January 6, 2009
by Pat Manley
photo credits: David Zimmerly and Joe Godfrey
Masons on a Mission in Guatemala Jan/Feb 2008
Almost 10 years ago I was invited, mostly because I am brick & stone
mason, to travel to Guatemala and help to build vented brick and cement
block cook stoves to replace the open fires that are in use by millions of
Mayan families throughout the northwest highlands. These open fires, I had
learned, cause untold misery to millions of men, women, and children
there. I signed on and flew down just a few days later.
Walking up the hill to the first dwelling where I was to work, it looked
like the roughly built wooden shack was on fire. There was smoke pouring
out the partially open door and thru cracks and seams in the walls and
roof. When we arrived, my guide casually stepped on inside. I looked
after him dubiously, then peered in. Sunshine, passing thru holes in the
walls and roof, were creating dozens of shafts of shifting blue-grey
smoke in the sunbeams, ending on the floor looking like scattered coins.
The moment that I set foot inside, I could taste, and of course smell,
the toxic wood smoke from the open fire burning on their dirt floor in the
center of the room. I stayed inside for perhaps a minute. My chest was
tight and my throat was already raw, my eyes stung and tears were flowing
down my cheeks by the time I stepped outside.
I had learned right away, first hand, the obvious horrors of the so called 3 stone fire.
But there is more. I was to learn that our blood has an affinity for
carbon monoxide. That means if there is carbon monoxide in the air you
are breathing, your blood will attract and absorb the toxic CO2, instead
of the oxygen. Wood smoke is rich in CO2, and there is also less oxygen
present in the air at 10,000 feet to begin with.
Women, cooking their family meals, often with children on their backs,
breaths massive doses of wood smoke all day long. That close to the fire,
wood smoke is really little drops of hot tar, that also scars their eyes,
resulting in what they say are clouds in their eyes. We would call it loss
of vision and blindness.
That first family was supposed to have their fire out for us that day
while we built their stove, so we moved on the next family on the list.
The first family got their stove the next day instead.
We built stoves in Ixtauacan for the next 8 days. I quickly saw how a
simple vented masonry cook stove can so totally improve the lives of the
families that have one and I wanted to build more. I wanted to make an
even bigger difference.
I remember the moment down there when it dawned on me that I could build
more stoves. I could come back next year with money I would raise back
home. I could talk to my stone and brick mason friends back home, maybe
get some of them to join me in my mission to Guatemala the next year. It
all happened, and continues to happen now, almost ten years later. Hence
our name Masons on a Mission.
I have chosen to make it my mission to build, and have built, as many
clean burning vented cook stoves as I can in the mountains of Guatemala.
Every February since then I have returned to Guatemala, along with a
dozen or so of volunteers, to build masonry cookstoves.
Since the beginning we have been building cookstoves with local Maya
masons. MOM continues to provide funding for them to build stoves for
us, as funding allows, the rest of the year. We have built stoves in some
villages so remote that we had to go down the mountain trail on horseback
to do the photo verification.
There were 2 different groups of volunteers last einter. My first group
were 7 students from Colby college, Waterville, ME. They were volunteering
for 2 weeks. The first week they built stoves. The second week they worked
There were, at the peak of the week, 23 volunteers in the second group.
Some of them have been joining MOM for years, but most were with us for
the first time. We spent their week building stoves in 3 different
villages around lake Atitlan, with a fiesta poco the last nite at the
lakeside home of a friend that I had also just a outdoor pizza oven.
Since our mission last winter, MOM has provided the funds for 24 cook
stoves in Pacutuma, (photos of village in 2007 report)a very small village
in the mountains at 9500 feet. The 24 families receiving those stoves all
live in dwellings too small to fit a stove, so we also provided funds
for 24 small cement block additions, or kitchens, in which to house the
cook stoves. Everything was built by a few of our Maya masons.
MOM also funded of the cost of a new 6 room school house in Cantell.
Additionally, we funded 45 estufas in the villages around San Marcos, on
Lake Atitlan, that were built by Maya masons that live there.
January 2009 will be my 10th annual mission to Guatemala. Over the past 9
years MOM has built or funded over 1500 stoves in Guatemala, but only
because many friends, acquaintances, trades people and businesss
continue to provide support.
MOMs volunteers all pay their own expenses, as do I, but we can only buy
the materials and pay our Maya masons from donations. Each stove costs us
an average of $150.
Donations can be made out to Masons on a Mission, and mailed to Masons on
a Mission, 15 Nelson Ridge South, in Washington Maine 04574
More photos by David Zimmerly