Where There's Smoke
- Asia, Nepal
One day last fall, my Nepalese friend Kumar invited me to have lunch at his family's home. Like most homes in the surrounding village, his is built from packed clay and cow dung. Having your house made out of cow manure might sound disgusting, but when dried and mixed together, the manure and clay create a stable material that is suitable to the Kathmandu Valley's temperate climate. But that afternoon, I became aware of a disadvantage to living in a traditional home. I was sitting outside talking with Kumar when Kumar's wife rushed out of the kitchen onto the porch, a plume of black smoke following close behind her. She was coughing violently and her eyes were watering, stinging red from the smoke. I thought maybe the house was on fire.
"Is she all right?" I asked Kumar.
"She's just cooking lunch," he said.
Just cooking lunch? I ventured inside to see what was up. I expected to find an ox, or maybe a buffalo, roasting on a spit above wild flames, but all I found was a small pot of simmering vegetables, balanced on two adjacent chunks of clay above the kitchen floor. Below the pot, an assortment of small branches and sticks sizzled and cracked, emitting an acrid, black cloud of smoke that was quickly filling the cramped kitchen area. It was essentially an open fire in the middle of the house, without any real means of ventilation. The first floor of the house, which served as the kitchen and living room, and the living quarters for the family's three goats, had a total of one small window—about two feet by two feet—and the door to the porch outside, but these two portals didn't provide enough breathing room, given the suffocating cloud of smoke coming from the stove.
I waited until I was safely in the confines of the Peace Corps library in Kathmandu a week later to find out if this problem was unique to Kumar's home. I found research and information about projects done by other Volunteers detailing the harmful effects of traditional cooking methods in Nepal and ideas for building improved stoves within our villages. I learned, for example, about the laundry list of health hazards related to traditional stoves: bronchitis, emphysema, and conjunctivitis?a painful eye infection. Additionally, I discovered how the villagers' dependence on firewood is leading to the deforestation of Nepal's lush green hillsides.
One report written by a previous Peace Corps Volunteer detailed an "Improved Cook-Stove" project he had conducted during his service in Nepal. This Volunteer had taught more than 50 women in his community how to build an improved stove—one that would ventilate the smoke through a chimney—using only mud, bricks, cow dung, and iron rods. It was extremely important both that the materials were cheap and available locally, and that the women learned how to build the stoves themselves. This Volunteer concluded his report by writing, "The success of this program can be attributed to the fact that it specifically targets the needs of those most intimately involved in stove use and the fuel cycle: women." After reading this report, I decided that the improved cook-stove (ICS) program was certainly something my village would benefit from.
There was only one problem. I am an English teacher. I had no experience building stoves or tackling deforestation problems. Nor did I feel comfortable charging headfirst into my village and declaring that everyone needed to change their cooking habits because, well, because I said so. So I enlisted the help of Marj, another Peace Corps Volunteer, who worked in forestry and soil conservation. Not only would she know where to start, but she also had a Nepalese host brother, Shiva Raj, who had previously participated in ICS training and had built a stove in his home. When I met with Marj and Shiva Raj, I had the opportunity to see an operating improved cook-stove and was impressed with the drastic improvement over the traditional stove: much less smoke, less firewood required, and a much happier, healthier family at mealtimes. I was also impressed with Shiva Raj—his charisma and his knowledge about the stove. I asked him that day if he'd like to help me give ICS training in my village.
Next I approached Didi Bahini ("Big Sister, Little Sister"), a local women's organization in my village. They helped me select 11 women from the village to participate. The women came from various backgrounds and different ethnic castes: Several were Tamang, the indigenous people of Tibet and Nepal's northern Himalayan region; another woman was Newari, who are the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. All 11 women lived in homes made from dung and mud and were using the traditional, open-pit fires for cooking.
On the first day of the five-day training, the women seemed apprehensive. I had made the mistake of distributing pens and notebooks to the women, only to find out that 7 out of the 11 women were illiterate. When I realized this, we changed the activity into a group discussion about the benefits of improved stoves, yet the women were reluctant to participate. During a break, I asked one woman how things were going. She replied, "I never went to school, I am not educated, and I cannot learn."
On the afternoon of the first day, Shoba, one of the more outspoken women, interrupted Shiva Raj as he was diagramming an improved stove on the blackboard. "When do we start building the stoves?!" Shoba yelled, exasperated. As it turned out, they weren't reluctant, they were ready to start immediately.
From that point forward, the training was a complete success. The women, without their pens and papers, thrived in the practical sessions. Shiva Raj built a sample stove for them, then had them split into groups and assemble their own stoves. On the second day, we started building actual stoves in the women's homes. Although I had played a minor role in teaching the women, I stood back and watched with pride as the women told Shiva Raj that they could build the stoves on their own. Over the next three days, we hiked from home to home and built a total of five stoves in five different homes. The very last stove was built under the direction of the woman who had told me she was uneducated and couldn't learn. "I did it myself!" she declared.
Two months after the training, I went back to three of the homes to check up on the women. With great pride, each woman showed off her new stove and insisted I stay for a demonstration and a cup of tea. One of the women, Sita, had dropped out of school after 10th grade, but had emerged from our group as a very skilled, capable leader. Her mother seemed pleased with her daughter's new skill. "Our Sita is very smart," she told me. "She built this stove herself, and now there is no smoke in our house. No smoke!"
A smile emerged across my face; I could hardly suppress my satisfaction.