The Safe Stove Project is a collaboration between Asociación Pop Wuj and rural K'iche villages in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, and is offered as a volunteer option to students of Pop Wuj and visitors alike.
There are many organizations that work with rural communities to build safe stoves, and I chose to join Pop Wuj, a Spanish school in Quetzaltenango that contributes tuition proceeds to several community development projects. This particular initiative was developed to combat the dangers that result from cooking indoors over an open fire.
Every Wednesday morning we met at Pop Wuj and gathered tools, met other participants and our teachers. Instead of the traditional daily 5-hour class, teachers join their students to conduct informal, practical language classes on-site. I found this real-life practice of language instruction with locals and other students extremely effective.
The school's housekeeper and community liaison, Lety, heads up the outing each week. Lety is a bilingual K'iche woman who communicates the value of the program to families in the rural communities surrounding her own village. She organizes transport via local bus service and also gets down and dirty with volunteers, distributing materials and delegating tasks. She also organizes the purchase and delivery of materials, which is partially funded by Pop Wuj and the participating family.
The on-site work varies from mixing and applying concrete to installing aluminum chimneys to hacking bricks with a machete. No special skills are needed except the willingness and ability to do some strenuous physical labor and acceptance of non-existent safety standards. Although I never personally felt unsafe and was never expected to do anything I was uncomfortable with or unable to do, there is a huge difference from developed countries in general approaches to safety, which, in my opinion, only enriches the experience.
During my service, I helped build stoves for four different families and found the entire program incredibly rewarding. My favorite days were when Lety would bring her children, who happily and impressively pitched in, often directing volunteers on what to do next.
The Safe Stove Project directly improves the health, safety and financial positions of families in the most poverty-stricken areas throughout rural Guatemala by reducing smoke inhalation, accidents and expenses for firewood. It also gives interested volunteers the opportunity to gain a better understanding of Guatemalan culture, politics and language while making meaningful connections with the beautiful people that make up this complex, rural landscape.