In the hot midday sun, women are pounding sand and water with huge heavy pestles. Others are kneading the earth into manageable chunks.
As I watch and sweat from a short walk across the camp, I’m amazed by huge bundles of branches walking from the forest. Women, appearing beneath the impressive cargo, concentrate on their feet as they make the final leg of the 10 kilometre round-trip back to their huts.
I’m constantly humbled by the workload of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Those I meet in a displacement camp not far from Goma are truly industrious.
Both Ndamubuya and Suzanne* live alone with their children. They usually take three hours out of their day to gather wood for a fire before collecting water to boil for washing, cooking and cleaning.
“We go to collect wood in groups of 10 to 15 women,” says Ndamubuya, “because we’re afraid of the bandits and soldiers who try to intimidate us in the forest.”
It’s not just hard work being a woman in Congo, it’s also dangerous. The threat of rape and sexual abuse while farming or collecting firewood is real.
A year and a half ago Suzanne was raped as she made her usual trip to the forest with a group of friends.
“We had agreed the plots we would each take to collect the branches and we split off on our own,” she said.
“Then I met four men with guns. They asked me to put down my firewood and to strip. Then they raped me.”
After she was raped, Suzanne’s husband left her and moved to another area where he now lives with another woman.
“Many women in the camp are being raped,” said Suzanne. “But they don’t say anything because they’re afraid their husband will leave them.”
Fuel-efficient stoves help
To try to reduce the risk of violence against women as they go about their daily lives, World Vision is working with a local organisation to introduce fuel-efficient stoves, which use less firewood.
Usually women build an open fire with three stones and eight kilogrammes of wood collected from a nearby forest. But the fuel-efficient stoves need only two kilogrammes of wood each day.
Earlier this month Ndamubuya and Suzanne were both taught how to make simple stoves from local materials. They are waiting for their new clay constructions to solidify before they can use them next week.
Today they are teaching other women how to pound and mould the sand and clay to create stoves which will not only save them time and energy, but will also help them avoid the risk of rape.
“My new stove will reduce the number of trips I have to make to the forest,” said Ndamubuya.
“It will also keep my hut warm at night as it burns for longer.”
The stoves have many benefits. They reduce deforestation, improving the local ecosystem, and they emit less smoke into the home. They produce half as much heat energy again than a normal open fire, heating a litre of water in 10 minutes, as opposed to an hour.
The women also tell me their new stoves are safer.
“It will mean fewer homes burn down,” said Suzanne, “as banana-leaf huts catch fire easily.”
In this camp of more than a thousand families, I have a feeling the new stoves are going to be a real hit. The simplicity of the invention, and the fact that women like Suzanne and Ndamubuya can build more without further help from aid agencies, just make them all the better.
* name has been changed to protect privacy
Anna Ridout works for World Vision in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)