Within a few days a whole village turned from burning wood to charcoal. A story by Anthony Matelaomao.
Evenings in the coastal village of Kokomuruka on the south west of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, is synonymous with pillars of smoke emanating from many small huts.
These are the kitchens where the evening meal is being cooked. They are nestled close to bigger huts which are the homes in which families reside. Often visitors are welcomed to stay overnight when they are barred from travelling further because they need to wait for first light before crossing the crocodile-infested Ghove River close by.
The little kitchen hut is full of activity with the mother of the home, and from time to time the presence of the husband and the children lending a hand here and there: grating coconut to add to that day’s fresh catch of fish; preparing vegetables like cabbage - freshly picked from their cultivated home garden, or even picked from the wild; and adding wood to the fire that is cooking their staple carbohydrate of kumara or, more frequently nowadays, rice. Mum gives directives for any help she needs while taking charge of what she does every day to feed the family.
...the smoke became unbearable - in my throat and in my eyes.
Kokomuruka is my home but for the past several years I have been working and living in the capital city, Honiara. Because of the Government measures to avoid the COVID-19 pandemic we went into lockdown and everyone who was not from Honiara had to leave and return to their respective villages. While I was helping my mother in the kitchen the smoke became unbearable – in my throat and in my eyes. I was no longer accustomed to it! My mother, who has been cooking with firewood every day and dealing with the intense smoke for many years, only blinked occasionally as she had become so used to it.
It gave me much joy when they openly challenged me..
This brought to my mind very clearly what I had been doing in Honiara. My work at the Coconut Technology Centre involves the Salvage Value Project. An infestation of the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle has killed thousands of coconut palms and we have been converting these dead palms into charcoal and encouraging people to use charcoal instead of wood for cooking. I decided to share this with my family and fellow villagers as we all gathered for the usual evening stories. I first asked a few questions to gauge their level of interest. It gave me much joy when they openly challenged me to conduct a demonstration the very next day! I happily agreed.
To make charcoal you need to have an anaerobic situation.
A non-fruit bearing mango tree had been cut down and chopped up some months earlier and this gave me sufficient dry wood to conduct a demonstration..
The pit method was applied for the demonstration of making charcoal. First a pit about one metre square was dug. Appropriate sized branches were used as source materials, laid in the bottom of the pit and ignited. Emphasis was given on when to add new material (when ash began to form on the branches). When the pit was full and well alight it was carefully covered with banana leaves and sealed with soil so that no air could get into it. To make charcoal you need to have an anaerobic (oxygen free) situation. I made certain that this was clearly understood.
Spear fishing rods were cut to provide support for a cooking pot on the top of the stove.
It takes about two days for all the wood to be turned into charcoal and for the pit ’oven’ to cool down. During this time, an informal lesson on making very basic charcoal stoves was given. Old leaky pots were used. Holes were punched into the sides of the pot to support a grid to hold charcoal. Umbrella canopy support wires were put to useful employ in forming the grid. Spear fishing rods were cut to provide support for a cooking pot on the top of the stove. Below the charcoal support grid a circular opening was created into the charcoal ash compartment to allow for air circulation to aid combustion.
This project had become more contagious than the COVID-19 pandemic!
Even before the charcoal pit oven was opened, two new pits were independently dug by a few of the villagers and the demonstrated processes followed through. I only had to provide some guidance when asked for it. I was thrilled at how enthusiastic everyone was. This project had become more contagious than the COVID-19 pandemic! I was all smiles on the inside.
As villagers went about their normal activities in between making charcoal, it was obvious that the charcoal did not interfere with what they had to do, nor did it burden anyone with extra chores. It could easily be incorporated as part of their regular daily activities.
On the evening of the second day it was time to ‘harvest’ the charcoal from the first pit. The eagerness to try cooking with charcoal was such that even before the pit oven was emptied, one of the new make-shift charcoal stoves was filled and lit.
Word quickly got around. By the end of the week the congregations of two local churches paraded into the village to observe cooking with charcoal.
Everyone was even more amazed at how no black soot formed on the outside of the pot as the rice cooked. A round of tasting followed and again there were loud expressions of “It tastes better”, “Smokeless”, “Wow” and so forth.
Word quickly got around. By the end of the week the congregations of two local churches paraded into the village and were able to observe cooking with charcoal. From cleaner pots to improved taste of the food cooked, and most importantly a cooking method that is smoke-less and which will improve the health of women overall, this was such a positive outcome. It far exceeded my wildest expectations!
Read more about The Foundation's Salvage Value Project
The many uses of the coconut...
As a side note, I even had the opportunity to demonstrate to a mother of seven how the humble husk from coconut could be woven into a useful doormat.