Deciding the impossible; who receives our help?
We enter Gabriela’s home and, without asking a single question from our survey, know that she would benefit from an eco-friendly stove and chimney. There is only the one large room – with a sheet hanging down the centre to section off the sleeping quarters. In the far side sits an open clay fire for cooking. Above the dark billowing smoke? Years of built up mounds of black soot cling to the exposed sheet of corrugated iron. The house hosts no chimney, nor windows, only a door at the front and another at the rear. An open blue plastic water tank stands tall next to the back door and a rusty bicycle waits by the front. Other than this, their home is bare. The mud floor resembles that of a shed more than a family home. The fact it comes without electricity reinforces this sentiment too.
As she answers our questions, Gabriela takes a solid metal iron off the stove and informs us that this is how she irons everyone’s clothes. As if on cue, her 13 year old son returns home from school wearing an immaculate uniform; shirt glowing white and crease-free, trousers equally as tidy. Whilst it comforts me to know that he obviously won’t stick out amongst his classmates at the high school an hour’s walk away, it does upset me to see what he comes home to… He should at least have electric, I think to myself. The boy clearly has something though; a mother who cherishes him.
After the second house, we start to get a sense of how impossible our task is going to be. This month we are to build three water tanks and eight eco-stoves to those we consider most vulnerable. That’s 11 beneficiaries in a village comprising more than 80 households (I use the term household loosely; many don’t come with solid walls… Holes for windows are clearly a luxury too).
The next house we assess is occupied by an 89 year old lady. She’s alone during our visit but tells us she has a son who’s away at work. As she whispers her way through the questions she grips her hands tightly together. Whilst standing in front of us, in her faded blue cotton skirt and grey shirt, I scribble down observations of the kitchen whilst another volunteer inspects the other areas. The building is made up mainly of exposed breeze blocks, again without windows. There is however the odd hole, haphazardly created. These allow the passage of wires, barbed wire and sticks with sheets attached (to form make-shift internal walls).
The lady in the third house reminds me of the lady from the first; a mother who clearly puts her children before everything else. She is tall, dark haired and stick-thin. Faded and stained clothing hang from her frame and she stands with the back of her hand constantly wiping the sweat from her forehead. Despite cooking, she has a young girl cupped in her other arm, and a young boy crawls around on the floor kicking the bottom of a hammock which hangs across the middle of the dark living area.
Throughout the remainder of the day, and the short-listed visits which follow, I meet single parent mothers, chronically ill fathers, teenage parents and families with severely disabled children. The strength of my smile decreases with each house visited.
The final household is a toughie, not because of any apparent poverty (quite the opposite!) but because of the number of adults living under the one roof; ten to be precise. This flags up the criteria of environmental impact where the (high) number of inhabitants in a household means more trees need to be chopped down each month for firewood. Given the impact deforestation has on this community (localised flooding, soil erosion; overall crop/food insecurity) we do need to include these guys in our shortlisting process too. This is despite them having a tap in their kitchen and cupboards – the first I’ve seen since being out here. Personally, I’m more for helping those immediately most vulnerable; the families where kids are sleeping in the same room as the dirty smoke or the households where middle aged women have to walk for kilometres to collect fire wood but, alas, the decision is not only mine to make.
As we share the list of the selected beneficiaries with the team there’s very much a sense of job well done… I guess in hindsight it is a good mix, ten of the most vulnerable families plus the saving of a hell of a lot of trees over the years to come.
Now for the fun to begin: time to build.
*Names and personal details altered to respect privacy.