l-i-f-e, LIFE, in a Refugee Camp in Northern Ethiopia

Before the CleanCook Stove, I would gather fuelwood one time each week with
my camel. It would take four hours. I still gather wood, but only one
camel load every two weeks…I hide when I gather wood, and if the militia
gets me, they take my wood. Sometimes they come into the camp and take the
wood. And politics is a part of it, because we are Eritreans. I have had
stones thrown at me. When I’ve been alone gathering wood and they have
found me, I have been hit by them. -Senie

Senie lives in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Shimelba camp along the Ethiopia/Eritrea border in northwestern Ethiopia.
She, like tens of thousands of other Eritreans, has fled her homeland in
fear for her life, as anyone aged 16-50, male and female, is likely to be
forced into a government-dictated military that has a history of attacking
its neighbors to the endpoint of needless deaths for tens of thousands of
Eritreans. Senie has the added burden of being Kunama, a minority ethnicity
that survives on the lower rungs of Eritrea’s socioeconomic ladder.

I shared thirty minutes or so of life with her and her husband while
collecting narratives that focused on their use of our stove and its effects
on their lives. Her experience of gathering wood to cook her family’s meals
is commonplace in the Shimelba camp, and in many camps throughout Africa.
There exists a daily competition for local natural resources between refugee
communities and local communities. Scholars call the violence stemming from
this competition “environmental conflict.” The issues are complex, never
having one solution, and often lead to the playing out of the ugly side of
our humanity. An example of the complexity is Senie’s remark of being
Eritrean as one of the causes for the problems she experiences while
fuelwood gathering.

Is the competition for wood strictly “environmental?” What place does
nationality and recent history between Eritrea and Ethiopia have in the
assessment, as 5-6 years ago the two countries were engaged in Africa’s
bloodiest war at the time?

While in the camp, my wife and I interviewed sixteen families that have been
using our project’s ethanol-fueled stove (the CleanCook Stove). Almost
everyone spoke of spending several days a week for up to 6-10 hours a day
walking, searching for and gathering wood for cooking on their traditional
three-stone open-fire stove before receiving the CleanCook. Physical pain
and aching tiredness from carrying the wood loads on their backs was
expressed by all of the women, as they are the primary fuelwood gatherers.
Senie is fortunate in this manner; she has a camel to carry her wood, a
rarity amongst Kunama fuelwood gatherers.

The local militia permits the gathering of downed wood only. Trees are not
to be cut. If ax marks are found on the wood, the wood is confiscated. Or,
if the gatherers have money, they can pay the militia to keep the wood, an
illegal act sometimes practiced by the militia. We had one woman who
attested to handing over money for her wood.


When we landed on the grass airstrip on the outskirts of Shire, I knew my
time in Ethiopia’s remote north was something I had needed for a while.
When I hopped into the UN Land Cruiser and found myself in the back seat
meandering for an hour and half in a northerly direction towards the outpost
town of Sheraro, the needing dissipated.

Endless vistas of rain-fed green landscape and a winding dirt road scattered
with men walking on the sides with their camels and donkeys and AK-47s
strapped over their shoulders forced me to live travel’s greatest addiction:
trying to grasp relative existence. What does the man of Tigray think while
walking? Why the gun on the shoulder? Hunting? Protection?

Is this the far boundaries of the “Middle East,” with the camels and the
mosque minarets on the horizon?


To be a refugee is one of life’s most sorrowful states of existence. You
are not safe in your homeland. Maybe you are not welcomed there. So you
flee. You try to make a place for you and your family in a new land where
you are not welcomed either. All the while you dream of returning to your
native place, to bring alive your memories of the winds blowing through the
trees in front of your home, the taste of food grown in the soils you
crumpled in your hands as a child, the kisses received from faces of your
loved ones, your neighbors. If you are not dreaming of returning, you dream
of going to America or Europe, asking the folks in charge of your
resettlement what the status of your case is from one week to the next. You
try to find peace and belonging with your fellow refugees, but deep down you
are alone and you are yearning for normalcy.

Yet, in the camp, we were reminded of the strength and resilience of our
collective humanity. An offering of a seat and a cup of tea and some bread
while we talked taught us the gift of kindness. An open door to join them
in their mud-walled houses taught us the lesson of hospitality. Offering to
cut some beautiful red and orange flowers from the garden along their
fencerow for us to bring back to put on our table in Addis taught us the
definition of giving.

Why is it that those with so little find a way to make it seem that they
have so much, enough to always have something to give? Why does it feel so
good to be in their presence? How is it that they never run out of smiles
to give? Or, are the smiles for folks like me, visitors? But I have seen
them greet each other…the smiles are for everyone, I believe.


Senie will go to gather wood this week to bake injera, a kind of bread that
is the staple for all foods here in Ethiopia. The CleanCook Stove is not
preferred for baking injera, as baking injera requires a large pan that will
not properly fit on the stove, not yet anyway. Most likely she will feel
much anxiety as she walks out from her door in the pre-dawn hours of the
morning to get a head start on the day’s heat. Will the local militia cause
problems for her?

I hope with every bit I can muster that she will not be hit by stones,
bitten by a snake, chased by hyenas, hit by the militia, have her womanhood
violated, will not have to pay for her legally gathered wood…that she can
return to her home with her camel load of wood and can sit down and bake her
injera. That she can eat shero wot in peace with her husband. That her
neighbors will stop and say hello and that their voices will carry together
into the warm night. That she will feel that feeling of belonging to a
place, if only for a brief moment, and that in that moment she can look into
her own recesses of life and find a smile for herself, so that she can feel
the happiness I felt in the presence of her and her Kunama brothers and
sisters…the refugees currently living in UNHCR’s Shimelba camp along the
border of Ethiopia and Eritrea in a place not marked on any map.

(written 4 September 2005)

1 comment on “l-i-f-e, LIFE, in a Refugee Camp in Northern Ethiopia

  1. i am really shocked and iam eager to hear the end of the war

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