Smokeless Stoves: Sandra Velasco Camon and Germana Ambrosio

Sandra Velasco Camon

To reach Sandra Velasco Camon’s house can be precarious and requires great patience. First is the two-hour drive in the backcountry of Chimaltenango. After follows a twenty-minute walk down a steep pass that is overshadowed by rearing mountains that nearly block out the sky. The landscape is dry, dust caking the gravel path and filling the air. Those unaccustomed to the trek may easily slip and fall.

By living in remote conditions, Sandra recognizes that resources can be difficult to come by. For years, she especially struggled with meal preparation. Between buying food, finding wood, and cooking, much of her day was occupied by strained attempts to feed her family. “I was cooking with a sheet of metal and a few blocks, plus, wasting too much firewood,” Sandra says. “It was difficult.”

Despite her efforts, she recalls how debilitating her previous stove left her. The smoke would burn her eyes, and the falling wood pieces seared her skin. “I couldn’t work or do anything,” she says. “I would have these pounding headaches, and I couldn’t go to the doctor.”

However, for the past five months, the circumstances have reversed. Since building a new smokeless stove with Habitat for Humanity Guatemala volunteers, Sandra’s health has improved dramatically. The headaches no longer plague her, and she can work without preoccupations. “The stove heats up quickly, and I feel so much better having it,” she remarks. “I like that it doesn’t use a lot of wood. With just a little bit, I can cook everything. I can make tortillas very easily.”

She now uses a handful of wood, which will last her two days. In the time that she saves by not looking for firewood, Sandra can be a grandmother. In that time, she plays with her rambunctious three-year-old grandchild, Alex. “The stove is working like it should,” she smiles. “It gives me more time.”

Sandra recalls the group of volunteers that helped build her stove positively and is happy with the help that they provided her. “They were friendly, and they worked together to support me,” she says. “I am grateful to them. I give them my blessings and my gratitude.”

Germana Ambrosio

“In March, they came to build it,” remembers Germana Ambrosio. Standing in the middle of her kitchen, Germana is surrounded by strings of paper party decorations that flutter in the gentle breeze. “These decorations were brought by the group of volunteers when we had our good-bye celebration,” she comments, reaching up to touch one of the colorful triangles. “They remind me of them.”

Germana speaks of the day that a group of Habitat for Humanity Guatemala volunteers arrived at her home to build her smokeless stove. She recalls the experience fondly, and it remains fresh in her memory even five months later. “It took about half a day to build the new stove,” she says. “And the group was so friendly, hardworking. We got along well, and we were so content.”

For years, Germana longed to find a better cooking option that would help feed her family of seven. Previously, she had used a comal, or a heavy rounded metal sheet that can be balanced over a small fire. While comales are suitable for making tortillas, they can be unsteady, and in many cases, extremely dangerous.  “There was always so much smoke,” she comments. “It affected me in every way you can think of. My eyes hurt, I had headaches and a cough, and I burned myself a lot.” Germana went to the doctor several times. However, her treatment was inconsistent. “Sometimes, they gave me medicines for free. Sometimes, I had to pay a lot of money. It was very difficult for me.”

However, since the stove’s construction, Germana notes that there have been several positive changes. First, her health has improved dramatically. Another major difference is the amount of time that she spends looking for wood. “Before, I would look for wood about five times a week for two to three hours at a time,” she counts. “But now, I only look two times a week.” With the extra time, Germana can prop up her feet and relax. “I love it!” she laughs.

Another advancement has been with how quickly she cooks. “The stove is working well. It heats up quickly, and I can put everything on it at once. Tortillas, coffee, everything is easy now. I feel so excited to have this in my house.”

As for the group that she met, Germana is grateful for their hard work. “Thank you for supporting my family.”