StoveTeam Blog

22 Oct

A long letter from Nancy

When I started running around to Latin America to start stove factories, I would write an e-mail to all of my friends describing my adventures. Once the business of StoveTeam took off, we started sending monthly newsletters, and I began thinking that the e-mails weren’t all that interesting.

Sitting on the plane now, I’m thinking that my last two and a half weeks might be worth writing about and sharing with family and a few good friends. If you’re not family, then I guess you are my good friend and might forgive me if this is too long and uninteresting.

I left about three and a half weeks ago, and once I finished five days of giving speeches to Rotary Clubs in Southern California, I flew to Ixtapa to attend the Opportunity Collaboration. The idea was to enjoy the company of people from around the world working in poverty as well as have a little time at the beach. I packed my snorkel and bathing suit and prepared to practice pilates every day and enjoy the company.

Who knew that it would be so hot and humid that nobody went into the swimming pool? I kid you not, the pool was like bath water, and it was so hot I packed a backpack in the morning so I didn’t have to walk back and forth to my room.

It was, however, wonderful to re-connect with friends whom I never see unless I’m at the O.C. It was fun to reconnect with Fred who had just returned from Nigeria and Susan who encouraged me to join her in Nepal. I loved talking to Raja about his project in Lebanon as well as getting to know some of the people in my morning meetings – the Colloquium for Common Good.

One of the participants there was Sara, a 30-ish Muslim woman with an M.A. from Harvard in mathematics. That doesn’t sound particularly impressive until you know that she is completely blind and started an NGO helping the handicapped throughout the world.

I participated in an afternoon meeting with one of the “lost girls from Somalia”, to discuss what to do about Ebola. We were to come up with ideas to help re-design or refine the hasmat suits used by those treating Ebola patients. I didn’t know that Clorox can be used to kill the virus, and that one of the problems in the spread of disease occurs when the health worker removes the hasmat suit.

The idea of the conference is to convene, connect and collaborate. Every year, the conference has resulted in something productive for StoveTeam. This year, just as I was about to leave, Fred de Sam Lazaro pulled me aside and said, “You have to meet Annie. She wants to talk to you about cookstoves!” I was racing to catch the bus to the airport, but in a few brief moments I met Annie, one of the most impressive photographers at National Geographic. Stay tuned, who knows what will happen?

From Ixtapa, I flew to Mexico City, had supper with Itzel Orozco, one of the young women who, five years ago, lived in my home in Eugene, and the next morning took off for Minatitlan to meet Lida, the dynamic young woman from Jaltapan who wants to start a stove factory.

Minatitlan and Jaltipan are south of Veracruz in another hot, muggy, buggy area on the Caribbean coast. It is, of course, October and the end of the rainy season, but as I was in Mexico I decided to go despite the rain, see the proposed site and meet with the local Rotary Club. I hoped to see the Olmec sites, but that was not to be because the museum was flooded.

It was a good thing I went, as the members of the Rotary Club were very worried about StoveTeam and might not otherwise have supported the stove project. Some had attended the Rotary District Conference and had heard about our problems with the Bicentennario Rotary Club of Oaxaca, and they had been told not to work with us. I had sent them, in advance, the complete list of our attempts to work with the Oaxaca club, but they were still wary. Once I met with them, showed them how we had started successful factories elsewhere and explained that the Oaxaca club had been thrown out of Rotary International, they were very much on-board.

Lida, our potential stove factory owner, was extremely well prepared. She had made a complete power-point along with a seven-page document explaining how the project would work. She had invited local governmental officials and members of the two local universities, all of whom were also interested in using the stoves as the first point of entry into helping the local indigenous communities. Who knew that she had worked previously with the U.N. and knew how to present projects very professionally? If we are successful in getting something going there, I know it will be a success.

Three Rotarian women joined Lida and me the next day as we drove over rutted roads to the island where Lida and her husband live. It rained off and on as we inspected different types of cookstoves. All of the homes had palm-thatched roofs and everyone cooked either on a “fogon”, a raised wooden platform topped with adobe and a layer of ash, or on a makeshift raised open fire surrounded by a curve of mud. There is no way a chimney stove would work there, as a hot chimney would catch the roof on fire!

We viewed the proposed factory site and, at Lida’s mother-in-law’s home, were treated to a traditional “caldo” of chicken broth with pieces of choyote and tortillas, and then visited Lida and her husband's eco-home and learned about their eco-toilet.

We set out early the next morning to visit the small towns in the sierra. We passed a community where the entire community is descended from African slaves and still practices native rituals, dances and songs.

Then it started to RAIN! Driving over rutted roads at 25 mph because of “topes” (big cement bumps) and areas where the roads are entirely washed away, we entered the biosphere - the entryway to the small towns. Lida said the roads beyond were treacherous and, because of the mud, would be impassable. It was still dreadfully hot and although the rain had diminished the number of mosquitoes, it was miserable, so I proposed changing my airline ticket and returning to Mexico City.

We had done what I came to do, and there was no real reason to continue. I had seen quite a few communities, and Lida knew she needed to look further for pumice and baldosa tiles and determine the cost of transporting them. We had good cooperation from two universities and governmental officials, and I had convinced the Rotary that we were a reliable organization. It was time to go.

I called Victor at The Red Tree House, my favorite bed and breakfast, and there was room for me. Mexico City was cool and comfortable, and it felt like coming home. There was, as always, a congenial group of guests, and I connected with two women from Darwin, Australia. The three of us walked for hours around town, visited the Anthropology Museum, and dined again at MeraToro on some of the finest food I’ve had anywhere in the world. The weather was overcast and in the high 60s with light rain, and I was ready to come home.

Love to you all,