Last updated: 12 May 2011
The last few weeks have been cold, but a Blunt woman has had a warming experience helping Haitians learn how to use solar ovens. Charlene Curtis joined a team of 12 members of the region's Methodist Church Conference on a mission to Haiti where they delivered solar ovens. They left from Minneapolis on their mission Feb. 1 and returned Feb. 13. "What struck me most with the extreme poverty was the joy they have in their faith. They are not walking around with their chin dragging because they don't have anything to eat," said Curtis. "I would sure go every trip if I was able to, if I could afford it." This was the second trip Curtis has taken to provide solar ovens to the impoverished nation.
"I live in a modest house. I came home from that (first) trip and I looked around and thought 'I am so rich in comparison,' " said Curtis. "It is hard to believe the change in worlds in that short change of time." The trip took almost six hours. It was 85 degrees when Curtis flew out of Haiti last week. Upon her arrival home the temperature was -14 degrees. But the warmth from the experience keeps her wanting to return. "I like to cook. I like to feed people - and the concept of being able to help these people cook this food without having to spend part of their precious money for fuel is rewarding," said Curtis. "I was really amazed with what they could do with what little they have."
The country was once covered with rain forest. There are re-forestation efforts in place that do not keep up with the demand for products from these forests. "Charcoal is mainly used for cooking and some wood. It is very expensive. They figure that half of what they live on is used to buy fuel and food," said Curtis. Team members presented two seminars during the trip, and approximately 60 to 70 Haitians participated in each. During the recent trip, Curtis said, a chemistry and biology teacher spoke to other Haitians about how the oven had helped her. Prior to receiving her solar oven, one-third of her salary went toward fuel. She still has to do some cooking with fuel when the sun isn't present, but she can now rely mostly on the solar oven. "She is so pleased that she is saving money," said Curtis.
For six years, members of the Methodist Church have helped a Haitian couple provide solar ovens to people in their home country. This allows recipients of the ovens to spend less on fuel and more on food while helping preserve natural resources. Team members provide a three-day seminar that teaches recipients how to prepare dishes and cook in the ovens. Materials for the ovens are shipped to Brookings, where volunteers assemble most of them prior to the trip. Some are left to be assembled during the seminars. "We were building ovens on one side of the church while the seminars were going on the other," said Curtis. The ovens are a little rectangular black box lined with anodized aluminum. "It is kind of the same principle as your car," said Curtis.
While the training session is going on food is prepared in the ovens, and at the end, it is served to participants. The package that is donated to seminar participants includes measuring utensils, three pots, measuring spoons, a thermometer and special water purification indicator. "The main reason we feel they have to have measuring cups and spoons, is that many of the people have done all their cooking over charcoal," said Curtis. "They are not used to baking - they purchase bread. Without the measuring equipment and recipes they would not know how to use the ovens, that is why they are equipped with these tools."
When the solar oven project was first started when the pots were shipped in with the ovens. Now there is a place in Haiti that makes pots. "They are working toward a plan where they can have trained people so that the building of ovens can go on full time," said Curtis. "They feel it is important for people from this country to continue the trips. Right now, there just isn't the money or the facilities to do it without teams."
Another important reason for the ovens is to provide Haitians with potable water. "(The oven) also allows them to purify their water to a degree where it isn't as apt to make them ill. One in five babies die in infancy," said Curtis. "It is a very real danger. In fact, we are cautioned to shower with our mouths shut." The water indicator is a little glass tube, WAPI with soybean wax in it that can be placed in the water. When the wax reaches the end of the tube the water is pure. "We waste so much here. Their water is so precious. Most of the places don't have the luxury of having a flush toilet," said Curtis. "It really made me aware of how wasteful we are." Despite the lack of water, Curtis notes the importance of cleanliness in appearances. "We were very well taken care of by the people that we stayed with," Curtis said. "It was a very wonderful experience because everyone is so friendly."
Although there was a warmth and friendliness about the people, there were still precautions made to ensure safety, particularly during the 2006 trip, due to ongoing presidential elections. "There was a lot of speculation and talk about how dangerous it may be. We were not allowed to go out, but we could peak out through the holes in the walls," said Curtis. She described long lines, four to five people-wide that went on for blocks. For the most part, team members observed joy in those waiting to cast ballots. "They referred to election day as the day of hope, which is a far cry from what we expect around here," said Curtis.
At home she works as a daycare and health care provider. She raises her own funds in order to participate the mission trips. "Our church and other churches do a lot of wonderful mission projects, but if for some reason we had to limit, if we had to chose one, I would choose this," said Curtis. There are many items that are given that have a limited life span. The solar ovens have an almost unlimited life span. "It keeps on giving them a way to save a third of their income," she said. "The people that are involved in it are very committed. It is very gratifying to be part of that and we had a lot of fun among ourselves too. It was just a great team."
During the trip, team members actually got to cook in the solar ovens, although the Haitian couple prepared the meals for seminar participants. "They took very good care of us. They did our laundry and cooked our food," said Curtis. "They give back in any way they can."
[Text for this page was borrowed from Capital Times