Delivering Light to Refugees in Ethiopia

02/12/2011 22:19 GMT | Updated 01/02/2012 10:12 GMT

The Dollo Ado region, home to 135,000 refugees seeking to escape the East African food crisis, is a difficult place to reach, especially when it rains. Located in the remote South-Easterly corner of Ethiopia, the roads here quickly become impassable and the dirt runway an impossible place for planes to land. There to oversee the delivery of vital solar light kits to the largest of the refugee camps, I arrived by helicopter.

Just 2km from the Somali border, Dollo Ado is surrounded by a vast expanse of desert. There is no infrastructure here except that which the NGOs have brought with them. When the sun sets the humming of the generators begins providing the vital energy they need to continue their work. The refugees here have no such facilities. Until you have seen it, it is hard to imagine the totality of darkness they endure. Yet for the tens of thousands of refugees here, this is the reality they face; 12 hours of darkness every day. In Melkadida, the largest of the camps in the region, over half of the households are made up of only women and children. Living in tents and without light they are left extremely vulnerable; gender based violence, though little discussed, is a harsh reality in these camps.

Ranked #1 in the Failed States Index four consecutive years, Somalia has been torn apart by conflict for the last two decades after the brea down of the central government in the early 1990s. The instability and on-going violence in the country have been exacerbated by increasing food prices and failed crops following the worst drought to have hit the area for nearly half a century. The refugees here are the victims of that crisis; forced to leave their homes, schools, livelihoods and often half of their families. For most of them, there is little hope that they will be able to return.

My time was spent in Melkadida, home to 40,000 of the refugees here. Many of them have already lived here for two years. Despite the work of the NGOs the camp remains hugely under-resourced. There is just one toilet for every 600 people, three doctors to treat the sick, and two primary schools that cater for just a fraction of the 12,000 5-11 year olds living here. But this week 6,000 of the households will be receiving their own lights. ToughStuff, with German NGO Humedica, are about to begin distributing solar light kits, making use of the one resource here that is rarely in short supply. I was in Melkadida to train the 20 refugees in how to use the solar panels and lamps that they would be helping to distribute.

During the training I met Halwe Ab Direshid, 19, who was selected to be one of the 20 distributors. She was excited that her own family would also be receiving a light. Like so many families here, Halwe's family is headed by her mother. Having light will make them feel much safer especially when they must leave their tent to collect firewood or use the communal latrines. And it will make all their everyday tasks much easier; Halwe will be able to study in the evenings and her mother will be able to see to cook.

Simone Winneg, Project Coordinator for Humedica in Dollo Ado said "Lighting is of vital importance in refugee camps, especially for women and children. Having a light...will drastically improve their safety."

"We chose to work with ToughStuff to provide lighting into Melkadida camp because we knew that any product we distributed would need to be really durable and strong...having seen the light kits we knew that they would live up to their name."

Melkadida camp, like the three other camps around Dollo Ado, is full, yet every day more refugees arrive, waiting in a transit camp for a new site to be opened. Like the refugees that have already lived here for several years, each of them faces a difficult future. Although the provision of shelter, food and water is undeniably a priority, these refugees need more than this to survive. Light is fundamental; it affects everything. We hope that by providing light we can make their future a little bit easier.