During the summer, six OESians (Ben Ulmer ’12, Tess Oberholtzer 15, Sarayu Caufield ’15, Alexandra Ulmer ’15, Todd Ulmer (father of Ben and Alexandra) and Yasodha Caulfield (mother of Sarayu)) journeyed with 4 others to work with the staff from Food for the Hungry to build cement stoves in a community of about 140 families on the steep hillsides in Seougis, northern Guatemala. We thought we were going to serve. What happened, however, was that we came away having been served by a gracious and happy people, and with a new understanding of the meaning of community.
The villagers in Seoguis cook over open stoves inside small wood houses; heavy smoke fills the air as well as the lungs of the children and women who spend much of their day inside. Living in this smoke can shorten the life of women by 10-15 years, and contributes to one of the highest mortality rates in the Americas for children under 5 years old. The improved stoves that we built vent the smoke to the outside. Decreasing the smoke has several affects: decreasing respiratory illness, decreasing the time devoted to obtaining wood to cook and heat with, increasing the amount of time for other pursuits (mainly benefiting the women), and lower use of wood/forests.
The days were spent in teams of 3, entering into each home and working with the family to construct the stoves. We received warm and gracious hospitality, practiced speaking Spanish, and learnt a few words of their Mayan dialect (K’iche’). There was also plenty of time to play soccer and games with the children. Our group was very musical and gave various impromptu concerts with Sarayu on the guitar, Tess on vocals, and Ben trying to stay as far away as possible! On our last day, the village hosted a ceremony for us that involved a traditional procession through the village, music and speeches thanking us for our work. We should have been the ones giving the thanks. We spent the journey home planning for our return trip.
(I have attached a site discussing the stove projects from another relief organization, Heifer: http://www.heifer.org/blog/2012/08/improved-stoves-empower-women.html).