Saturday, 11 August 2012

Your Turn

          We were working in a village in the mountains of The Dominican Republic, ten miles from the Haitian border, among the poorest people I have ever known. Their problems would fill pages. I was there to help with what was idealistically called “appropriate technology”, and my wife’s job was health and nutrition among the women and children.

          One of the goodies in my kit bag was the Lorena stove, a way of using firewood that was twice as efficient as open fires. This was to help slow down the tree-felling that was causing erosion that in turn lessened crop yields. The stove could be made by compressing clay and sandy soils into a block, with maybe a touch of cement as a stabiliser.  Tunnels dug out of the block recycled the hot smoke and sent it up a chimney made of old tins, away from children’s eyes. Along with boils on people’s backsides, conjunctivitis, leading to trachoma, was a big health issue in Rio Limpio.
          Like the cliché of a volunteer from someplace rich, I went around cheerfully touting Lorena stoves, convinced that they had a lifesaving role to play. Surprisingly, nobody wanted one. We managed to talk a few of our acquaintances into letting me build one in their outdoor roofed kitchens, but we noticed that when we passed by the only fire to be seen was the traditional open flame. But I was convinced that if we kept selling the idea it would take hold.

          It never did. When I asked why, people sheepishly told me that the smoke from the old fires kept the insects away. And anyway, they liked looking at the flames when they sat around after eating.

          One of my wife’s friends was a pretty widow called Llo Lla (pronounced “Georgia”). Barbara used to visit her and her kids and take little presents—things like sugar and powdered milk. None of them had shoes. One day, Barbara decided to invite her to our house.  This was a 9 by 16 foot palm board shack with a thatched roof.  But it housed our one guilty secret.

          We had no vehicle, nor did anyone in Rio Limpio. The roads were impassable about half the year, and our sending agency believed in its volunteers living at a basic level. The sole exception to the rule was a camping stove with an LP gas bottle. The reckoning was that, if we spent all day as everyone else did, hauling water and firewood, that we’d have no time for teaching anyone anything. So every few weeks a guagua, or local taxi, would bring us a refill.

          Llo Lla was shy as she entered the shack. Barbara sat her at a table in a folding director’s chair we had brought from the capital.  She made Earl Grey tea, added a couple of biscuits from a tin and put a jug of UHT milk on the side. Llo Lla didn’t like the tea, but smiled anyway and finished the cup like cough syrup. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the gas stove.  I could see she wanted to say something, but just waited. Finally, she asked if she could try it.  I gave her a kitchen match and she lit the cooker, staring into the blue flame hypnotically.

          Barbara was moved.  She burst out, “Oh, Llo Lla, I feel so guilty because I have so much and you have so little!”

          Llo Lla was a woman of sweet disposition, but when she spoke, her eyes were hot with something like anger.

          “Listen to me, Barbara,” she said fiercely, “It’s your turn. If you don’t enjoy it, then how can I wish it was mine?”

          Twenty years later, I’m still working on that.


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