Cooking Without Fire

About ten days ago, a massive mudslide swept away three little Kenyan girls in the small town of Kijabe. We arrived in Kijabe only a few days after the flood, to find scores of local people cutting up fallen trees, carting away mud and clearing roadways.

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Kijabe forests couldn’t keep mud from swamping the town

We reported on the Kijabe mudslide a few days ago. Recall that in one month alone, Kijabe has received more rain than its annual average over the last three decades. On the night of the disaster, 5.5 inches more fell in less than two hours. The saturated soils simply could not absorb the torrent, and they gave way in a lethal wall of clay-red African mud.

It happens that Kijabe is home to one of the best medical centers in East Africa, the AIC Kijabe Hospital. The hospital treats more than 150,000 patients every year, who wind their way up or down the Rift Valley escarpment to Kijabe, perched midway between the clouds and the valley floor. But the narrow roads were rendered impassable by the mudslide, and the hospital’s water source was also cut, its collection tanks now sitting idle and empty. 

You may recall our lament at the cruel impact of climate change on this key lifeline for so many vulnerable Kenyans.  But assessing the impact of climate change can be tricky business. Usually climate disruption creates the background condition on which more proximate ills take their toll. The Darfur genocide, for example, may have been predictable by anyone looking seriously at the desertification of the African Sahel, driving migration of largely Islamic nomadic pastoralists in search of water and grasslands into largely Christian farming communities. But the news outlets mainly brought us images of President Omar Al-Bashir’s hordes sweeping down on helpless villagers. What caused the Darfur tragedy? Climate disruption? Ethnic hatred? Or a genocidal ruler? Of course, it’s a false choice.

I’m beginning to see Kijabe’s current predicament that way too. Sure, floods like these have never happened before, and the story of extreme weather is being repeated all over Kenya. But two men on the ground are showing us another story too. Craig Sorley and Jeff Davis live and work in Kijabe, and spend countless hours trying to defend the hillside forests from illegal cutting for the charcoal trade. From a distance, these forests look healthy, but venture inside, and you see a wounded landscape, with many tree stumps and abundant signs of charcoal pits – the handiwork of illegal poachers. It is this depleted forest that released the torrent of mud that wreaked havoc on the town below last week.

Sorley & Davis after Kijabe's mudslide: Was it the rain, or deforestation?

Sorley & Davis after Kijabe’s mudslide: Was it the rain, or deforestation?

Craig and Jeff do some old-fashioned law enforcement to protect this corner of the creation, tracking down poachers and hauling them before the local magistrates.  But you might be surprised at some of the simpler, sensible things they do to erode the demand for the illegal cutting that now threatens their town. One of my favorites is a simple contraption that you can make at home to cut your own energy use. It’s called the “fireless cooker.”

Davis' fireless cooker

Davis’ fireless cooker

The fireless cooker is little more than a wicker basket, sized to accommodate a cooking pot. The basket is lined with a thickly insulated quilt, and the top is covered with a round pillow, sized to fit inside the basket lid. That’s it. Nothing more. Now, you bring your beans, your rice, your potatoes or stew to a boil on the stove in a lidded cook pot with only short handles, and then plop it into the fireless cooker for the rest of the cooking time. Come back in thirty minutes, and the rice is cooked. Come back in a few hours, and your beans are ready.

It turns out that today’s Kenyan fireless cookers are nothing new. Your great-great grandma knew about these things. She might have called them “hay boxes” – named for their ability to deliver hot food to field workers racing to bring in the hay while the weather held. Others were used by westward travelers who couldn’t take the time to look for firewood at the noon meal.

Our friends in Kijabe swear by it today. So yesterday, I decided to test the idea. I boiled a pot of dried beans in a large saucepan on the stove, and then turned the fire off. In a larger pan, I lined the bottom with a few dish towels, and set the saucepan inside. I then wrapped the whole thing with a small throw-blanket. A couple hours later, I came back to check my “fireless beans.” Completely cooked!

Other styles of cookers: same result

Other styles of cookers: same result

So, Craig and Jeff, I’m planning on joining up by making a real fireless cooker of our own. Who knows, maybe one of our readers will launch a cottage industry to save people millions in energy costs, and spare the earth higher greenhouse gas pollution in the bargain. But in Kijabe, it is one of many sensible initiatives that are coming together to save a threatened forest, and protect the lives of vulnerable Kenyans and forest creatures.

I’d bet you’ve come up with practical ways to care for God’s injured world on your own. Why not share them with us, so we can pass on the good news?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

More images from Kijabe

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AIC Kijabe Hospital’s water tanks: disabled & empty

Sorley with one of many replanted saplings

Sorley with one of many replanted saplings

Kijabe people clearing debris from mudslide

Kijabe people clearing debris from mudslide

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