For someone living in a developed country, a solar cooker may feel like kind of a novelty item. Something you can pull out on camping trips to build up your green street cred and save a little bit of energy. But if you’re living in a refugee camp, cooking with the sun can actually change your life.
That was the case for Lunda Lalondi Vincente, a Congolese man who fled unspeakable violence in his home country in 1998 at the age of 18. He was tortured by rebels in a conflict sometimes called Africa’s First World War. Fighters killed 5 million people between 1994 and 2003, including the brutal slaying of Vincente’s pregnant sister, grandmother, uncle, and brother. His brother was burned alive.
After a harrowing journey, Vincente escaped to Zimbabwe, where he was eventually granted refugee status in 2000. He has been living in the Tongogara Refugee Camp for the last 16 years. Instead of giving up on life, Vincente began visiting the refugee camp library to educate himself. That’s where he first read about solar cooking.
He became obsessed with the concept and began drawing pictures and writing essays and poems about solar cooking. “The drawings, essays, and poems lays out my voice of pleading to be heard,” he says on his blog. “My message to society is the basic needs of every person on earth should be met: Clean water, food, fuel to cook food with.”
He sent his art to the Sacramento, California based Solar Cookers International. (Can you imagine a kitchen appliance becoming your muse?!) In return, SCI sent him a CooKit, which he now uses regularly. (Stiff porridge is his everyday fare, but he says rice and spaghetti are the best dishes.)
That was eight years ago, but Lunda is still putting pen to paper, spreading the gospel of solar cooking in his camp and through his art.
In one comic, Lunda depicts a woman telling the story of how her child was killed after he received third degree burns from a cooking fire. Another woman in his story shares that she miscarried after carrying heavy firewood day after day.
As in most comics, Lunda’s stories have a hero. And if you couldn’t already guess, in this case, it’s the super-simple but life-changing solar cooker. When it is introduced to their village, the people in the story act as though they have been saved. “We will not be anymore the slaves of firewood and its smoke!” The character proclaims. “We are now free!”
That sounds dramatic, but maybe it’s not.
In Tongogara (and many other camps for displaced people), the food provided by aid organizations is helpful, but it’s often not enough to thrive on. So extra money is used to buy basics at the small shops in the camp. It’s a strain for people to also spend for firewood, which is one of the main ways people cook food and boil water. And if they don’t spend precious money on firewood, then they have to walk miles to find it, which is a job often delegated to women and girls (sometimes keeping girls out of school). Once the firewood is obtained, cooking with it creates dangerous smoke. “Smoke produced by rudimentary fire stoves is considered to be a major cause of death in developing countries where many people (especially women) die each year from smoke-related respiratory illnesses,” says Vincente.
These very real problems all result from preparing food, the most basic of human activities. And solar cookers solve them all. After all, sunshine is free, and you don’t have to spend hours collecting it in a forest full of dangerous animals. This method doesn’t produce smoke and it saves trees, which Vincente says used to be harvested from the camp’s nearby forest at a rate of three-six trees a day for charcoal. When you start to parse out the benefits, it’s easy to see why he has been so inspired.
“My childhood has been spent in this refugee camp,” Vincente says. “But I love learning and take the opportunity to educate myself on environmental topics. Knowledge is power.” He hopes to go to college in the United States where he can formally study environmental issues. Because for Vincente, sharing the story of solar cookers isn’t only beneficial for those who hear it, it’s helped him find meaning in his life again.
“I almost lost everything during the war,” he says. “I felt that I was less important in this world because misery had become a part of my life. In order to feel important, I decided to do something which all people can benefit from. Because there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”
Hear more of Vincente’s story and see more of his creative work on his blog.
Solar cookers are now more common in the Tongogara refugee camp thanks to Solar Household Energy (SHE), Inc., an organization that works to “harness the power of the sun” to improve social and economic conditions for people. SHE has also supported Vicente’s work and organized exhibitions of his art in the United States.