Healthy Home Kits: Carmen Choy and Miriam Ajcalong Xep

Carmen Choy

As rain falls down in sheets and lightning flashes, Carmen (74) stands in her kitchen, trying to warm up with the heat of her stove. She lives here with her son, Juan Carlos (48), who is blind. They are part of an indigenous Maya community that only speaks Kaqchikel, which is a commonly spoken local dialect in the Sololá Department of Guatemala. Carmen wears traditional clothing that her daughter made for her. These items are woven by hand and then dyed with natural colors extracted from plants. The colors, patterns, and geometric shapes of her “huipil” or blouse hold special significance in Maya culture.

This scene would have been impossible just months before. After warming herself up, Carmen reveals that she is pleased with her new smokeless stove for a multitude of reasons. She says proudly: “My new stove is bigger. I can cook several dishes at the same time.” She explains that the old stove was smaller and emitted a lot of smoke. When she prepares meals, she is no longer affected by smoke fumes, which negatively impacted her and Juan Carlos’s health.

Carmen learned about smokeless stoves as part of Habitat for Humanity Guatemala’s Healthy Home Kit program. Thanks to a promoter, who came to her community and gave a presentation to her neighbors, she found herself immediately interested. It would be an opportunity to significantly improve her family’s living conditions, despite previous attempts.

Three years ago, another nonprofit organization offered a latrine to Carmen. But soon after constructing it, the latrine quickly fell apart. The interior space became dilapidated, and the ventilation system failed. As a result, the space was dirty, and the environment, miserable. At that point, Carmen decided not to use it anymore, eliminating her access to sanitary services.

For these reasons, Carmen is glad to have a new latrine. During the construction, she specifically asked to the site manager to dig the hole wider than planned, in order to extend the use of her latrine. Her reasoning? “I wanted it to last as long as possible.” She also notes that the new latrine is much cleaner and offers her more privacy than she had before.

Carmen also uses a water filter now. Her family no longer suffers from stomach pains, which were caused by bacteria in the river water that they used to drink.

Most of all, Carmen is grateful to the group of volunteers who came to help her. “I won’t ever forget the work of the group. Every day when I use my stove, the water filter or the latrine, I remember their kindness.”

Miriam Ajcalong Xep

“Tortillar” (making tortillas) is a precious tradition that runs in Miriam’s family. As a child, Miriam used to prepare tortillas with her mother, whose own mother had taught her. The skill has been passed down throughout generations.

Now, Miriam lives with her mother and her two daughters, Miriam (9) and Astrid (2). She still makes tortillas, which she sells to her neighbors and at the market to earn her living. Although she makes 150 tortillas daily, Miriam only earns 30 to 35 quetzales (equivalent to $4.20 to 4.90).

To meet the demand for her tortillas, Miriam must use a stovetop surface to grill them. Before participating in Habitat for Humanity Guatemala’s Healthy Home Kit project, she used to share the stove with her mother and always needed to wait until her mother had made her own tortillas before using it. However, one day, that all changed. “When the neighborhood committee came to my door to tell me that I could have my own stove, I was so glad,” Miriam remembers.

Soon after, a volunteer group came to help with the stove’s construction. Miriam has fond memories of that day. “When the group came to build the stove, I was glad to have them in my house. They were so enthusiastic, it made me so happy. I thanked God to have sent me the international volunteers,” she exclaims. “Thanks to them I have a new a stove, latrine, and water filter.”

Miriam is proud to have her own stove and says that it is a gift from God. “I needed to wait one week after the construction of the stove to use it. It was really hard because I was so excited to try it.”

The Healthy Home Kit has also significantly improved Miriam’s economic situation. One benefit is that her new smokeless stove allows her to save money. “It only needs three pieces of wood to heat up,” she notes. “Before, we needed more wood. I used to buy some every fifteen days, but now it lasts more than a month.” By saving money from foregoing firewood purchases, Miriam and her family buy other items. “I spend it to buy some things for my daughters, to make them happy.”

In addition to her stove, the water filter has improved her family’s health. “We suffered from stomach issues because of the water, mainly because it was not clean,” Miriam says.  “Now, we have pure water.” Miriam also saves some energy thanks to the water filter. “Before our water came from the village. Every two days we needed to fill our water tanks. Now, thanks to God, with the filter, all we have to do is clean it, fill it, and use it again.”

Lastly, Miriam notes, her newly built sanitary latrine creates a safe and cleaner environment for her family.

Miriam is grateful to all of those who supported her. “I thank God, and then I thank the group for their help”.