One full hour after starting our project we finally had the first layer of concrete blocks nestled next to each other, absolutely perfectly level and arranged in a large rectangular shape. Mitul and Grace, also volunteers from the Pop Wuj language school in Guatemala, carefully scrapped at the wet red clay while I was nearby hefting up each and every concrete block into tubs of pond water, allowing each block to soak for 10 minutes before taking it to Mitul and Grace. These concrete blocks were the first step toward creating an estufa, or stove, for a small and growing family in rural Guatemala.
This is one of the most instantly rewarding volunteer projects that I’ve worked on because I was right there with the family and creating something within just one week that they desperately need. The indigenous Mayans in rural areas of Guatemala often use small cook fires right inside their homes – these open fires stay lit and smoke up the house nearly all day and into the night. They are used for food, a source of light, and even heat. They’re also dangerous for the children and can cause severe respiration problems for the women and children who are so often inside of the home for long periods of time.
That’s where Pop Wuj steps in and lends a hand; with the help of locals within the community a selection process has been designed and Pop Wuj uses language school volunteers (and you don’t even have to be with the school to volunteer) to chicken bus it out to these remote areas twice a week to build cement stoves. (If you’re only in Xela for a short time this is the perfect way to give back for a day; they go out Saturday and Thursday every week.)
The base of the stove is used for height and to diffuse the heat – and it’s imperative that the base layer of bricks are level or else you spend the next four hours attempting to level other layers using cement compound under and around the bricks…the other group skipped the leveling process and had to strip down hours of work and start over!
The stoves were built in two stages – I was only able to help with Stage One stoves, the base, but the volunteer coordinator hiked with me over to a nearby village to see the finished stoves in action – the families were very proud to show off their stoves.
The entire project is incredibly rewarding and the families receiving our new estufa watched the building process with cautious excitement, the lunch photo was a simple but delicious lunch with an unlimited supply of tamales!