9 Jan 2013
My eyes glance over a familiar gas station through the window of the car, an old land rover that has lost its shock absorbers. I am accompanying Carmen, the director of Pop Wuj’s social outreach projects, as she does a home visit in Llanos del Pinal. It is January and it is time for Pop Wuj to select a new group of families for our stove project.
Over the next few months volunteers will build safe stoves to replace open fires in the houses of carefully chosen families. Carefully chosen because families must be, or at least appear to be, poor enough to merit our help. We do a home visit to inspect houses. If a house looks nicely built – with more than one floor, several rooms, or nice appliances – then we assume that the family ought to have enough resources to construct/buy their own stove. If the family already has a stove they are, usually, automatically rejected. Sometimes Carmen will make an exception for a family with a small gas stove – if they obviously only use it when they need to cook something quickly, and if it’s apparent from their house and circumstances that they are hurting for money.
The first home we pull up to is a cluster of three adobe constructions arranged as three sides of a square. A sheet-metal gate forms the fourth side. Ofelia lets us in by pulling back a section of sheet-metal that acts as the door in their gate. She is the matriarch. Our contact in the family is usually the matriarch.
Carmen introduces us and why we are here. She is careful to explain who we are and even more careful to explain what we are not. “We’re a social cooperative funded by our Spanish school, all of which is run by Guatemalans. We are not the government, a foreign or international organization, or a church.” At each visit Carmen makes sure this is clear. The government isn’t always trusted. There are religious quarrels in Guatemala between Catholics and Evangelicals. And she doesn’t want the families to see our American volunteers and assume that the organization has a lot of money.
Ofelia seems excited to see us. Her whole family, including children who are probably grandkids and six chickens, come out into the small courtyard. From here I see that the three constructions of the cluster are each a single room. One is a bedroom, another a family room or a second bedroom, the last the kitchen.
We ask to see where Ofelia cooks, wanting to examine the space in which building will occur. The roof of the room is especially important. All holes should be patched so rain doesn’t damage the new stove.
The first item we see is a large gas stove. I stop walking and look at Carmen. My breath is held. I know that in theory a rejection is coming, but I do not know how to deliver it. She turns to Ofelia and gently asks, “You already have a stove?”
“Si, pero es caro.” Yes, but [gas] is expensive. “We were hoping for a wood-burning stove so we can collect firewood instead.”
“I see. But I’m afraid we won’t be able to build you a stove. We are a small organization with limited resources; we’re looking for those in the most need of our help. For this project this is families that cook over open fires, because of the specific problems fires cause. I’m afraid what your stove shows us is that you have enough means to solve these problems on your own.”
“Oh, but it’s not my stove. It’s my daughter’s. She’s lending it to me.”
This pulls my gaze from the ground towards Ofelia. I believe her. And the thrown together rooms with dirt floors and corrugated metal roofs show me they are far from a well-resourced family. I know that I would make an exception. But maybe I’m too much of a sap.
Carmen stays firm. She echoes what she said a moment ago and adds, “I appreciate that you didn’t hide the stove from me. Some families have tried that.”
The family is gracious as we leave. The children are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and follow me with their eyes. Carmen thanks them for receiving us. I secretly hope that we do not find enough families in this village (we build stoves in groups of ten) so that we can come back and give Ofelia some good news.
“Saying ‘no’ rarely happens, usually our filters before the home visit are good, but it is difficult. And we have to be careful with exceptions. If others catch wind of an exception, there could be trouble,” Carmen tells me while unlocking the land rover. I learn that other organizations are doing stove building work in Guatemala, each with their set of (similar) requirements.
We drive for a few minutes to another home in Llanos that looks strikingly similar to the last one. Luz de María is our contact here. The door is opened by a middle-aged woman with teeth missing, wrinkles around her mouth, and braids on either side with purple thread laced through them. She says that she is Luz and shows us into her small courtyard.
Sitting on the floor half in shade is a visibly old woman. Her hair is arranged like Luz’s sans the purple thread. All-but-two of her teeth are missing. Luz introduces her as her mother Raisa, instructing us to yell because she’s hard of hearing. I shout, “Hola! Soy Nicki!” Raisa takes my outstretched hand and nods vigorously. I’m not entirely sure if she understood what I said.
We are shown into the kitchen. It is bare except for a small portable table upon which utensils are strewn-about. On the ground the earth is scorched where the fire usually sits. There is no sign of a gas stove.
In the courtyard we begin the interview. I ask questions while Carmen writes notes and interrupts when necessary. Luz has six children but only the youngest, unmarried and in his early 20s, still lives in the house. However one other son lives in the house just to the north, one daughter in the house to the east. The rest have not gone far; they all live in the same village. All the sons went far enough in school to learn to read and write. Two of the daughters did not.
Luz responds in the negative when we ask if she has a job. But after careful prodding – Are you otherwise productive? Do you work in the fields? Wash clothes? Sew? Sell vegetables in the market? – she tells us that she has irregular work going to houses and doing other people’s laundry. Here a “job” means steady, secure employment. Luz’s husband and youngest find work in the fields when they can, other people’s fields.
We learn that, thank goodness, no one in the family has been burned by their open fire. But the smoke does bother Luz. It makes her eyes water and sometimes, she thinks, it causes her to cough.
Carmen makes some notes about the construction of the house. After giving Luz more information about the stove project, including what the family is expected to contribute towards building materials (no more than USD $8), the interview is over.
On the way out I stop to ask Raisa if I can take her picture. At 92 she is well into what is called la tercera edad, the third age, yet she is hard at work sorting corn kernels. I’ve seen many like her in Guatemala. Worn old bodies planting and harvesting in the sun, carrying heavy packages of goods to sell, leading a pack of sheep up a mountainside to where trees still stand and shelter grass on which animals can graze. I am impressed, and I want to record the moment.
For more information about safe stoves that replace open fires, see: https://naranetacrossing.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/clinic-sin-respirar/