This eucalyptus tree has just been cut down for firewood. Notice the stump in the top center. Contrary to the common conception that only women and children search for and carry firewood, a man will chop and split this tree into appropriate-sized pieces.
Whenever I drive an African including Gladys through a wooded area in the United States, he or she must exclaim, “Wow, look at all that firewood. Mama (or grandma) would be so happy to use all this firewood.” In the rural areas of eastern Africa the major source of fuel for cooking is firewood. This use of firewood has been given a bad rap by the international community, but it has many advantages for local Africans.
This is picture of the traditional method of using firewood. A pot is placed on the top of three stones with the firewood lit underneath. There is no monetary cost for this method. Because of the smoke, the kitchen is always a small, separate house behind the main house. Traditionally this had a thatch roof and the kitchen would be very smoky from the fire. This is a health hazard, one of the reasons cooking with firewood is frowned upon.
There are methods to address this issue. For example we have a regular kitchen with a chimney which carries away most, but not all, of the smoke.
Another method is to buy a wood stove. This is a picture of the stove of a woman who cooks and sells chips (American translation, French fries) to people in town. Notice that it uses less firewood than the three stone method, but the fire goes around the sides of the pot so that some of the heat is wasted.
This is a picture of an improved wood stove. Note that the fire stays on the bottom of the pot only. These stoves are advertized to use half the firewood and one third of the smoke of the usual stove picture previously. Note also in both these cases the women are cooking the chips outside.
This is a picture of one of our neighbors who is collecting twigs from the bushes on the side of the road. She will use this for kindling to start her fire. The result is that there is no dead wood of any kind in the neighborhood as everything useable to make a fire is collected. One time when a neighbor was destroying an old mud and wattle house, Gladys bought the old uprights from the house, moved them to our house by ox-card, took out the nails, and cut and split the logs into appropriate sized firewood.
These are the branches from some small trees we cut down in our plot. This will also be used for kindling to start our fires.
This shop in Lumakanda town sells firewood. Three pieces cost 20 shillings (20 US cents.)
This is a picture of the firewood in our storeroom. To get our firewood we sometimes buy a tree, get it cut down, delivered to our homestead, and our men split it into the rights size sticks as show above. At one time we would go to the forest nearby and for 2,000/- ($20) buy a pick-up truck load of off-cuts from the people who were cutting the large trees and cutting them into lumber. This would last us three or four months. For the last two years, due to overcutting of the forests, the government has put a moratorium on the cutting of trees in the forest, so we are no longer able to do this. In another case, one of our eucalyptus trees was blown down in a storm and we cut it up for firewood.
Note that we live in area with high rainfall and trees grow quickly so that there is no lack of firewood. This is not true for the arid and semi-arid parts of Kenya where trees grow slowly, if at all. Where there is a large population, for example, near the refugee camps, large areas can be completely devoid of trees. This is another major criticism of using firewood for cooking.
What are the alternatives? The first is charcoal. This picture shows charcoal for sale in town. There are charcoal stoves similar to the wood stoves pictured above. They give out less smoke (except when starting the fire) and can easily be put outside during this time. Their advantage is a constant heat useful for cooking chapatti and mandazi or simmering beans for a long time. With the banning of timber cutting, charcoal burning has also been banned so that the cost has about doubled due to the ban.
Lumakanda town is seat of Lugari sub-county of Kakamega County. Consequently there are many government employees at the county counsel, police, hospital, schools, and various government offices. Many of these people rent one-room apartments to live in. They do not have access to an outside kitchen so they have to cook with cooking gas which gives off no smoke in their one room abode. The government is attempting to encourage people to use cooking gas rather than firewood and charcoal, but cooking gas cost money. The large canister which is what we use cost 1950/- ($19.50) for 13 kilograms. Therefore only people who have a salary and need to cook in their small room use cooking gas. On the other hand firewood is not practical in the cities so people use mostly charcoal and cooking gas.
After firewood, charcoal, and cooking gas, the last option is electricity. This is our inside kitchen stove (no smoke). It uses cooking gas – note the large canister – for the four outside burners and electricity for the two middle burners and the oven. The problem with cooking with electricity is that electricity is quite expensive, particularly, when compared to the other methods. With usually around ten people in our household, we use mostly firewood, followed by cooking gas, some electricity, and lastly charcoal.
Firewood including brush is the cheapest method of cooking. It costs nothing except labor to cut and collect the firewood. Therefore it is going to continue to be the method of choice in rural areas. Chimneys and improved stoves can mitigate some of the issues with using firewood. Since charcoal involves cutting down large trees, it is not truly a substitute for firewood. Cooking gas is expensive for those with little cash income and electricity is out of reach in cost for all but the well-off. The nirvana would be the development of a reasonably priced solar-powered electric cooker which could be sold on a daily basis as solar light systems are now. As far as I am aware this not been developed yet.
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