Don’t Let the Smoke Get in Your Eyes

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.32.32 AMBy Geri Anderson

I knew this was going to be a different kind of day when Aome and I squashed into a four-seater pickup truck with three young engineering students from IBERO University in Mexico City. At our first stop out of town, I watched as Oaxacan workmen with muddy feet and bulging muscles sloshed through the brickyard emptying buckets of sand and dirt into the pickup. The university guys added armfuls of bricks to the truck’s load, which already included lengths of PVC tubing and shiny aluminum piping, some elbow shaped for chimneys.

We were off to San Sebastian Abasolo, a small agricultural village, about ten miles from Oaxaca City. We would help Andrés, Eryk and Sergio build an almost-smokeless stove for a Zapotec family. The three students had spent a month in Oaxaca working with Fundación En Vía, a non-profit organization working to support social and community development through microfinance, education and cultural tourism. They would be redesigning cooking areas. Using bricks, they constructed a box-like combustion chamber with spaces on top for the traditional comales (clay platters), used in cooking over open fires. In the new stoves, smoke is directed outside through chimneys.

The students had expected to build about a dozen stoves but by the end of the project, 32 cooking areas in three villages had been made smokeless.

“These stoves, built with the help of volunteers and family members, make a significant impact, they help reduce costs in the short term on wood and in the long term on health issues ,” notes Carlos Hernandez Topete, director of Fundación En Vía.

“We consider our tours to be a form of responsible tourism,” explains Mica Miro, En Vía’s responsible tourism program manager. “Eighty-six percent of our funding comes from tours that we run. We also receive private donations.”

During the fund-raising tours, which are on Thursdays and Saturdays, participants visit villages, talk with micro-loan recipients and learn about the culture and way of life in Oaxaca’s indigenous pueblos. To date, En Vía has given out over 2,000 interest-free loans, totaling more than 4.5 million Mexican pesos. Also, in the last seven months alone En Vía has provided more than 300 hours of free business training, English classes and workshops on computers and marketing.

“We are also currently offering a series of health and nutritional workshops,” Mica said. “These focus on diabetes prevention and include cooking and Zumba classes.” When the borrowers pay back the loans, that money is re-circulated into a second set of loans for more women entrepreneurs. After the tour fees are loaned out two times, En Vía takes a small amount of money out to cover their low overhead costs and invests the rest in community projects and a continually rotating lending pool.

En Vía borrowers include women who weave products such as rugs, purses, shawls, tablecloths bedspreads, and curtains. Some women work with silk, and still others specialize in creating embroidered aprons, tablecloths, and napkins.

“We also have women working on other crafts, such as candles and piñatas,” Mica said. “Several of the towns we work in are agricultural towns where the borrowers grow and sell garlic and other crops. Some raise chickens, pigs, goats and other farm animals. All kinds of businesses can benefit from access to affordable credit.”

Some of the women run small shops in their pueblos, including general stores (abarrotes), school supply shops (papelerías), pharmacies, vegetable and fruit stands. The stove project was a “hands-on” field experience for the Mexico City students. What the three lacked in experience, they made up for in energy, enthusiasm and willingness to adapt their stove designs to suit individual needs of each of the women. Therefore, no two stoves are exactly the same.

Their basic stove design was based on the Patsari stove model, an original design from Michoacan. As they went along, they changed the design, creating two tunnels so that heat can reach the back, where there are spaces for smaller comales. Any reluctance the women might have had to change the way they’ve been cooking for thousands of years was overcome when they learned of the health benefits.

According to Mexicoconservación AC, approximately onefourth of Mexico’s population (28 million people) rely on open fires for cooking and/or heating. The Patsari stove design cuts fuel use in half, and the chimneys reduce indoor air pollution by 70 percent. Health studies show that users suffer 30 percent less respiratory infections and 50 percent fewer eye infections.

Upon arriving in the village, I started my day as a volunteer in the stove project with curing the bricks by dipping them into a tub of water until the bubbles stop. Then Aome and I sifted what seemed like tons of sand and dirt, removing small pebbles and debris. We watched as the guys made a small volcanoshaped pile in the middle of the kitchen floor. Here they stirred together mortar (bought at a local hardware store), sand and water to form a mixture that held the bricks together.

I must admit that most of my time was spent with the women and children in the yard, where they husked corn and cut up various naturally growing herbs which they mixed into a delicious soup for us at day’s end.

Geri Anderson, a retired journalist, has lived in Oaxaca City since 1997. She recently self-published a memoir of her life in Oaxaca entitled, “OH OAXACA!” email: geriande@yahoo.com.

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