Wonderbox:no-fuss, no-fuel stove cooks up communication in South Africa

Brenthurst, fifty acres of mansion, gardens, and private security guards on the edge of Johannesburg, is best known as the home of the Oppenheimers. It is also home of the Wonderbox.

With this modern cardboard and plastic-foam miracle, Bridgett Oppenheimer, a white who is one of the world's richest women, and Dailinah Khoza, a black who is among the poorest, have set out to help the hungry of southern Africa. ``When we started demonstrating the Wonderbox about 10 years ago,'' says Mrs. Khoza, a soft-spoken former home-economics teacher and typist, ``people thought we were crazy! Now, we can barely keep up with the demand: about 1,000 Wonderboxes each week!''

The project took root late in 1976, shortly after Oppenheimer and a handful of other prominent Johannesburg women formed a group called ``Women for Peace'' in agonized reply to the clashes in June between students and South African police in the nearby township of Soweto.

One morning, the wife of a Cape Town clergyman showed up with what looked like an ordinary cardboard box, which it was. Inside were what appeared to be two ordinary cotton pillows, which they weren't. They were cotton-clad wads of finely ground plastic foam. The box was based on an age-old country contraption: the ``haybox.''

The idea behind the contraption was simple and straightforward: to allow Africa's impoverished to bring to a boil a staple dinner of cornmeal, or rice, with the occasional bit of meat, before heading off for a day's work, and then immediately place the pot inside the closed plastic-foam pillow environment, where it would continue to cook throughout the day without fire, fuel, or labor.

By late afternoon it would be cooked, with nutrients safely trapped inside.

``I was as skeptical as everyone else at the beginning,'' says Khoza at the Women for Peace's ``center of concern,'' a small cottage on a low-lying fringe of Brenthurst. ``I was then working as a typist at WFP, however, and I knew I wanted to do much more than type. So with Mrs. Oppenheimer, I looked into the idea, and then we set out to promote it.''

The journey, it turned out, would be full of potholes. In their first visits to remote rural areas of South Africa, to tribal ``homelands,'' and to neighboring states, it sometimes seemed that the skeptics would carry the day.

Some women, not quite understanding the principle involved, would happily place a pot of unheated - certainly, unboiled - stew in the Wonderbox, only to return to find the concoction unaltered. Others tried to put the Wonderbox directly on their cooking fires, with predictable results.

At one demonstration in a drought-parched rural settlement, the two women immediately hit a dead end: no water. (Now, they bring their own.)

A spinoff idea - a ``Wonder-oven'' comprised of a paraffin tin, sand, and a few bricks - proved too cumbersome.

But slowly - and surely, in a region where people of all races often share a shortage of fuel, free time, and, of course, mircrowave ovens - the idea caught on. The first takers, recalls Khoza, were mostly white farm families, who in turn would purchase armloads of Wonderboxes for their black laborers. Now, many of the community groups who invite the ``Wonderbox team'' in its traveling minibus for demonstrations in church and town halls are black. (There is a one-month waiting list.)

Individual women, again often black, write or phone in with requests for Wonderboxes. Some now contract for the Magimix equivalent of the Wonderbox: identical to the original, except that the outer box is made of wood, not cardboard.

The Wonderbox project is really flowering. Handicapped or unemployed women assemble the cardboard boxes, feed plastic foam into a grinding machine, sew the flame-resistant cotton pillows. The end product, sold at cost, currently goes for 15 rand ($7.50).

Khoza - along with Oppenheimer, during the roughly six months each year which she spends at Brenthurst - have been traveling not only by minibus throughout South Africa, but also by executive jet to neighboring Botswana and, in blissful defiance of regional political conflict, to Zimbabwe and, last month, to Mozambique.

Alongside the Wonderbox, they now offer a low-price, high-protein suggestion for what to put in it: a variety of recipies based on the soybean, a relatively inflation-proof commodity that still can be bought for about 30 cents a pound here.

``I think the most important thing about the Wonderbox,'' says Khoza, ``is that it has helped bring people together. It addresses concerns that are common to all of us: energy, food, labor. For me - for Mrs. Oppenheimer, too. ... I think she couldn't survive without the Wonderbox! - this simple thing has always cut through tension between people. In a way, it is an excuse to go out and see, meet, communicate, with our fellow human beings.''

Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.

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