When Tumaini Munisi showed her fuel-efficient stoves to Marianne and me last year, we were intrigued. If Tumaini and the nine other village women who were her partners could sell their stoves to most of the families in Dareda Kati, both the surrounding forest and the villagers’ lungs would benefit.
They made their stoves painstakingly, from locally available clay. Sifaeli Kaaya, the farmer and translator on whom we rely for so many things—including the nickname, “Mandela,” that he has given to this year’s Chinese volunteer, Winnie Wong—confirmed our speculation about the stoves. Tumaini and her partners had imitated the design of the Envirofit stoves that Karimu gave away to two hundred village families in 2011. The knockoff was imperfect because the woman worked with their hands, producing a slightly lopsided lookalike of the mass-produced Envirofit stove. Sifaeli agreed that the Envirofit stoves burn a little less wood and generate a little less smoke than Tumaini’s stoves do. But, in both of these ways, her stoves are a huge improvement over the open cooking fires that most families in the village continue to use, and the Tanzanian shillings exchanged for her stoves would stay in the area.
She even seemed to have the perfect name for what we imagined that her stoves might do for the village: Tumaini means “hope” in Swahili.
So, when we visited Tumaini and her partners again this afternoon, it disappointed us to learn that they have sold only a hundred stoves in two years. Dareda Kati and the adjacent villages could absorb several thousand of the stoves, but we realized today that keeping up with this type of demand—even if it could be created—would be a challenge for the women. They work in a low-ceilinged brick hut on the grounds of Dareda Kati Primary School. It is much too small for a classroom and not central enough to the rest of the school to be an administrative office.
Though I suppose the hut was intended as a storage room, the poverty of the school is such that it has nothing to store. (The contrast with Ufani Primary School, just two miles away, where Karimu has steadily made additions and renovations since 2008, is startling. This morning, before we met with Tumaini, Dareda Kati’s mayor and village council had pointedly introduced Marianne and me to Tekla, the fleshy, regally attractive woman who is the head teacher at Dareda Kati Primary School. Tekla walked us to her school and waved her arm toward a pile of bricks that a growth of head-high weeds had sequestered for their own purposes. “There is the teachers’ house that we want to finish,” she said. As I looked more carefully at the bricks, the vague idea of a house revealed itself. I asked when construction had begun, but Tekla didn’t know. “It has been many years,” she answered. She stopped to think. The effort left creases on her smooth face, but yielded nothing. “It is since before I came here.”) Two of Tumaini’s partners knelt side by side in the hut, taking up all of the available floor space in order to roll out the clay.
The women got to their feet, cleaning their hands on their long dresses, so that Marianne and I and Daniel Amma, the Ufani School teacher who was translating for us, and Tumaini and the other partners could all crowd inside. I counted the women.
“Is this all of you? Why are there only seven?”
Through Daniel, Tumaini explained that one partner had dropped out, decreasing their number to nine. Two others had been lost three miles away, where the women go to excavate the clay. The earth collapsed on top of the two women as they tunneled underground, crushing them.
The story shocked me, so I asked Daniel to make sure he had understood. He hadn’t, or not quite: the women did not die at the same time, but in two separate accidents. The second woman, knowing what had happened to the first, went back to the clay deposit some weeks later, only to die in the same way.
Tumaini and her partners continue to make the stoves, with the return on the two deaths standing so far at three hundred dollars, or the price of a single stove multiplied by the one hundred that the partnership has sold. They have hope—tumaini—that Karimu will lend them money because they wish to improve their business. They want to rent a bigger manufacturing space so that more than two women can work at the same time. They want to pay somebody to bring them wood for the fire that they need to harden the clay, because making the stoves already consumes enough of their time. They think that if they could produce more stoves, then they could lower the price to two dollars; they believe this would enable them to sell far more stoves, having heard from many of the villagers that three dollars is too expensive. Their business plan does not include a proposal for acquiring clay without the risk of their lives, which, this being Africa, they seem to take for granted.
After Marianne and I left Daniel, Tumaini, and the others, we met up with Dr. Susan Hughmanick, who had been nearby, at Ayalagaya Secondary School, preparing the lesson on safe birthing methods that she would present to the local midwives. We planned to walk to the construction site for the new bridge, but we got lost on the way. Even though we were not too disoriented to know that we had found the water downstream from the bridge, we could only estimate how far downstream we were. We headed upstream, dodging little shoots of kale and onion while hoping that the farmer whose land we had stumbled upon would be forgiving.
We found him hewing something out of a felled tree with his machete. He was talking to a boy who squatted beside him. Guessing the ages of children here is tricky, because poor nutrition retards the growth of so many of them, but I think this boy may have been about ten years old.
“Daraja iko wapi?” (“Where is the bridge?”), Marianne asked.
The man handed the machete to the boy, who confidently took over the hewing. Then he led us up a hill, setting a pace that we could not maintain. Out of courtesy, he paused every few steps to make sure he did not lose us. When we reached the bridge, we joined the line of villagers and volunteers who were passing buckets of gravel. There was still time to put in a couple of hours of labor before dusk, when the mosquitoes would come out.
At the end of the work day, Marianne chose to walk back to our lodging. For the second time in three days, I accepted a ride from the Bridging the Gap Africa engineers, Nate Bloss and Sylvester Ouko, in their four-wheel-drive truck. Sylvester, who had not had an imminent dinner on his mind the first time I rode with him, drove with more attitude today. Two of the Inspire Worldwide leaders who manage our volunteers, Jessica Beagent and Shannon Hodgen, stood up in back with me, exhilarated by the rush of swiftly cooling air that dried the sweat on our bodies, by Sylvester’s determination to sacrifice none of his speed even to the sharpest turns in the road, and by the rattle of our teeth when the truck would slam back down onto the red dirt after sailing across a dip.
My knuckles turned white on the roll bar. I wondered if my joy was as pure as that of Jess and Shannon, whose combined ages are almost, but not quite, the equal of mine. Maybe it was only my consciousness of their youth that prevented me from saying aloud what I was thinking: that I must never again ride like this in a truck.