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Engineering students head back to the villages to build rocket stoves

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Dartmouth, Tanzania, Africa, energy, engineeringEditor’s Note: Students from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering are working in Tanzania to help improve sanitation and energy technologies in local villages. This series chronicles work being done by the student-led group, known as  Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering (DHE) [formerly known as Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects (HELP)], to design "rocket stoves" in the village of Mwamgongo and top-light updraft design (TLUD) gasification stoves in the village of Kalinzi. The goal is to create a healthier, more energy-efficient cooking apparatus that these villagers will accept and use. DHE students are filing these dispatches from the field during their trip. This is their 19th blog post for Scientific American.

Our excellent partner "Fish" from Jane Goodall Institute was supposedly waiting for us in the village of Karago with the recruited villagers, but the bus was not leaving to go there until later in the afternoon. Eager to prove his resourcefulness, Changuvu (our new translator who is training to be a teacher) ventured into the village in hope of finding another car that could take us to Karago instead of waiting for the bus. While packing our bags, we heard a truck blare its horn, and Changuvu ran into our room with a grin, "We’ve got a ride!" We hurriedly shuffled the rest of our stuff into our backs, grabbed the materials we were going to use for the rocket stove and jumped into the back of pick up truck driven by a government official heading to a village past Karago.

After traveling a few hours and crossing a river on a ferry that liked to zigzag, rather than travel straight from A to B, we finally arrived to the village of Sunuka. We thanked the driver for his hospitality and removed our heavy load from the truck. We recognized some of the mudbrick houses and found our way back to the clay pit where we had worked previously. The villagers recognized us immediately, and it was not long before we heard "Mzungu!" (white person). We walked around familiar houses and found the bricks we molded for the stove. They looked perfect. The enthusiasm these villagers previously expressed had become exemplified through their work. Unfortunately, most of the villagers were still nowhere to be found. We still often forget about the relaxed nature of African time, and that meetings are rarely expected to actually start on time.  But one by one, the villagers showed up, some walking from sub-villages more than eight kilometers away. Many of them seemed very excited to learn how to make the stove. All the clay and mud bricks that we needed to assemble the stove were ready, and now it was time to put the puzzle pieces together.

Working with Fish from JGI, we started to show the villagers how to make the clay combustion chamber and the mudbrick superstructure. While Fish had to leave to go to a nearby village to teach others how to build the rocket stove, we stayed in Karago to educate the villagers about some of the benefits of the rocket stove and some of the dangers of the three-stone stove. Excited about starting a career as a Tanzanian teacher, Changuvu translated for us with sincere conviction, emboldening our message by making it his own.

With Changuvu’s help and a creative poster drawn by Wendy, we were able to teach the villagers and onlookers who had stopped to observe the building of rocket stoves about some of the social, environmental and economic benefits of a more efficient stove. We explained to them about how the rocket stove can help them save money by purchasing half as much firewood. These savings only amount to $50-to-$75 (US) a year but for families earning less than $1 a day, they are very significant. Changuvu explained to us that one man was happy to learn about these savings because now he could send his child to school.

We also educated the villagers about how the three-stone stove creates indoor air pollution, which contributes to acute respiratory infection (ARI) in their lungs. Many of them were shocked to learn that ARI is the second leading cause of death in the Kigoma region, according to a 2005 study by Tanzania’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and ORC Macro. During the question-and-answer part of our seminar one woman asked how they could reduce their risk of ARI now, and Tim explained that it’s like smoking cigarettes: The sooner you quit, the better. Another woman stood up and asked us a different and interesting question: For families where the men have more than one wife, should the wives have to share one stove or would each get a stove? We did not answer the question directly, but we suggested that for larger families more stoves would probably be a better option.

As we wrapped up our education program, we witnessed a group of villagers parading around a nearby home bearing gifts, including chickens and flowers. The villagers whom we were working with explained to us that the people were welcoming a newborn baby into their beautiful village. The sun began to set, and we said our goodbyes and thanked the villagers for all their hard work and willingness to learn our technology. They thanked us profusely for taking time to teach and explain to them about the rocket stove and ensured that they would use the rocket stove and teach others about it. As we embarked on the long walk towards Sunuka, we got lucky when we caught rides on the back of bicycle riders heading in that direction.Dartmouth,Africa,Tanzania,energy, engineering

We started work early the next morning in Sunuka. When the villagers traveling from the sub-villages arrived, we showed them step by step how to construct the rocket stove. We had each person practice putting together the bricks, which at first was a problem. The men in the group felt very inclined to dominate the work requested, and it wasn’t until I requested that the women try that they felt comfortable learning how to make the stove. Genders in rural Tanzania are very isolated in terms of work and authority, but the presence of Wendy, who is a Dartmouth student born in Ghana, provided an incredible model for the women. Just like in Karago, we held an educational session afterwards that allowed the villagers to ask any question they might have about the rocket stove.

After a couple days of teaching on our own, we left it up to Fish to finish teaching the surrounding villages. It was time to return back to Kigoma. We woke up at five the next morning and walked through the village in the moonlight looking for a crowd of people waiting for the bus that would take us to Kigoma. We found them, but unfortunately we were a little late, so we had to be crammed into the Dala-Dala public transport. After two hours of standing, two seats opened up and we quickly seized the opportunity. Exhausted from the last few days of work, we slept soundly until a man woke Tim by grabbing the chicken that he previously stored from under Tim’s legs. The bus broke down three times on the way back to Kigoma, and we became very worried since we had a meeting with JGI at 3 p.m. Luckily, Changuvu flagged down a massive truck transporting gravel, and we climbed up six meters to the bed of the truck to catch a ride on top. This was our final trip working with Jane Goodall Institute for the pilot program, and we were leaving the village in style.



Images courtesy of Wendy Hado





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  1. 1. stevenmcs 1:44 am 12/16/2010

    I might want a rocket stove.
    Where are complete plans?

    Link to this

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