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The Stove
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In the villages, Indian women cook over an open flame cooking ring in the center of the home. After 30 years of exposure to the smoke of wood and dung, many women develop cataracts and end up discarded, a blind beggar on the street, or relegated to a dark corner of the hut, useless and barely tolerated.

The Peace Corps trained us to make mud brick stoves with flues that channeled the smoke to the outside, and with cooking surfaces shaped and adapted to fit the cooking pots of the woman exactly. In addition to preventing future cataracts, the stoves also had the immediate benefit of using less wood or dung for cooking and the warmth from the mud bricks kept the hut warm through the night.

After I had been a villager for six months or so, I convinced one of my women friends to let me build this fancy new stove in her hut. Mud brick is cheap and easily obtained, and she was the kind of person who was interested in my crazy ideas, especially since she seemed to have a green thumb and her tomatoes, eggplant and okra were flourishing. Happy because of her success with the kitchen garden, she said we could make a stove for her.

I made the stove per specifications, chimney flue and all. I took her cooking pots and made the cook holes conform exactly to her pots. I used the dung-and-water mixture to seal the surface and sides (it’s used on floors, too, and it dries hard and as dust-free as cement). It looked perfect!

We gathered up twigs and sticks and made a modest little fire in the stove. Very quickly the smoke started billowing out, stinging our eyes, setting them to water and burn. Choking, gasping and crying, we went outside and watched the smoke gather itself, and pour out of the door and climb skyward. I was mortified.

No one had warned me that mud brick stoves have to cure for 48 hours with a very low slow fire (coals and embers really) before being used. The whole village ranged around the hut, watching my friend and me sit on the ground, commiserating. No one laughed. They all looked quite glum.

Everything in the hut had to be brought outside and cleaned; the hut smelled of smoke for days. She continued to use the stove thereafter, and it worked fine. I explained that I knew what mistake I had made and that it wouldn’t happen again but no one else in the village wanted one, ever.

Wonder why.

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