Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
A mix of sweat and clay creeps down my temple as I submerge a brick into an aluminum bucket full of water. As the terracotta absorbs the liquid, bubbles escape from the edges, rippling to the top like inspired banter at a cocktail party. When the last of the bricks are damp and ready to use, I wipe my arm across my forehead and turn to our work crew for further instructions.
Eugenia Ricárdez, an employee with Fundación En Vía, and Eryk Grynberg, an engineering student on a social service placement from Universidad Iberoamericano (UIA) in Mexico City, are busy laying a foundation of water and cement inside a metal mold that is assembled on a cinder block base. Pia Aiko Tokiyama, a volunteer with Fundación En Vía, is sifting shovels full of dirt and mixing the result with fresh water.
We are in the home of Enedina, an En Vía microloan program participant in San Miguel del Valle on this Wednesday morning, with the target objective of building a brand new smokeless stove from scratch. The full work crew has been busy over the past week, with a total of ten stoves on order for the community, along with further additions to come in San Sebastián Abasolo, Santo Domingo Tomaltopec and Teotitlán del Valle.
As with the interest-free microloans and educational programs, these smokeless stove builds are mainly funded through responsible tourism fees, along with some contributions from the individual families.
Soon, the bricks are all in place and we add a layer of mud mixture to the stove top, leaving room for the addition of two comales – round earthenware griddles that are commonly used in Mexico to cook everything from tortillas to sauces. Once the grills are in place, we add in the stovepipe through a hole that is cut into the tin roof of the kitchen area. The extra space around the pipe is then filled with additional cement mixture to keep the smoke flowing smoothly.
Open fires using stacked wood are generally used in these community stoves, and with the addition of this new smokeless design, a healthier environment is realized that lowers the incidence of smoke inhalation, and with that, the dangerous risk of a range of respiratory infections and lung cancer.
The true test comes after the family helps us to clear away the remaining debris, and soon, a fire is lit inside the belly of the now complete stove. As the comales gradually heat up, a bucket of ground corn is brought to the kitchen, with individual balls of dough being transformed into flat disks on a press. As the tortillas are flipped on the comal to keep the crispness even, the oldest son smiles bashfully as we yelp out birthday wishes, his mother noting proudly that he turned 13 that day. Once the fire is stoked with additional wood, everyone smiles widely and holds up a sugared tortilla as a toast, both to another year older and a successful build complete.