A Mission to Improve Health

My 20-year-old son, Gabe, and I just went on our first trip to Guatemala with Medical Teams International (MTI). We went to a small village called Ojo de Agua, which means “eyes of the water,” to help around 70 families living in the remote, mountainous Chicaman region.

Most people in this area live in a cement or wood-framed structure with a dirt floor and no running water. Each home has one or two rooms at best and a couple of beds in the rooms. MTI has a three-year mission with the Guatemalan villagers here. Our objectives for this mission are to help prevent and manage malnutrition, diarrhea in children and pneumonia in children under age two.

The Difference a Stove can Make

These three issues stem from the lack of running water and sanitary waste systems and cooking inside over unvented wood stoves. Providing new vented stoves and latrines are the two main health work projects that for these people. Gabe and I worked with a team that built stoves in each home. With vented stoves, families will not constantly breathe smoke, which causes the high incidence of pneumonia in children younger than two.

The stoves are simple: a small fire box encompassed by cinder blocks and volcanic rocks with a metal pipe that vents smoke through the roof. Stoves are made in Guatemala and cost about $130 each. Every family contributed $10 for their stove – a substantial contribution for these people that gives them a true sense of ownership. The stoves are expected to last 20-30 years.

Guatemalan MTI Workers, Village Elders Teamwork

The new stoves change a cooking tradition of generations, so the people initially had some resistance. Yet, when we arrived, each house had an empty spot where the traditional open wood fire once stood. The elders who partner with Guatemalan MTI workers had explained the mission’s goal and naturally the mothers were willing to try a new device in the hopes of a healthier family. (My next post will be about the relationships of the local MTI workers, village elders and volunteers.) Gabriel, one of the elder, told them the new stoves were coming so they discarded the old ones.

Gabriel told us he started working in the sugarcane fields as a young boy. His job was to stoke the fire. He worked over smoke from sun up to sun down, which caused him to lose part of his eyesight. His wife who is in her 70s is also losing her eyesight from cooking over the fire all her life. Gabriel hopes that the new stoves will protect young people’s eyes.

The stoves are expected to reduce the incidents of pneumonia by 67 percent. Additionally, they require less wood and therefore help mothers save energy (they gather wood) and cut deforestation.