(This post was written a couple weeks ago and has since been pondered, semi-edited, and embellished upon)
Yesterday Andrew and I arrived at the Solwezi Provincial house after a long week. A long several weeks, in fact. We did what we normally do: stopped at the grocery store for the meat, yogurt and cheese that had been lacking in our diets for the past fortnight, grabbed a bottle of white wine to put in the fridge (normally we buy Savanna hard cider but the store was out) and settled in to the provincial house.
A shower is, after mail, dairy, and cold alcohol, a priority when in town. I went first, watching in morbid amusement as the first blast of water hit my feet, turning the white tub a deep reddish brown. After I had soaked my hair and was prepared to shampoo, I reached down to turn off the faucet.
Then I remembered: I’m not at site! This hot water won’t run out. I can leave it running while I lather up my hair. The water isn’t coming from a 25-liter jerry can that is strung up in a tree. We didn’t have to pump it. And even if I stay in the shower for half an hour, there will be plenty left for Andrew.
That momentary oversight, of when I almost deemed it necessary to turn off the water to wash my matted hair, amused me enough to remind me it’s time to write a post I’ve been mulling over for awhile.
Energy. Budgeting. Food. Waste. Conservation.
A few weeks ago, fellow Vermonter and St. Lawrence University graduate Katie Spring wrote in her blog An Intentional Wildness (so sorry, can’t code hyperlinks on this computer, find this lovely blog at http://kathrynspring.wordpress.com ):
A deep appreciation is cultivated through the act of hauling water. I know the energy it takes to fill a glass, to fill a basin for washing, to pour a cup of tea. So much of the connection is lost with faucets–the energy it takes to spurt water from the pipe becomes a distant memory too easy to forget. But fill a bucket, carry it inside, and you will pause when you pour that water out.
I loved Katie’s post because it puts words behind the deep, visceral learning experience I’ve had during Peace Corps. That of energy; the physicality of understanding how we, as humans, access what we need.
Please forgive me as I grapple with this in written words; these are thoughts that flitter through my mind and this is the first time I’ve tried to put them into sentences.
Water is the easiest resource to explain. To get water our water, Andrew takes three 20-liter jerry cans to the well on his bicycle. Two are held together by a string and put over the bar of the bike; the other one is strapped onto the bike rack. Andrew rides the bike 500 meters to the borehole, where he waits in line for his turn at pumping. I believe it takes approximately 175 pumps to fill a 20-liter can; this estimation is from a week ago when I, for once, did the pumping. This number will increase as the gaskets on the borehole get more worn out; as it is there is major water loss at the seams. I learned I can pump 50 times before I need a break. I’ll have to ask Andrew; I bet after all the practice he has no problem filling a can without resting.
Once the pumping is complete, Andrew loads the jerry can onto his bike and pushes it 500 meters back home, where I hold the bike while he offloads them. The amount of time this process takes depends on the line; at least 20 minutes; sometimes up to 45 or an hour.
That’s for 60 liters. We use 20 or 25 for bathing daily. 10 for washing dishes. 5-8 for washing our hands. Cooking may take 5-10 depending on what we’re making. I cannot estimate our drinking water because it varies massively on the heat and our activity level. Laundry takes 40 liters; I was our clothes every 5 days or so. In the dry season, our various crops, nurseries and trees take 150-180 liters daily. Andrew hauls a lot of water.
We’ve gotten pretty clever, if I may say so myself, in saving water. Our brown dish-washing, hand-washing, tooth-brushing and cooking water gets saved for irrigation in the dry season. I know that the water it takes to cook a meal of pasta will, once cooled, water 2 tomato plants at the height of the hot, dry season in October. Dish and hand washing water saved for irrigation means one less load of water over three days that Andrew has to haul. The biggest water-dump is laundry; the detergents are too toxic to go into food crops.
In the rainy season our water needs are less, and we’ve been collecting it off of the tin roof of an abandoned house. Ten minutes of heavy rain will channel into a day’s worth of water for us; one day Andrew can have a break from the borehole. During rainy season he only has to pump once or twice in a week.
But we still know our resources are finite. Every evening as Andrew heats up bath water while I feed the rabbits, he asks me if I’m washing my hair that day. My answer will dictate how much water he heats up; will dictate how much wood we’ll burn and how many calories he’ll expend fanning the fire. This brings me back to my recent wanton shower at the provincial house. I almost turned the water off in order to use less, but then I realized I didn’t need to so I let it keep pouring for at least 10 minutes.
There must be some web site or online tool that calculates how much water one uses in a shower. But as I write this the Internet is down; I will type now and post later. However, I do know that I personally use far, far above 10 liters when showering anywhere but at our home in Sandang’ombe village, Solwezi, Zambia. A hot shower is, anywhere (including, and especially, our hung-from-a-tree shower at site), one of the great pleasures we have as humans. Is there anything more relaxing, more cleansing?
How does the water even get hot? At our site, 15 miles from the nearest source of electricity, we heat all of our water up, and do all of our cooking, on wood: either in the form of logs on an open fire or charcoal in a brazier. The charcoal must be purchased from any of a number of local charcoal producers. It’s cheap – about $3 for a two-month supply. But the environmental cost is high. Our area supplies most of the charcoal to Solwezi, a mining boom town with exponential population growth; where electricity is so expensive that even the people who have it cook on charcoal. Zambia has the world’s second highest rate of deforestation (after our neighbors to the north in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Northwestern province has some of the highest rates in the country (many other provinces don’t have enough forest left to chop down trees at the rate they’re going up here). As Forestry Extension Agents, one of our main roles is to encourage people to stop cutting down trees for charcoal to preserve the environment. Obviously it’s hypocritical for us to be purchasing and using charcoal. On the other hand, while we promote tree planting and sustainable forest harvest, the answer to Zambia’s deforestation problem is simply not the work we do on community levels. The use of charcoal in villages is a tiny sliver in a massive iceberg. Until electricity costs go down and the demand for charcoal in cities is reduced, how can we possibly blame destitute members of rural communities to make a living by producing charcoal?
Regardless, we keep our charcoal use to a minimum. The other way to get fuel is for Andrew to go into the bush to collect firewood. We are unique in our community in that we use dead, dried (or as dry as it can be when it rains most days) wood. We like it because it burns hotter and cleaner. It took me awhile to understand why rural Zambians chop down live trees for fuel – it kills the tree and produces choking amounts of smoke. However, I now understand that this slow-burning green wood is the only way to keep a fire hot overnight. When people are finished cooking, they cover the wood in ash to insulate it, and, in the morning, the coals are usually hot enough to be reignited. Andrew and I use hunks of paraffin fire starter and a cigarette lighter multiple times a day to light our hot, clean fire. These items are financially unobtainable to most people in our community.
Another way to light a fire is to collect hot coals from a neighbor and transfer them to your own fire. This is a very common practice. The morning after heavy, heavy rains, Andrew and I are sometimes the only people in the village with fire. Our neighbor’s son comes by our house with a small sheet of metal and asks us for hot coals. He then lights his family’s fire from our coals, and other families collect coals from them. Gradually the whole village’s fires are lit.
A drawback to our preference for clean, hot-burning fuel is that it burns quickly. Andrew goes into the bush to collect firewood at least once a week. The biggest fuel burner is our big wood-fired oven. It takes a ton of wood, but is heavily insulated and will stay hot for around 16 hours. Due to the labor and materials involved in getting it going, we consolidate all of our baking, and get creative in the ways we can use the oven to save other resources. Typically we spend an entire afternoon at least once a week just using the oven. We always bake some sort of bread; enough for 4 days or so. If we have an egg and sugar, we make a small batch of cookies or brownies. We roast a tray of vegetables and eat them with fresh bread for lunch. As the oven starts to cool down, we put in a pot of beans – enough for 3 or 4 meals – and let them slow cook. The same goes for soybeans for the rabbits and chickens. We may wrap sweet potatoes in tin foil and leave them in the coals overnight for breakfast the next day. At times we’ve dried chili peppers or wild bush mushrooms in the oven to preserve a harvest. We even heat up our bath water in the oven. Anything to get our wood’s worth!
After the oven has been fired up, we have food. Lots of food. And virtually no means of preserving it. We switch from bake-mode to eat-mode; planning meals so we eat all the beans before they get funky and all the bread before it gets moldy or stale. In the past week, when we had three Trainees at our site for their Second Site Visit, my planning and budgeting got off and there was some excess food from baking – both beans and bread. We gave a big bowl of beans to our neighbor, but even then we ended up throwing some out. I was really bothered by this, and it made me think of how very, very much food we threw away in America, even though we had a refrigerator. By American standards, for a group of five people to throw away two stale bread heels and a cup of cooked beans in a week is barely considered wasteful. But it’s been months since any of these precious (raw materials purchased with minimal funds, hauled in on a bicycle, and cooked using labor-intensive resources) food items got thrown away at our home.
Maybe it should be, but this is no “eat up, there are starving children in Africa” phenomenon. We no longer waste food because we cannot afford to. We’re on a tight budget, but the labor of getting food is the biggest limiting factor. We go into town every two or three weeks.
The final bit of this rumination is trash. Is there anything less romantic? But the trash issue has struck me hardest. Forgive me for what I’m about to say, but it’s the truth.
For the past 2 years, I’ve been burning every piece of trash we’ve created.
Yep. Paper, plastic. Excess metal goes down the toilet. We have a 3- or 4-foot deep pit for trash; once a week or so I take the bag that’s been collecting in our house, light it on fire, and drop it in. I monitor and stir it so it all burns, but not too closely because the smell of burning plastic gives me a headache.
It’s horrible, and I’m not proud of it, but it’s a reality of living somewhere with no public waste disposal system. The beautiful rural road that takes us away from Solwezi and into the bush where our village is has, in the past year or so, become a preferred site for trash dump from the city. There are piles of sick, smelly garbage on the side of the road; plastic bags blowing around in the air, catching on trees and in people’s fields. I’m sure it’s illegal, but that’s why our road – so close to the city, but so very, very rural – is a chosen spot. It’s disgusting.
We are learning. We are choosy with what we buy and how we use it. We take reusable bags to the grocery store and market, and reuse what plastic grocery bags we do get over and over (their final life is as trash bags). Whenever a product is available packaged in paper or cardboard, we take that. We throw out only one small grocery bag of trash per week. However, I must admit burning these bags has gotten more unbearable with time, as the bulk of them is plastic. Through the months I’ve learned how to reduce the amount of trash that goes into that bag. Kleenex goes into our vermiculture box. I use oatmeal boxes, flour bags, envelopes, and useless paper to mulch in the garden. And, of course, anything that can be composted gets tossed in the pit under the rabbit hutch (where it attracts bugs, and the chickens scratch for the bugs and turn up the compost and it makes a lovely rich black healthy topdresser for the garden…oh beauty!). Most metal finds a use; the cans of dried milk are our primary metal trash and are perfect for at the base of the legs of rabbit hutches to protect from termites and fire ants. It’s the plastic that gets us. Pasta bags, lentil bags, overused grocery bags, tape.
I know that, even in rural, beautiful Vermont, trash goes into landfills. Biodegradable and compostable items are as good as plastic in a landfill, where the lack of decomposing organisms translates to ever-growing piles. I knew this before we left, but faced with the harsh reality of needing to burn trash on a weekly basis, I think I’ll be a lot better about how much trash we generate. When faced with the smoky, oozy, fume-y task of making all your garbage disappear (ahem…be vaporized into the environment) you do anything you can to make there be less of it. Bigger bags of pasta are less plastic for more meals. Heavier-duty plastic bags means more uses. Reuse, reduce, buy in bulk, reuse, compost, make decisions carefully, and reuse again.
Again, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I burn our trash. I really don’t know ecologically if it’s better to burn plastic than to bury or leave it. I just can’t bear to see it blowing around the village. But it’s been a good lesson in the impact of the choices we made. And I know my experience is limited to the impact of water use and food planning. What about the unforeseen political and environmental costs of other types of energy…the fuel in our vehicles? Don’t get me started. I truly don’t know…but I ought to.
Thus ends this long, mismatched, and rambling post about energy. At the end of the day, I wanted to share how living in a low-tech environment for a couple years has brought me closer to our sources of energy.
But please, if you can, compost everything you humanly can. Reuse plastic, and reuse it again. Invest in some nice Pyrexlass containers and do away with Ziplock. Reuse, reuse, reuse.
Keeping it green.