Cooking uncovers environmental passion for Swaziland YALI fellow


This story is part of an on-going series spotlighting 2014 Washington Fellows at FIU.

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Lindiwe Dlamini, 32, is one of 25 participants in a group of young leaders visiting FIU as part of President Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Senior Energy Officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy in her home country of Swaziland,  Dlamini spearheads the National Biofuels Development program, the Clean Cook Stoves project and the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative.

After nine years working in energy regulation, sustainable energy and climate change, Dlamini says her experience is uncharacteristic for a woman in Africa.

“Africa is different because the cultural dimension is one where woman are a minority and are marginalized,” Dlamini says. “And young people tend to be thought of as ‘we hear what you’re saying but you’re young and you don’t know anything’ so older people tend to be the wiser ones, the ones that get listened to more. Men tend to be respected more than females.”

Dlamini considers herself lucky for not having been stereotyped by her boss.

“When I joined, that’s when the whole hype on going green had started up,” she recalls. “Because it was a new thing, it was given to me –the newcomer, fresh from school– to research and see how we could incorporate this into our policies and programs.”

The project would lead her to find her passion in environmental management and helping women and children obtain clean cook stoves in their homes.

“Swaziland is a developing country, where the majority of the population lives in rural areas,” Dlamini says. “The main form of energy for cooking is wood fuel. Some homes are electrified, but because it’s so expensive, they opt to use wood fuel.”

The use of wood as a main source of fuel brings up several concerns, namely that the inhalation of smoke from cooking wrecks havoc on the respiratory systems of women and children. In addition, deforestation and climate change have resulted in women needing to walk farther from their homes to collect wood. This is time, Dlamini says, that could be used in more productive ways, such as attending school.

In fact, Dlamini has become so passionate about this project that her master’s thesis will focus on the clean cook stove project.

“The clean cook stove program as been implemented for quite some time but the results haven’t been good,” she says. “I’m trying to assess why – why the uptake of clean cook stoves has been so slow. I think my main findings have been issues of affordability. Their approach in the past has been to sell the cook stoves to the woman, but these are already impoverished communities. So, you can’t expect them to spend money on the new cook stove.”

Her second finding is one that American woman can relate to easily – design.

“Women are particular about their surroundings,” Dlamini adds. “They want their kitchens to look nice. They complain that the smoke [from the stove] over time makes the walls become black. So one of the key changes in the design is incorporating a chimney so that the smoke goes out of the house.”

Lindiwe Dlamini, center, attends a parlor event at the President's House with her fellow YALI participants.

Lindiwe Dlamini, center, attends a parlor event at the President’s House with her fellow YALI participants.

Dlamini’s passion also extends to her church, where she is involved in an initiative called Mercy Ministries, assisting orphaned and vulnerable children with basic needs such as food and household items like soap and toothpaste. She and her fellow congregants have also made it a mission to get these children enrolled in school, hoping it will open their minds and give them more opportunities down the road. Like so much of the work she does in the field, Dlamini also cooks for them every Sunday.

“How can you sit in class and listen if you’re hungry?” she asks.

Dlamini then makes a statement that surprises herself: “It’s weird how it’s all centered around cooking.”

She says back home, there’s not a lot of time for self reflection. It’s no wonder she’s particularly enjoying the leadership training component of the program, led by FIU’s Center for Leadership and Service.

“We were learning about values and what defines you as a person,” she said. “I think for me, it’s being useful to others. I find, if no one needs you, you should question your existence. It’s about channeling your skills and abilities.”

Beverly Dalrymple, executive director for the Center for Leadership and Service, has led the group’s leadership training and hopes they take away a better understanding of how to communicate their dreams in ways that make others want to achieve that dream too.

“Leadership is something people engage in. It’s not the person called the leader,” Dalrymple says. “The program that we are providing for the Washington Fellows is based on our Academy of Leaders. The general message is that everyone has some leadership capacity to develop and that everyone will need to engage in leadership at some point in their lives, just to be active citizens and to be successful people.”

Dalrymple has no doubt that Dlamini and her colleagues are drawing on their own experiences focused on serious global issues.

“I’m inspired by them,” she says. “Inspired by the fact that they’re giving up their time to engage in a program like this. They’re very passionate. This is the crème of the crop – very self motivated, confident individuals with a mission.”

Dlamini is certain that YALI will provide her with the leadership training and connections she needs in order to continue making progress in her country.

“We are living in a global world there is nothing you can do on your own,” Dlamini says. “If you want what you do to thrive you need to link it with people elsewhere. I’ve already made a couple of contacts and we’ve also started seeing how we can develop a project across countries – maybe linking with FIU. I love my country. I wouldn’t mind working anywhere in the world, but whatever I do I want to make sure there’s something within my country.”