture sunlight. The food, in an aluminum pot, is put in a special plastic bag. Nestled inside the solar cooker, rice, for example, takes about two hours to cook.
So far, there are 60,000 cookers in four of the 12 refugee camps in Chad, helping feed some 90,000 people. (There are about 285,500 refugees living in Chad, 80% of them women and children.)
"Our goal is to be in all of the camps. We just need more support to do that," Andres says.
In the refugee camps, JWW pays women to assemble the cookers and to paint the pots black for better sunlight absorption. Other women are hired to provide training on how to use the cookers. An additional project has women weaving insulated straw baskets, to keep the food warm until mealtime.
Actress Mindy Cohn, a longtime advocate for refugees, told L.A. Weekly in a phone interview this week that she became involved with the Solar Cooker Project because the program "touched my heart" with its ability to affect profound change: "With a $40 donation, you're helping save a family. It's pretty immediate," she says
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She points out that not only do solar cookers reduce the need for wood-gathering, but they also prevent injuries caused by standing over a fire, such as burns, as well as eye and lung problems. Cohn adds that while cooking by fire requires constant stirring, with a solar cooker the food can be left unattended, which frees up girls to go to school.
At a JWW solar cooker fundraiser last May, former pastry chef Rochelle Huppin, founder and president of Chefwear clothing company, brought in some of L.A.'s most prominent women chefs to volunteer for the luncheon. Huppin says the Solar Cooker Project struck a powerful chord with the chefs, because they were supporting refugees' efforts to feed their families: "We were raising funds to help other women cook and to save lives."
Cooking over three stones and wood has been the tradition for thousands of years for many cultures in Africa, so it's easy to understand why there was some initial skepticism in the refugee camps about this new way to prepare meals. But Solar Cooker Project director Andres says that the early hesitation has given way to wholehearted acceptance.
Andres echoed that enthusiasm when she talked about her own experiences in cooking and baking with a solar cooker: "Every time I open that pot, I'm always in awe. It's just amazing. The sun has a lot of power."