Thursday, March 15, 2012

Just some boiled potatoes in their big deal?

       Monday evening I decided to boil some potatoes for dinner for myself, Brian and Mary (two volunteers currently working in the village). Usually the guest house cooks, John and Senator, would get involved in the process somehow, regardless of how simple it was or how many times I’ve done it (John is of the firm belief that Westerners never cook and therefore he must teach us as much as possible), but today I decided to try to attempt to cook by myself. Given the lack of a balanced diet, I thought it would be a great idea to boil the potatoes in their jackets to get some much needed roughage, which made Brian, a volunteer from Ireland and our resident potato expert, very happy.

    Having successfully scrubbed the potatoes and put them in to a boiling pot of water to cook, I sat back to relax, happy that I got that far undisturbed. But this didn’t last for long. In less than 5 minutes, I heard Senator and Jerry (an assistant in the kitchen) shouting my name.

“Amanda! Amanda! Come! Your potatoes are spoilt!” they shouted across the guesthouse as I came running. Walking into the kitchen I saw Senator shaking his head, and an expression of comical disbelief on Jerry’s face.

“You have not taken the skins off. You need to take them out of that pot and remove the skins before you spoil them.” Senator advised me knowingly.

“Oh no, I like the potatoes with their skins on. They taste great and they’re good for you.” I responded.

Apparently I made the joke of the year as Senator and Jerry exploded in laughter, pointing to the potatoes in utter disbelief. Jerry finally pulled it together and got serious, “Amanda, I grow these where I come from. I know these things. You do not cook them with the skins on.”

Not willing to budge I employed Brian’s support to convince them that I was not ruining the potatoes. They may not have believed me, but at least they would believe Brian, who they referred to as “Musei”, which means wise man.  Their skepticism went down by about 0.1%.

“People do cook them with the skins on and they taste great! You should try some when I’m finished with them!” I pleaded, fishing for anything at this point to make them not throw the potatoes out.

They finally gave up, or rather, they left me to my own devices. Shuffling out of the kitchen shaking their heads, up in arms at my violation of the potatoes, I knew I convinced them of nothing but the fact that I was one crazy muzungu (aka foreigner). This would be the joke for the week in the village I was sure. I did end up making some great boiled potatoes which myself, Brian and Mary enjoyed, although I did somehow feel the need to hide them out to avoid more scandal.

As we sat back, savoring a meal other than maize and beans, I thought to myself, if it’s so difficult to convince people that you can eat a potato with its jacket on (and I don’t think I really succeeded in convincing them) how much more difficult must it be to convince people to change other cultural norms? Such practices as cooking with an open flame is believed to give the food a unique and much better taste, and soaking beans to reduce the cook time is thought to ruin the flavor or rather, it isn’t the “African” way of doing things. As I got a glimpse of the resistance to alternative ways of doing things I realized that these norms are held so closely to the culture that it’s quite a daunting task to adapt some habits. It only really sunk into me how really daunting this task was as I sat under the shade, watching the sun set on another day, boiled potatoes in their jackets hidden from scrutinizing eyes.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rocket Stove Failure?

      Last December, during the bi-annual permaculture design course held a Nyumbani Village (which I attended), we built a wonderful rocket stove in the outdoor kitchen of a house in cluster 3 of the village. Using all locally available materials, we custom-made this rocket stove to fit the pots of the household. Rocket stoves are much better for the environment as they create much more fuel-efficient fires compared to the three stone fire stove thus reducing the fuel wood demand. They also produce less polluting gases and smoke, which is healthier for the cooks, and they are much safer to use than the stoves that are currently used. At the beginning of the year I checked in on the family to see whether they used the rocket stove over their conventional fires and was happy to see a pot of rice boiling away on the stove. After asking a few questions as to how the stove is operated, who operates it and how often it is used, I went away happy knowing that our project worked.

the traditional three stone fire stove (with an additional wind break) on the left and the new rocket stove on the right
      Earlier in the month of March, I decided to check up once again on the stove to see how things were coming along. Heading over in the evening, I was sadly greeted by an abandoned rocket stove and next to it, a three stove fire burning happily with a pot of beans atop it. No one from the family was in sight of the stove so I knocked on the door. Two young girls that I recognized as the cooks of the house emerged looking a bit nervous. After doing the usual greetings I began to question them about their preference for the open, three-stone fire stove as opposed to the rocket stove. Having to re-phrase my questions a couple times to get the answers I needed I finally understood their reasons for abandoning the rocket stove. To begin with, the rocket stove requires much more attention during cooking than the open fire. The space to place the fuel wood is small, which enhances the efficiency of the combustion but also requires the cook to hang around feeding the fire with smaller pieces of wood. Clearly it was easier for the girls to put a huge hunk of wood in the open fire, set up their pot, and forget about it. After a long day at school, they were more inclined to spend time socializing as opposed to hanging around a stove feeding a fire. The rocket stove also required fuel wood of a certain shape and size. Given that the children are responsible for fetching firewood and this task can take up to five hours at a time, the children weren’t too picky in which pieces of wood they brought home as long as they finished their chore in the shortest amount of time. The girls insisted they used the rocket stove for meals that take a short time to cook and they proudly stated they cooked chapatis (a flat bread and staple of Kenyan cuisine) on the rocket stove. When questioned as to how often they cooked chapatis, they admitted to once a year, when they are given chapati flour for Christmas (chapati flour is relatively expensive). Given that their diet consists mainly of maize and beans, ingredients that take an excruciatingly long time to cook, their explanations implied that the rocket stove went pretty much unused.

     Disappointed by the result, I was happy to learn about their cooking needs and preferences of the household and how each stove worked (or didn’t work) for the household’s lifestyle. The rocket stove completely ignored these factors in the design and this is probably part of the reason why they are difficult to implement and fail after a period of time. As I walked away, I thought to myself, instead of designing new stoves for the families it may be worthwhile instead to refurbish the current stoves the families use to improve their efficiency, safety and environmental impact. Yet another project for volunteers to explore in the village!