Death By Fire

14 March 2011 at 18:00 3 comments

By John Farmer, KF 14, Mexico


The entrance to Doña Mari's restaurant and corn mill.

Friday, near Jojutla, in the Mexican state of Morelos, I had the pleasure of visiting Doña Mari. “Buenas tardes! Adelante!” she coughed in welcome. My visit was a routine Kiva borrower visit, a chance for me to learn more about our borrowers and further their understanding of Kiva.

Her credit history started ten years ago when her son was sick. Though her town has a free clinic, only a fraction of those who seek attention are tended to, so she took her son to private doctors. The medical bills piled up, and she borrowed from private lenders (a.k.a. loansharks) to pay her debts. She and her husband did what they could to pay off what they owed, but after several years they weren’t getting their heads above water. Fortunately, four years ago, through a government poverty eradication program, she received a mill to grind corn. That would give her a better income. The downside: she had a 220-volt electric mill sitting in her yard and nowhere to hook it up. To get it set up, she needed over a hundred dollars.

typical stove in Mexico

Doña Mari's stove is like most stoves in central Mexico -- a pile of cement block that lets smoke out at waist level.

That’s when she found CrediComún. With a small loan she was able to install the mill, and since then dozens of neighborhood women arrive daily to turn their corn into masa. With the revenue from that, and subsequent loans, Doña Mari went on to open a tamaleria (a restaurant that features tamales), and has begun raising her own hogs. The tamales that she makes are not like any tamales I’ve ever had. Inside the corn husks there is fish or chicken with chile sauce. No corn. The tamales are served with fresh corn tortillas. The combination of catfish, corn and chile is unbelievably tasty!

I heard a cough and noticed Doña Mari’s 11 year-old daughter working at the stove, preparing another batch of tortillas. Wood smoke from the stove was engulfing her.

girl cooking

Doña Mari's daughter cooking tortillas.

Life is outside in rural Morelos. The climate is perfect for it. The house is for sleeping. Everything else is done on the patio, under a roof but without walls. Even there, with a gentle breeze removing the smoke, the effects of the smoke are severe. Doña Mari has a gravelly voice that sometimes clears up after a coughing fit. I asked if she had ever considered installing an improved stove or at least a chimney.

“Yes, I’ve looked into it, but it would cost around $200.”

small stove

Cooking tamales by the entrance to the restaurant

Not only is there a main stove, but also two smaller ones, really just barrels with wood burning inside, on which she cooks tamales. These are strategically placed near the entrance to be visible from outside. No matter which way the breeze blew, I inhaled smoke. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be there all day every day.

fish tamale

Tamal de mojarra -- a fish tamale.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a major killer in many countries due to smoking or use of primitive stoves. The effect of the smoke on their lungs must be similar to that of smoking a lot of cigarettes. Installing a chimney on the main stove would have a huge positive effect on their health, one worth well over the few dollars it would cost. But how to convince someone to invest in their health and the health of their family when they’ve worked so long and so hard investing in advancing their business?

John Farmer is a Kiva Fellow at CrediComún in Mexico City. He doesn’t have all the answers, but is working on it. There are many ways you can help borrowers like Doña Mari — one is by lending through Kiva. A healthy cash flow helps alleviate poverty.

Entry filed under: blogsherpa, CrediComun, KF14 (Kiva Fellows 14th Class), Mexico. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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