Preparing with my wife for a return this afternoon to the Middle East—Oman this time—has made writing impossible during the past week. But lately, even as we planned our trip, we have worried a lot about whether our nonprofit could raise money enough for a couple of hundred StoveTec Rocket Stoves. The Tanzanian villagers we work with loved the stoves when they saw them tested last August. So I reprint here my 2010 posts about the stoves, the first one from May 25 and the second from July 17. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” describes our experience in a Masai village, which made plain the need for a clean-burning stove. “Rocket man” reports on our dress rehearsal with the stove at home in California, shortly before its Broadway opening in Tanzania.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (May 25, 2010)—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
“Rocket man” (July 17, 2010)—The Aprovecho “rocket stove” I tested last evening in my yard exceeded all expectations. I wrote about this stove before, in my May 25 post, but now I’ve finally tried cooking with it. Two of the volunteers for our our upcoming trip to Tanzania—we leave on August 1, only fifteen days away—joined Marianne and me at our home yesterday, at around seven-thirty, for some outdoor cooking. The heat of the day had left our poorly insulated house still pretty uncomfortable by that time, but the outside temperature felt ideal.
Faren Clum, a former high school student of Marianne’s and soon a medical school student, arrived first and then Dr. Susan Hughmanick showed up with the stove she had bought from Stovetec of Cottage Grove, Oregon. My own Stovetec stove, a recent birthday and Father’s Day gift from my older daughter, continues to sit in its box on my dresser. I guess I haven’t unpacked it because I had worried it would disappoint me, so Susan’s superior bravery proved useful.
As did Faren’s habitual dependence on her iPhone once we unpacked Susan’s stove and saw that it came without instructions. The Aprovecho Research Center engineers designed the rocket stove partly to lower emissions and thus combat respiratory disease in poor countries and partly to reduce firewood burning, thereby combating deforestation in those places. So it makes sense that they chose to save even more trees by not printing a sheet with operating instructions, which Faren easily found online, anyway. (This morning, looking at the carton Susan left behind, I see visual instructions on the outside of it, but I don’t know that we could have decoded them.)
I hate camping, although I try hard in other ways to be a good American. My first reason to hate camping: typically I need to get up to pee maybe four times per night, and who knows when I might encounter a bear or a mountain lion or a Sasquatch outside my tent? My second reason: traumatic memories, from the early years of my marriage, of spending half of our camping vacations extracting fallen small children from the dirt in order to minimize their accumulated filth. Stovetec’s rocket stove can’t refute these objections, yet it has forced me to abandon my third reason to hate camping: getting a cooking fire going takes too long for someone exhausted, hence famished, by the hard work of cleaning and of worrying about bear attacks. However, Faren’s iPhone claimed—correctly—that a single match, a few scraps of paper, and a handful of sticks would have the rocket stove boiling water within minutes. I don’t quite understand how the rocket stove does this; if I did, I would be smart enough to be an engineer and to make a lot more money than I do. I only understand that from now on I shall always believe everything I read on an iPhone.
We cooked the quinoa and crookneck squash Susan had brought, unseasoned and unspiced like the food eaten by the villagers of Bacho and Dareda, and not so different from the maize or rice and beans they would cook. Okay, we cheated: we don’t expect to see brie and a baguette, pork sausage, pomegranate Italian soda, strawberries, and blood-orange sorbet consumed anytime soon in the villages. (Or even in Ohio, come to think of it; maybe only in California.) But the quinoa and squash cooked fast and also smokelessly, as long as I kept nudging the sticks of firewood along their conveyor into the combustion chamber so that it captured their flames. The stability of the rocket stove, which Faren and I tested, underlined the care that Aprovecho’s engineers have taken to develop a safe cooker.
The stove is eleven to twelve inches tall, ten to eleven inches in diameter, and weighs just over fifteen pounds, so we can probably carry Susan’s and mine onto the airplanes to avoid the possibility of rough baggage-handling. My July 13 post announced Karimu’s success in finding enough money to supply all of Bacho with mosquito nets. Next, if the villagers like cooking with the rocket stove as much as Susan, Faren, Marianne, and I did, Karimu can start looking for the funds to buy a couple of hundred stoves and prevent still more death.—Don Stoll