Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Three doctors will accompany Karimu’s other volunteers on our visit to Tanzania this August. In an earlier post I noted that one of them, Linda Miller, has taken charge of our project of supplying antimalarial bed nets for the village of Bacho. Susan Hughmanick, another of our doctors, shows particular interest in combating respiratory diseases among the villagers and hopes we can persuade them to accept low-emission stoves.

In fact, although smoke ranks as the sixth leading cause of death in poor countries where people cook most of their meals over open fires, the problem encompasses more than respiratory disease. In such countries open fires also rank among the top causes of serious injury, especially to young children who sometimes fall into the flames. Nevertheless, regular daily exposure to the cloud of chemical agents released by burning wood harms many more people than do the flames themselves. An open fire secretes about four to five thousand micrograms of fine particles into one cubic meter of air, some three hundred times what the Environmental Protection Agency says clean air holds. The World Health Organization attributes one and a half million deaths per year to indoor smoke and, on my first trip to East Africa in 2007, it seemed that I watched two such deaths unfolding in front of my eyes.

My wife Marianne and I had stopped at a Masai village on the perimeter of Tanzania’s majestic Ngorongoro Crater. The Tanzanian government permits only the Masai to travel on foot among Ngorongoro’s teeming wildlife. On the floor of the crater, safe in our hired four-by-four, I asked our driver, Francis, how often a lion would kill an unlucky Masai herdsman. Francis didn’t know, though he assured us that the Masai fear Cape buffalo even more than lions. The Masai take every precaution they can to avoid notice by lions and Cape buffalo. (We have a friend of Masai descent named Justine Sokoitan who manages the Integrated Agricultural Training Center, which provides modest accommodations for Karimu’s volunteers when we work in Bacho. Justine tells us that a stone rubbed against one’s armpit and thrown upwind from a lion can put it off one’s scent.) But I suspect the Masai give no thought at all to indoor fire, which inflicts much more damage on them.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that, at the time, inhaling the fumes of one of those fires was not the least pleasant aspect of the few minutes we spent among the Masai. These villagers, aware of exactly what living at the edge of a great tourist attraction means, subjected us to the same program that many thousands of other drop-ins from the rich world experience there every year: hasty recitation of the English alphabet by a handful of children, a perfunctory “traditional” leaping dance—lasting seconds, it seemed, and surely nowhere near as long as it takes to play a standard Top Forty hit—and then, the end which alphabet and dance had served as transparent means, the jumping “warriors” shepherded us through a gauntlet of trinket-sellers. The Masai shepherded and Marianne and I bleated, meekly asking the price of a bracelet here or a necklace there and, too intimidated to negotiate, paying up so we could get out as soon as possible.

We felt these very poor people had cheated us out of our fifty dollars, or whatever amount we left with them. I suppose we still feel that way, and I know we don’t want to go back to that village. Now, however, three years later, as I reflect on how little fifty dollars mean to me, the memory of the smoke from the indoor fires of the Masai grips me more than do my memories of the alphabet or the dance or the cheap trinkets. The fire I breathed from, along with a young Masai man and woman, sent its smoke upward to an opening of several square inches in the low thatched roof. Even though the smoke made my eyes smart, I know they were clearer than the eyes of the Masai couple. Then again, I sat next to the fire only long enough for the man—who did all the talking for the couple—to grow bored with my predictable questions. He knew his job was to move me quickly in and out of his hut so that I would quickly listen to the alphabet and watch the dance and buy the trinkets. He stood to indicate that I needed to leave and then he led me outside. And then he shook my hand and turned to go back inside to his life and to sit next to his fire.

Marianne and I take the Karimu volunteers far away from tourist country every summer. The people of Bacho seem never to have thought about what they could sell to visitors from the rich world. This helps explain why we return there instead of to the Masai village. But just as much as the Masai village, Bacho depends on open cooking fires. Unfortunately Karimu, despite our ambitions, probably cannot find a way to wire Bacho for electricity or to pipe in cooking gas for at least several more years. So in Bacho this August, Dr. Hughmanick wants to demonstrate a wood-burning Aprovecho “rocket stove”—so called because of the roar of its draft—in the hope that the villagers will like it and ask us to bring more.

Burkhard Bilger’s excellent article in The New Yorker last December 21 and 28, which brought Aprovecho to Susan’s attention, points out that one can easily build a stove which exposes the user to fewer harmful chemicals than an open fire does. Yet the effort to design a stove that people in poor countries will accept because it is not “too flimsy or inefficient or expensive or unstable or unclean or hard to use” makes an astonishingly tortuous story. Aprovecho even maintains a tiny “Museum of Stoves,” exhibiting a representative collection of well-meaning but failed models from over a dozen nations. Karimu doesn’t want to offer the people of Bacho a stove that, analogously to the bed net converted into a bridal veil or a fishing net, ends up as a storage bin. This would happen to a stove which—to list some of the flaws in the relics populating the Museum of Stoves—took forever to boil water, or consumed twice the wood of an open fire, or tipped over with stirring, or even (in the case of mud stoves) melted in the rain like the Wicked Witch of the West.

But Karimu doesn’t need to foist such a boondoggle on the people of Bacho since a small number of stove-designers have recently made substantial progress. We especially like the work of Aprovecho, a small nonprofit research company based in Cottage Grove, Oregon, near Eugene. The New Yorker piece depicts the company’s work to develop a clean-burning, rugged, inexpensive stove—costing only a few dollars—as a “kind of hippie Manhattan Project.” The article also suggests that all of Aprovecho’s countercultural brilliance and passion may finally have produced a stove that the world’s poorest people would agree to substitute for their open fires.

Susan, Marianne, and I plan to have some fun with this: our own taste test of some things cooked with an Aprovecho rocket stove. I’ve never tried food writing, since Marianne and our children say I have a crude palate. But maybe it’s time.—Don Stoll

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About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
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