Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
A lot of people ask me what it felt like to work in IDP camps and how I handled the emotions that came with working in such harsh conditions and among people who were suffering from the terrors of the Darfur conflict. I always have to pause to try and remember but I can’t recall ever feeling terribly horrible about the suffering that IDP’s were experiencing. Maybe it was because of the resilience the IDP’s displayed on a daily basis, with their enthusiastic greetings and their glowing smiles. Or maybe it was the pressure of accomplishing our work that buffered me, topped by the excitement of my first humanitarian job and working along side my new husband. Timing was also a factor given that we arrived when the influx of IDP’s into Kass had leveled off and we weren’t faced with an IDP population who had recently been violently driven away from their villages. They had pretty much settled into camp life with a kind of easy routine that didn’t reflect the trauma they may have experienced. This was especially surprising to experience with the women in the camp given what most of them have gone through. While the men in their villages were usually robbed and shot by the government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed, women were routinely attacked and often raped but not killed.
One of the biggest programs we had to set up was a Women’s Center that would provide education and livelihoods opportunities for the women to earn an income. Earning money was important on many levels – for morale, establishing a new livelihood while they remained in the camp, and to buy necessities even though they were receiving food aid and other basic supplies. The most important necessity for them was firewood. If the women could buy firewood in town, they were much safer than if they had to wander to the edge of town or beyond to collect it. On the outskirts of villages and IDP camps throughout Darfur, women were regularly attacked by the Janjaweed while collecting firewood. And to help them conserve their firewood, our organization had a team of scientists come out to study the traditional mud-stove used for cooking and they came up with a new stove design that used less wood but was still sufficient to cook the traditional food. At the women’s center, we trained a group of women how to make the new stoves and they in turn trained more women who would come to the center to produce them. They got paid per stove produced and we distributed the stoves to families throughout the camp.
In addition to producing stoves, we organized sewing classes, literacy classes in reading, writing and math, and employed hundreds of women to weave sheets of palm leaves that we then used to improve the temporary housing for IDP’s which I will write about in an upcoming post. Some of the women came up with an idea on their own to use the palm to weave water jar lids to sell in the camps. We thought their initiative and enthusiasm was terrific.
And with hundreds of women coming to the center each day, we also provided a daycare so they could bring their children, drop them off at daycare, and go about doing their work or attend a class.
We really have to thank Doctor’s Without Borders for transferring their medical compound to us to transform into a women’s center. They were wrapping up their time in Kass just as we arrived so we inherited the facilities you see here, and another that we converted into a veterinarian and agricultural training center that you will see in an upcoming post.
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