“You can call me Airport,” Esupat said, laughing.
She sat atop a Maasai hut with her legs crossed, straddling a half-built chimney. Small piles of bricks surrounded her; wet cement fell from her hands.
She was dressed colorfully, ornamentally. But this is how she goes to work. When she smiles, it is wide. Wide from unforced practice. Wide with pride, wide with ease.
Her given name was Esupat, meaning “the one who cares for others.” She was considered a master among a team of Maasai women installing clean cookstoves in Maasai huts in the hills outside of the town of Arusha, Tanzania.
More importantly, however, she was known by everyone in her village as Airport, the woman who went through the sky and returned to tell the tale.
But before we tell that story, some background.
Accidental Women’s Empowerment
We recently visited the Arusha area to see in action a new Planeterra Foundation project, a partnership with Maasai Stoves and Solar Project. The project mechanism: G Adventures travelers who are on safari in Tanzania have a portion of their tour fees go towards buying and installing a clean cookstove for a family in a Maasai village.
The travelers then have the opportunity to visit the village, see a stove installation, and learn more about why this simple stove design can be life-changing, especially for children.
During our visit, we spent a day with a young Maasai man named Kisioki, the local project coordinator who had been with the program from its inception.
“One of the things that makes our clean stoves project unique,” Kisioki said, “is that we empower women as a core component.”
“Why did this project choose to include women’s empowerment?” Audrey asked, leaning in.
“Well, it was actually an accident,” Kisioki laughed.
We appreciated his honesty. And we figured there was a good story behind it.
Several years earlier, Robert Lange, a professor from the United States, successfully designed a new type of “clean” cooking stove for a community on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. He was then invited to bring his concept to the Maasai villages in the Monduli district near Arusha, a jumping off point for either climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or going on safari.
But there were problems: the Zanzibari stove design didn’t fit the cooking needs of the Maasai community. It would need significant adjustments.
In the beginning, the Maasai village men together with the women were involved in discussions and community events about the stoves. But the men quickly lost interest; things moved too slowly for them.
The women remained steadfast, however. They cooperated with the organization’s engineers, testing and providing feedback on several stove design iterations until nearly 18 months later, the design of the clean cookstove – a stove that women in the village would actually use — was complete.
When talk turned to training, organizing and paying stove installation teams, the men wanted back in. The women held firm said no. Their rationale: We participated from the beginning and we ought to be the ones to manage the project and, more importantly, to earn our own money.
And so the Maasai Clean Stoves project remained one led primarily by women, with women’s empowerment as one of its de facto core components.
Training Women, Esupat Rising
When the project first got underway, each village was asked to recommend ten women to be trained in stove installation. A young woman named Esupat was among the first selected.
When women like Esupat received training, it provided them not only with practical skills, but also a source of income in a society where men traditionally earned the money. Esupat estimates that she has installed over three hundred stoves in the five years she has been involved with the project.
For a bit of perspective, a clean stove costs around 95,000 Tsh ($56) to produce using local materials and labor. A family is then expected to contribute 25,000 Tsh ($15) to cover some costs. This contribution includes the fees paid to the local women-run installation teams. It also ensures that the owner is personally invested in her new stove.
Eventually, the project took off. This system gradually meant greater economic empowerment for the women involved and also a societal shift in perspective regarding the capabilities of women in the village.
But Wait, How Important Can a Clean Stove Be?
Earlier that day, we'd visited a village to see a new stove in action and compare it with a traditional one.
“Stove in action?” you say with a yawn.
This is a stove that reduces 90% of the smoke released into a hut and uses only 40% of the firewood of a traditional stove. Sure, this sounds mundane. Numbers are, after all, a bore. And stoves aren’t very far behind.
Firsthand experience is a different matter, however.
In the village of Enguiki, Kisioki led us into a hut with a clean stove. A few bits of wood poked out from a circular opening as a fire crackled away to heat a pot of water on top. Mela, the owner of the hut, was a mother of nine children, four of whom still lived with her. She earned the money for the down payment on her stove through her work as one of the installation assistants.
“I didn't have to depend on my husband at all,” she noted with a bit of restrained pride. “Now my children have fewer health problems. The food even tastes better without all the smoke.”
Sounds good. But how bad could the smoke from a traditional stove really be?
Kisioki took us to see Mela’s neighbor, Nagoyoneeni, just down the village path. She had a traditional stove. Before entering her home, I could see smoke seeping out from around a blackened door jamb.
Kisioki looked at me, “We only need to spend a few minutes in here. Just let me know when you can’t take it any more.”
C’mon. How bad could it be? I mean, a family of eight lived there.
Awful. I couldn’t take it, almost instantly. From the moment I ducked my head to enter the hut, my eyes, nose and lungs were accosted by acrid smoke, making it difficult for me to see and breathe.
I blinked repeatedly to clear the soot from my eyes, to relieve the stinging feeling. Our host went about her daily business, making porridge for her children. Not wanting to be rude, I attempted to suppress a cough. It was impossible.
We sat on little wooden stools and had a conversation about the so-called three-stone fire, the traditional Maasai open pit stove with a pot placed on top. Nagoyoneeni explained that there were eight people, children mainly, living in her hut. She planned to save money from this year’s corn harvest to help buy a clean stove.
Though we were there only for a few minutes, I was certain I could feel my lungs blacken. Imagine what the smoke must do to the health of the newborn at Nagoyeneeni’s side, or the children shyly gathering around us.
OK, Dan. I'm getting antsy. What does this have to do with a woman nicknamed “Aiport”?
Breaking the Blue Sky
As Esupat slapped concrete into the gaps of the bricks, I tried to get a handle on the pronunciation of her name.
“E – su – pat. Is that right?” I asked.
“Airport,” I heard one of the village women mumble behind me. Others laughed.
“Ooh, a story!” I said.
“You can call me Airport,” she laughed.
“Airport? What’s this?” I asked.
After the project got traction in northern Tanzania, Esupat was invited to share her stove installation techniques with a group running a similar project in western Uganda.
“The problem,” Kisioki said “was that nobody from the village had ever been on an airplane before.”
Esupat jumped in, “The plane keeps going up and up. And I think, ‘Are we going to see God?'”
Maasai belief is that the world ends with the blue sky and clouds, beyond which their god resides.
I imagined what this looked like to a person who perceived the sky as a sort of ceiling. I remembered my own first flight, as I clung to the hand rest wondering how this hulk of a thing was going to stay in the air. I didn't fear the ceiling in the sky, but rather the force of gravity.
Esupat paused laying bricks, her joy at the memory of flying unabated, “I think we are very close to God. Are we going to see him? The plane keeps going up. I thought I was going to hit God and make him angry. And not come back.”
Esupat did not hit God, and she lived to tell the tale. She did something that no other villager had done, men included: she not only saw the airport, but she also flew in an airplane. Her social status was elevated.
When she returned to the village, she told everyone about it — with a smile each time, I’m certain.
In the last five years Maasai women have installed over 1,000 stoves in villages around Arusha. When you consider that each hut is home to somewhere between seven and ten people, you can begin to appreciate the impact of this project. This is hopefully only the beginning.
The goal of the Planeterra Foundation and Maasai Stoves and Solar partnership is to provide a sustained, reliable source of funding for the local organization drawn from a portion of the tour fees of a steady supply of travelers coming through the area. In this way, together with the family investment contribution, each traveler helps purchase a clean stove. G Adventures travelers will also have the opportunity to visit one of the villages impacted, and have an experience that will hopefully be as eye-opening for them as it was for us.
Maybe they’ll have a chance to meet Esupat or another trail-blazer who will never forget her chance to know that the world doesn’t end with the blue sky.