Hello, we’re from a far off land and we’re going to show you how to build a fire.

Ma sa’a ch’ool

From the moment we entered the house and were introduced she stood steadfast behind her fire table. It was immediately obvious that this was her spot in the home. Her feet firmly planted on that small spot of dirt floor. Behind her on the walls in that corner were a couple small shelves, and bowls, pans and a few unremarkable utensils all hung within easy reach. She began to build a fire. Or, more accurately, to build up a fire as the embers are probably never really cold here.

The fire table was a simple affair about two feet high and four feet square. Made of rough wood, the six inch tall sides held the bed of dirt that the fire was built on. There were three rocks spaced casually in a triangle against which she leaned sticks of firewood, pots, or ears of roasting corn. Aside from the rocks there was no apparatus, no grate or racks or tools or machined parts, and it was obvious by her spare movements that she was expert in this space with her bare hands and needed none.

She hardly moved a foot in either direction as she watched us begin to work in the opposite corner of the room preparing the space for her new stove. I could feel her anxiety in the air and caught her stealing sideways glances at the new device. How could this possibly do what her dirt table and rocks and her life of fire building skills could do?

As the new stove rose up from the ground as just concrete blocks and then more functional parts and finally a simple but coherent construction that looked like a stove, her fire grew larger and smokier. I was certain that she would have an easier time adapting to it if we had at least placed the new stove in the same spot in the room as her tradition cooking fire – her place of power from which she watched over the comings and goings of the family and others in the home. Literally, her place in the world.

And by the way, now I’m going to cut a hole in your roof.

We were fortunate that it did not rain hard while we were there working in the houses. It rained only once, lightly at first and hard only after we had gone back down to the school at day’s end. For a people who are born and live their entire life under a corrugated tin roof, I can’t image what it must look like to have a stranger come in and suddenly cut a hole in your roof. Living in a tropical climate in a small room with a dirt floor, a leaky roof would be a well-known hazard to avoid.

Depending on who was wielding the tool – anything from a butcher knife and a hammer to a pair of tin snips – the holes were either well shaped ovals with little extra space to be filled by caulking, or gaping gashes requiring generous amounts of caulk to fill. At the end of each installation I wondered how this might be done a little better. But I also marveled at the simplicity of it all and hoped it was a net improvement. We always ended with a prayer, their thanks for giving our time and effort and money to help them, and a fire in the new stove. There was no doubt they were grateful. I’m just not sure they knew exactly what for. Time will tell and the benefits to the children and everyone in the home of ventilating the smoke are without question.

MTI says they plan to monitor the adoption rate and use of the stoves, including maintenance, and I am interested in following up to see what they determine. I think there is room for improvement. But that may only be the rational, square, plumb and level perspective on building techniques where I’m coming from. When I allow myself to stop thinking about it and just feel the experience, what a blessing I have received!

OT Millsap


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