Smoke in Bettie’s Eyes

Bettie’s skirt skims the flames as she steps past a steaming pot that is balanced on three blackened stones. She reaches for a wooden spoon, then turns and fans the fire as she skates by again.

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Giggling at my gasp for her safety, Bettie crouches to prod the sizzling potatoes, and is engulfed by swirls of smoke. She emerges, repeatedly wiping her eyes, and admits that they are sore – in a voice that suggests: this is simply how it is.

And it is. Women all over Malawi cook using the traditional three-stone method – either in an unventilated, otherwise unlit room, or out in the open.

Bettie’s eyes are just one symptom … 

  • 4 million people die each year worldwide from illnesses caused by the inhalation of smoke emitted by open fires.
  • Accidents are common – my worries for Bettie’s safety are not unfounded. One girl we know wears beautifully patterned fabric to shield extensive scarring sustained after a life-threatening fall into a fire. She was lucky to survive.

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  • Deforestation and erosion – Malawi has the fourth fastest deforestation rate in the world, due largely to its dependancy on wood (a household might need 3 big bundles of wood each week). This has the knock-on effect of rising CO2 emissions.
  • With deforestation comes the longer journey to fetch fuel (generally it is a woman’s task), or money must be found to pay for wood that is growing scarce, or charcoal (although charcoal production is illegal).
  • Just one pot can be balanced on a fire, so it is a highly inefficient way to cook. Margret’s kitchen is a hot and fiery scene of frying pans tended by her, Bettie and their friends as they cater for our large party.

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Enter the Cook Stove

A simple and effective solution that has the potential to transform lives.

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The clay cook stove is safer and more efficient (some types use just a third of the amount of fuel that an open fire needs). It also retains heat without billowing out constant clouds of dirty grey smoke.

Communities are already pulling together to manufacture cook stoves in bulk – generating an income and gaining carbon credits that can then be ploughed back into the community. This Guardian photo essay shows how.

The good news is that the Malawian government has pledged to introduce 2 million cook stoves by 2020, and is welcoming initiatives by NGOs and charities responding to the 2010 launch of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC).

The bad news (some say) is that the government’s promise will barely scratch the surface as the population continues to soar. Plus, although it commits to Going Green, the government also plans to build two coal-fired power stations in order to fuel development. This article (and film) explores the complex challenges Malawi faces.

But small steps of change can lead to big differences.

This excellent short film outlines the focus of an ongoing medical study involving 10,000 young children in rural Malawi: pneumonia is snatching away countless small children’s lives – will this study prove that something as modest as a clean cook stove can alter that?

As one Malawian medic says with a smile: “we are helping a lot of kids who will be the leaders of our nation.” This has to be the key.

And as for Bettie, Margret and their friends – maybe it’s time to offer their smoke-reddened eyes some relief. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Check out how happy these women are.

It’s so easy – here’s how to make a cook stove.


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