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  • Writer's pictureTamara Winter Nelson

A New Stove for Luisa

A New Stove for Luisa

Dear Friends of Tu’ik Ruch Lew,

Today we are sharing with you the second of Tamara Winter Nelson’s posts, describing her experience installing a new stove for a Tz’utujil family. We received so many enthusiastic responses from our readers about Tamara’s last post and we know you will enjoy this one as well.


A New Stove for Luisa

— By Tamara Winter, Tu'ik Ruch' Lew Friend and Volunteer

I have returned to a harsh yet magical place that captured my heart years ago: Lake Atitlan, cradled between three volcanoes in central Guatemala. I am volunteering with Tu'ik Ruch' Lew (TRL) "Helping the Earth," which provides fuel efficient wood stoves, called ONIL stoves. Today I accompanied Isa and Heman on the installation of a new stove in the pueblo of Chacaya.

Our first stop was the TRL office to load up all the stove parts. Parts include: the cement body of the stove, which is cast in three parts; clay tiles for the combustion chamber; crushed pumice for insulation; a steel plancha (cook top); and a stove pipe. Recipients of the stoves provide their own cement blocks for the stove base. Recipients also pay Q350s (Quetzales) ($45 US) for their stove. Tu'ik Ruch Lew purchases the ONIL stoves from the factory at a cost of Q1040s ($133 US) each—Tu'ik Ruch Lew makes up the difference through fundraising efforts.

We pile everything into darling 3 wheeled vehicles called tuk tuks and off we go. Chacaya is on a finger-like bay at the southern end of Lake Atitlan. It is cool and moist and known for its very tall bamboo and coffee production. We pass by forests of coffee growing in the shade. We pass by fields of tarps covered with coffee beans drying in the sun. If a sudden rain comes the tarps will be folded over like giant coffee burritos.

When we arrive, Antonio, Luisa and family welcome us “con mucho gusto”, with pleasure. They have already prepared a place for the stove, on a newly poured concrete floor with cement walls 4 feet high. However, the floor is not level, great for draining water in the rainy season, but not great for the stove. Antonio makes quick work with his machete to create shims. Concrete blocks are arranged as level as the eye can measure. The three parts of the stove body are stacked soundly on top. Next comes the combustion chamber, the heart of the stove. This is the exciting part. Heman inserts a metal mouthpiece designed to draw air. With the skill of practiced hands he eases the tiles into their specific positions, backfills with crushed pumice and tamps it all securely into place. A 6 foot stove pipe is attached with a wire mesh surrounding it, to prevent burns. It may seem silly to mention the stove pipe but it is hugely important and I have seen stoves in Central America omit this simple feature. Cost or availability invariably come into play. Occasionally a short stove pipe will jut right out of the house at knee level only to waft smoke back into the house.

At this point Luisa is visibly excited and giggling in anticipation. While Heman fills the rest of the stove with pumice, she is cleaning the plancha. This plancha is no run of the mill piece of steel, the lid of a barrel or a hubcap. This plancha is made of heavy grade metal which will not warp under heat. Two sets of openings and cooking rings are included that can be closed to provide a flat surface for tortillas or opened to allow a pot to simmer or boil. Luisa smears a slurry of cal (slaked lime or calcium hydroxide) on the plancha to keep the tortillas from sticking. Cal is also used during the cooking of the corn to improve the flavor and texture of corn meal by dissolving the bran and making the masa (corn dough) softer. Cal beautifully and coincidentally makes corn healthier by making niacin (Vitamin B3) more absorbable and thus corn more nutrient rich. Pellagra is the disease caused by niacin deficiency and manifests as dermatitis, dementia, and diarrhea and can result in death.

Isa, who has been overseeing the installation, now steps in to provide education on how to use and maintain the stove. With proper care the stove will last 20 years. The family leans in close to watch. If the stove is not regularly cleared of ashes it cannot draw enough air and the fire will choke, putting out plumes of black smoke. The simple task of scraping the soot from the underside of the plancha improves efficiency by a whopping 50%! Wood cannot be jammed into the stove or the tiles may be displaced or fractured. The combustion chamber itself can last 8 years if kept clean. The good news is the combustion chamber can be rebuilt for only Q70s. The family can now gather, chop or buy their wood so that it fits into the mouth of the stove.

Finally, it is time for the inaugural lighting of the stove. It feels like a ceremony! Matchstick to woodchip. While the stove quickly heats, Luisa pinches out just enough masa for a tortilla, rolls it into a ball, pats it into a perfect disk, and places it on the plancha with grace. Her work is an admirably efficient and fluid motion. Her giggle now cannot be contained and her laughter spills out infecting us all.

The family has agreed to be photographed so they pose proudly next to the stove with the number 2238 chalked on a piece of cardboard. This photo becomes part of the official documentation. Isa assures the family that she will return the following week to see how Luisa is doing and trouble-shoot any potential problems.

The family has agreed to be photographed so they pose proudly next to the stove with the number 2238 chalked on a piece of cardboard. This photo becomes part of the official documentation. Isa assures the family that she will return the following week to see how Luisa is doing and trouble-shoot any potential problems.

This small stove will be a tremendous improvement in their lives. Less wood needs to be gathered, more time will be saved, fewer forests will be depleted, less smoke will be inhaled and Luisa will no longer need to crouch down on the ground to cook the family's meals. Even Antonio is a bit emotional in expressing his gratitude.

We leave with satisfaction and smiles but we don't get far before Isa is approached by a woman who wants to learn more and get on the waiting list. Two more shy women sidle up to listen. After all, this is stove #2238, the technology is proving itself and word is getting out. Then we return home in the back of a pickup truck, my favorite way to travel. Standing behind the cab, our faces forward into the cool air of Chacaya, we smile brightly, filled with satisfaction.

Tamara, Isabel and Heman (back right) with two community members… and the ubiquitous firewood! 


Thank you to all of TRL's supporters and interested readers! We'll have another Tamara post soon.

Candis E. Krummel

Co-founder & President, Board of Directors

Canton Xechivoy Santiago Atitlan

Sololá, Guatemala Centroamérica

+1 502 4888-1244 WhatsApp

Skype: candis43

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