What does a kitchen mean for a family? It is a place where domestic roles—regardless of gender—are pronounced. In a traditional South Asian family, the mother cooks for her family there. It is a place where she prepares nourishment for her children, husband, perhaps even her in-laws. In many ways, her kitchen celebrates the unity of her family—through food.
A family gathered lovingly around a hot meal after a long day is a natural and nostalgic image to most of us. Yet it becomes somewhat of a dream— a luxury – in a humanitarian crisis.
When lives of individual family members are summarised within the containment of tarpaulin and bamboo, one can barely salvage any normalcy—let alone gather together for a home-cooked meal.
The makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar houses 1.2 million forcibly-displaced Rohingya people from Myanmar. Since the massive influx escalated from August, the crowded camps have been squeezing space for the additional 688,000 recent arrivals. Around mid-noon, the crammed settlements become smoky from hundreds trying to cook under tarpaulin and bamboo.
Now imagine if even one of these crammed, flammable little homes caught fire.
Four communal kitchens have been built by BRAC in the makeshift settlements of Cox’s Bazar, so that families have a safe space to cook together – often the food they receive as aid.
“They are not just spots to do cooking chores—they are spaces for the community’s caregivers to be together and to have a place to breathe in the crowded camps,” says Sheikh Asabur Rahman, a manager of BRAC working in Cox’s Bazar.
Each kitchen comes with a number of traditional earthen stoves.
“We also provide a compressed rice husk as cooking fuel, as fuel is expensive and scarce,” details Asabur.
BRAC also hands out kitchen kits that contain a cooking ladle, spoons, cups, bowls, and a cooking pot.
People use the kitchens from as early as 7am till 7 or 8pm, coming with family, or alone with a child, or together with peers in the neighbourhood.
Outside the darkness of their shelters where they often timidly isolate themselves to, these kitchens can be culturally validated areas of productivity as well as community.
However, given the safety concerns and cultural values, many women have been reluctant about using the community kitchens—feeling uncomfortable cooking outside their homes.
BRAC’s volunteers have been engaging in interpersonal communication (IPC) with them, encouraging women and families to cook in the communal kitchens. The usage of these spaces have been steadily increasing since then, as women have become more aware of the fire hazards and safety concerns associated with cooking in flammable makeshift homes.
Inadvertently, for many of the community women, these kitchen spaces have become a space for neighbours to gather, talk and enjoy a moment of normalcy and community.
In South Asian cultures—and in Rohingya culture—the woman is the primary caregiver of her family, and are often the last to look after themselves, let alone one another. These spaces can act as binding agent to foster peer support and engagement.
Communal kitchens also help preserve dignity of the primary caregivers, whose lives had been stripped off any semblance of regularity. In humanitarian crises, the necessity to restore aspects of daily order is often deprioritised, and can naturally delay the psychological acclimatisation into their new homes. Preserving dignity is essential to maintaining self-esteem and confidence, which is important to cope in stressful and potentially overwhelming humanitarian situations.
Dibarah Mahboob is a manager of communications and partnerships of BRAC’s humanitarian crisis management project.