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Summer 2013 Blog - Emily Chou

Emily Chou is spending eight weeks in Nicaragua working at blueEnergy.

July 27, 2013

After building a stove so quickly and easily with Don Melvin’s help, we were full of optimism for the stove. Although we wouldn’t know how the stove would perform until it fully cured in a few weeks, it looked so neat and pretty that it was hard not to believe in its potential. Before we had gone to Rocky Point, we had begun to build a stove on company grounds, but progress was very slow; when we came back we were confident and prepared to finish the half-completed stove once and for all.

stove_done

The stove that is nearly done.

Knowing how impressive the stove could look, however, made us realize how unimpressive the current stove was in comparison. Though we had been mildly dissatisfied with the stove beforehand, especially with the way the mud mixture was inexplicably cracking between the bricks and over some (but strangely not all) parts of the surface, seeing a better example solidified our doubts and convinced us to undo our work and start over. Though it was a bit disheartening to move farther away from our goal, it was also an opportunity to find out more exact details about the mortar to prevent it from cracking again in our second version. Though the mortar we used at Rocky Point was much better than the mixture we had made for our first stove, he had decided proportions based largely on intuition; unfortunately there was no way to replicate his intuition so I needed to find more information on the logic behind this.

Many searches later, frustrated by the lack of specific information, I noticed that many stove designs used handmade adobe bricks and mortar, which was a much more informative and thoroughly explained subject. Most importantly, since adobe’s strength depends on not just the amount of soil mixed with other additions, but the proportion of sand and clay in the soil, it was possible to apply the knowledge to different types of soil.

Though it was much easier to start building this time, with a clear idea of what should happen, the stove was still a slow work in progress, with fewer hands available to help. Though a huge advantage of the stove is that anybody who could collect dirt and stack bricks on top of each other could build the stove, having somebody like Don Melvin who worked with the surety and speed from years of experience with construction could make a difference. It was little things, such as cutting bricks to size or estimating the amount of mortar per brick for every brick to be level with its neighbors, but despite the underestimated time needed, the stove was done by the last day.

July 10, 2013

stove_construct

Emily helping with the construction of the stove.

Soon after we visited Manhattan to find possible beneficiaries, we were invited to see a Peace Corps-led installation of the Inkawasi stove in neighboring Rocky Point. Though we had a step-by-step manual, it was extremely vague and not well-organized so we were able to ask more detailed questions in person. The volunteer in charge of this project had already personally installed more than seventy stoves, though this was the first built on the Caribbean coast. In total, thousands of Inkawasi stoves had been installed on the more populated Pacific coast, where wood scarcity from extensive deforestation is an extremely urgent issue, adding economic pressure on top of health concerns.

Unfortunately, due to some miscommunication about the location and unlucky timing, we arrived after the community started building the stove body, but were able to see the majority of it completed that afternoon. The next morning the final details were added quickly and the new communal center had a stove ready for future meals. The stove is usable immediately after everything is assembled, but takes up to two weeks for the mud mortar to fully dry and perform well. Once the stove is in use, women will only need to build up a fire in the morning to keep the stove hot for the entire day, saving a lot of fuel and time normally spent minding the fire.

Afterwards, we were ready to build a stove in the communities. Though we planned to build one in Manhattan, communication was delayed by inconsistent cell service and general disorganization within the community. After several failed attempts to mobilize everyone, Manhattan was finally starting work on repairing an important bridge that was threatening to wash out with the next flood. In the end, planning the logistics of our stove installation in addition to their current project was too much to handle. Instead, we returned to Rocky Point with tools and materials to build a private stove for Don Melvin next to his house. We planned for three days, arriving on Thursday and leaving Saturday.

group_team_build

A group shot with the team who helped build the stove.

However, we had underestimated Don Melvin’s motivation and preparation. When we arrived, he already had the locally sourced mud mixture waiting for us, extra bricks (which was an extremely lucky forethought since many of our bricks had broken on the way), and his sons and grandsons visiting from nearby Hallover. We finished the concrete base before noon, letting it dry in the hot afternoon, and were able to finish all of the brick-laying in a few hours before the sun set. There was even enough time to coat the stove with more mud, giving it a smooth finish. It poured rain the next morning, but we were able to roll the metal chimney indoors, undisturbed by the weather. The rain even stopped before noon so we departed happily with the sun shining on our success.

June 25, 2013

While the first two weeks were full of interesting experiences, they were only an introduction to these past few two weeks. Last Thursday, a group of us from blueEnergy left Bluefields to visit several outlying communities, talking to families about their energy needs and checking that previously installed technologies were still functional. We planned to survey Manhattan, guided by the Peace Corps volunteer stationed there, and then head to Pearl Lagoon for the first night. The next morning, we would leave for Kakhabila, staying there overnight and returning to Bluefields on the third day.

It was my first time out of Bluefields, and even though Bluefields does not look like much of a city, it is a crowded metropolis compared to Manhattan. Manhattan in Nicaragua, unlike the American version, is extremely spread out, with individual farms scattered throughout the forest. Even calling them farms is somewhat misleading, since people in Manhattan do not clear huge swaths of land to grow plants. Instead, they simply thin out the jungle and plant their own trees around the native trees, sending the breadfruit, plantains, and coconuts that grow on them to other communities to sell.

current_stove

The current stove being used by a family in Manhattan, Nicaragua.

Though the Peace Corps volunteer, Stephen, had hoped to introduce us to five families that he thought would most benefit from a more efficient stove, the endless rain that day limited us to just two families. One of the families had a very basic design where their pots sat directly over an open fire. Though they were not bothered by their current stoves, their entire kitchen filled with smoke and forced us to withdraw to a room farther away so our eyes would stop watering. Watching the women breathing in such polluted air and knowing they are damaging their health every day reinforced how important these improvements are, even if they believe their current design is good enough.

That night we had planned on catching the bus mid-route at Rocky Point to Pearl Lagoon. Since we were at the heart of Manhattan, it was a long walk to the bus stop and we ended up missing the last bus just as night started to fall. After a day anticipating a nice dinner and hostel, we decided to walk two hours to Pearl Lagoon anyways. The walk itself was an adventure, as we left the jungle and crossed a savannah, wading knee-deep through water at one point where the road had flooded from the continuous rain.

At Kakhabila, a peaceful coastal community, we picked up three old stovetops to repair, replacing the crumbling clay with cement. For much of the day however, we simply enjoyed the naturally beautiful views from the spacious community lodge. Though I was relieved to return to Bluefields the next day, I am really glad I was able to see the diversity of the surrounding area.

June 6, 2013

stature_six_cultures

A statue in Nicaragua representing the six cultures of Bluefields.

It’s only been about a week and a half since the four of us Cal Energy Corps fellows arrived in Bluefields, Nicaragua, but a lot has happened in this short amount of time. We’ve taken the time to get used to the area and blueEnergy, the NGO we are working for over the summer. Bluefields, which is on the lesser-known Caribbean coast is extremely multi-cultural, with six distinct ethnic groups living close together: the Miskito, Rama, Creole, Mestizo, Garifuna, and Sumu-Mayagna. In addition to Spanish, each group speaks a distinct language, so sometimes even Creole English can be heard on the street.

It’s not just the city that is diverse, blueEnergy attracts volunteers from all over the world. Everyone trickles in to the main kitchen to pick up steaming dishes for lunch. People can be heard chattering away in French, Spanish, and English, often switching between languages in the same conversation. How does blueEnergy attract so many different people? Many people learn about blueEnergy and come to Nicaragua through the French branch of blueEnergy, while in the US blueEnergy invites interns from universities such as MIT, University of Pacific, and Berkeley (to name a few) to come and work on a wide range of renewable energy projects. Mixed with the internationals are locals, coordinating visits to beneficiaries and figuring out the day-to-day logistics. Although some people are employed full-time, there are also volunteers who come to work on a project for few weeks to more than a year. My project involves working on efficient cook stoves, while others are investigating water filtration, biogas production, solar latrines, and more.

During the first week we arrived, and after going through safety orientation and touring the city, we got an overview of what blueEnergy does. For instance, on Wednesday we visited workshops to help build water filters, which blueEnergy sells for a portion of its production cost and trains people on its maintenance and general importance. On Thursday we dropped in on families, checking on their satisfaction with the blueEnergy product, which could be a latrine, water filter or stove. This week I’ve started reading documents about stoves and the many details going into the theory and practical step-by-step construction. There is a lot of literature to go through, and since a lot of it is entirely in Spanish, it has proved to be an interesting challenge. I’m glad to get a chance to learn some vocabulary that would rarely come up in conversation.

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