Friday, March 14, 2008

Cooking With Rambam: Improved Stoves and Jewish Values*

“I like it. It’s a great stove.” Maria repeated.
We stared at the cement structure, built by an “improved stoves” project over a decade earlier for residents of Cape Verde’s “Ribeira Seca”. Barely visible in the blackened kitchen, it was covered with cobwebs, scrap metal, and wood for the fire that was blazing in the traditional three-stones stove nearby.
“So why don’t you use it?” we asked again. “If the improved stove cooks faster, uses less wood, and produces less smoke, why do you still use the three stones?”
She smiled bashfully and glanced at the cachupa, the national corn dish bubbling above the stones. “It’s a great stove,” she repeated. “It’s just that.. it has a small opening. You have to cut the wood to use it.”
We peered at the wood opening. It was small, but of course it was: the point of improved stoves was to maximize wood combustion, heat retention, and heat transfer to the pot. All that would cut down on unhealthy smoke, decrease pressure on dwindling forests, and limit the arduous task of wood gathering. A small opening was fundamental to achieving these ends. Clearly, for maximum effectiveness, the well-financed team of engineers would have added such a feature.
Nevertheless, these engineers created a stove less effective than even the three stones, simply, profoundly, because no one would use it. Community rejection of an efficient stove renders it worthless, just as acceptance of an inferior model renders it optimal, if it convinces residents to abandon the inefficient traditional model. Unbeknownst to those well-intentioned engineers, one clever design feature precluded the stove from having any impact at all.
* * *
Winding up the cobbled road, past the shingled farm houses that dot the climb into the jagged mountains of Serra Malagueta Park, one instantly grasps the Park’s two major goals: to protect one of Cape Verde’s few remaining forests and to reduce poverty. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I reckoned an improved stoves project had enormous potential to tackle both of these problems. But Maria’s comment troubled me. How could we ensure that our project would sustainably impact the community and the forests, and not become another forgotten wood box in a blackened kitchen?
Judaism offers uncanny wisdom on these complex questions, which continue to baffle aid organizations today. When Rambam organized the Talmudic teachings on tzedakah into a hierarchy, he placed at the top: “enable the recipient to become self-reliant.” This idea paraphrases one of the hottest concepts in the development world: sustainable development, defined by the Peace Corps as improvements that can continue on their own without outside support. Our goal--to equip locals with a lasting way to cook cheaply, that protects their health, the trees, and saves time--serves as a good example of both concepts. But how?
Judaism might offer an answer here, too. Israel means “he who wrestles with G-d.” The Torah is filled with examples of Jews fearlessly negotiating with an all-powerful G-d. Abraham bargained for mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses asked G-d to reconsider his punishment for the sin of the golden calf.
Perhaps from these brazen heroes emerged the Jewish value of dialogue, a fearless commitment to uncensored debate between parties at all levels, based on the assumption that good solutions only result from a truly free clash of ideas.
In the tzedakah context, this value could be interpreted as a call to consult the beneficiaries on the best way to foster self-reliance. Who, after all, has better insight into successful project design than those for whom the project is designed, even if that means building stoves with large, inefficient openings? It is still preferable to golden calves.
With that in mind, we designed a pilot project featuring several stove models that will be given to the community to test. Only after locals discuss their impressions, following a month-long trial, will we decide jointly which models to produce on a larger scale. As long as there is no actual wrestling, I think Rambam would be proud.

*Written for Panim El Panim's May Newsletter
Using Participatory Analysis for Community Action, Peace Corps, 2005
Jews are Different by Virtue of Their Values, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach,

Sunday, March 02, 2008

From Sugar to Moonshine: Getting a Buzz in Hortelao

“I was raised in grogue,” Budinho says as smoke billows from the lambique—distillery—behind him. Bubbles of Cape Verde’s historic moonshine shimmer in the coconut shell he has poured with confident strokes to check the quality. “This stuff is ready. It’s not too strong, not too bland. Have a sip.” As I let the camera face the ground, and take the shell to my mouth, I wonder what “too strong” could possibly taste like.
But grogue wasn’t always “forte”. Here in Hortelão, one of Santiago island’s more fertile valleys, grogue began as idyllic fields of sugar cane. After months of watering, the tall stalks bloomed feathery flowers, locals took machetes to their fields and grogue making season began in earnest.
In January, when I visited, bundles of cane balanced on the heads of women and children were already making their way to the trapiches. These oxen-or motor-powered machines crush the stalks to extract sweet cane juice. “A lot of people think it’s too expensive to use oxen, but some still do,” Budinho explains. When we can’t find a traditional one in action, he good-naturedly demonstrates the monotonous circular trek of the oxen as they crush the cane. “Its tiring,” he says. “And they work all night.”
After the trapiche, the cane juice is placed in barrels to ferment into an unappetizing beige liquid. After a few days, the liquid is poured into a tremendous stone caldron, the lambique. A fire lit below heats the liquid until it evaporates and passes through a tube. The tube enters a vat of cold water that converts the gas back into liquid, that is, into a clean, incredibly potent alcohol, that was first called “grogue” by English sailors some 500 years ago.
‘Its about getting a good buzz and drinking a little,” Budinho says. “You drink too much, your head spins and you fall.” Laughing, he demonstrates the motions that are not uncommon sights at the corner bars that dot towns across Cape Verde.
That good buzz depends on an ever-scarcer Cape Verdian resource: water. From cane irrigation, to lambique operation, water is an essential ingredient. With poor rainfall and salt water flooding the aquiver, access to this vital substance is increasingly threatened. “The majority of grogue is water,” Budinho says. “If you have more water, and the water is good quality, you will have more grogue and it will be high quality….If water is lacking, nothing goes well.”