A stove to save lives

DR Congo, June 18, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

For 59-year-old Dafroza Baleberaho, building improved cookstoves isn’t just about preventing climate change, it’s about saving women’s lives.

Dafroza, who had to gather her six children and suddenly flee a rebel attack on her village , works as a trainer and community organizer here in the sprawling, congested Buhimba displacement camp — temporary home to more than 13,000 people who, like her, escaped brutal fighting between eastern Congo’s warring factions. Since taking a two-day class from Mercy Corps field officers last October, she’s helped more than 60 women in the camp construct improved cookstoves.

These stoves — which require only mud, sand, water and rocks to build – consume less than half the firewood as the traditional campfires that families use to boil water and prepare food. That’s a lifesaving difference for women like Dafroza.

Every day, thousands of displaced women leave the relative safety of the camps to seek firewood. Some walk for hours. Unfortunately, armed groups often lay in wait along these routes, ambushing and assaulting women. A recent UN report estimates that 1,100 women are raped each month in eastern Congo.

“Having to gather less wood — having to go outside the camp less — those are easy things for women here to understand,” Dafroza says.

The construction of improved cookstoves is also an activity that unites women here and gives them a sense of pride. In a place where nearly everyone has suffered violence and humiliation, a place where families must accept handouts of food and other critical supplies, that kind of dignity is a cherished thing. When you walk through any camp around here, dozens of women will invite you inside their makeshift huts to show off their stoves, with enthusiasm and a smile.

Yet life remains extremely challenging here at Buhimba camp. Dafroza, her friends and neighbors crave the life they had to leave behind many months ago.

“I would like other kinds of work as well, to be able to earn money,” she says. “There’s a small market here, but it doesn’t sell much. And we don’t have the money to make it better. We want to grow and harvest our own food and sell it in the market, just like we did at home.”

But, every day, she’s working hard to make life better here. Since October, women like Dafroza have combined to build more than 20,000 improved cookstoves across several of eastern Congo’s most populated displacement camps. They’re making it easier for women to feed their families. They’re helping save eastern Congo’s already-ravaged environment.

And, most importantly, they’re saving the lives of their daughters, mothers, sisters and friends.