My name is Catherine Frith, and I need to share my journey from Australia to India, to visit friends in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, where I experienced a smokeless stove installation for the first time.
We walked down twenty-five meters of precarious steps, winding through narrow and rocky walkways of a rural village, while negotiating five to ten foot drops, and dodging low-overhanging sharp corrugated tin roofing at head level, requiring a mindful walk to the installation site, concentrating on my every move.
I was shocked to see the living conditions of the Dalit castes (untouchables) in tiny tin shelters, often without windows, only a door. The home I entered was about 2 x 3 meters, housing six people, with a rough, uneven dirt floor, corrugated tin sheeting for a roof, patched with bits of plastic and tar paper on the outside to keep out rain and wind in this cold mountain climate. The walls and ceiling are covered with a coat of black, thick smoke residue. Often, there is only one room for the whole family. There are no toilets, no running water and perhaps one bulb for electricity in makeshift wiring.
My intention is not to dramatize or exaggerate my experience that day. Untouchables face sad and defeating life styles on a daily basis due to many causes; unemployment, or low unsustainable wages, lack of education and illness without access to medical care, especially for the women and children.
The main cause of childhood death for children under five years old around the world is smoke inhalation. This is primarily due to people in rural areas cooking indoors, on open fires or poorly designed stoves without a chimney. Smoke-filled rooms result in health problems that include burning eyes, coughing, respiratory infections, headaches, low birth weight and still born children.
What I saw:
I saw babies being rocked to sleep in suspended hammocks made from a mother’s sari, hung near the open fires to keep them warm, but unfortunately where the smoke is at its thickest and most toxic. This is a crucial time for lung development for children under five years old. I talked to women that looked thirty years older than their chronological ages due to the ravages of a harsh life. Family members are often illiterate, and pulled out of schools to start work at a very young age, repeating the cycle of poverty.
I met many Indian people during my travels, but there is one special man that stands out above all others, whose name is Selvam. He is the mason that I worked with for six weeks going from door to door to install stoves where I witnessed his big heart and great integrity. I have never seen a laborer work so respectfully and speak so kindly to the people receiving a stove. When he finds a newborn baby in the neighborhood, he knocks on that door first. I knew right then that I just had to help him. Like Selvam, I can no longer walk away from the suffering of vulnerable people in need.
What can I do? I can tell you my story which is not ending, but beginning with a new focus, joining friends in starting a new venture, Kids Health India, an organization devoted to the installation of improved cook stoves in poor communities. I am now a vital part of this community development.
Kids Health India, Inc. was founded by a dedicated volunteer, Ann Peck, who lives in India several months of the year to ensure the accountability and transparency of this project. Ann is a reliable source of support for the people that we serve, providing understanding and respect for the cultural traditions and religions of India that ensures trust and hope for a better future.
How do we advertise?
As I watched Selvam installing a stove, at least five women came to watch him and requested that he come and install smokeless stoves in their homes. He says he is approached like this every time he installs a stove. Women are our best promoters.
What can you do?
Each family in India receiving an installation donates the cost of one stove and assists in the labor of the installation with Selvam to supplement our donations. Tell our story to your friends. One small gift of $35 US ($50 AUS) can change a families' life. Click donate.