Women Smoking Unconsciously Just To Feed Others

Olanike
Posted May 12, 2015 from Nigeria
Traditional Open Fire Stove
Hauwa in her windowless smoke choked kitchen; hard at work- scouring black soot off the back of a large pot which had obviously been used over her open fireplace. (Source: Greengirl)
Open Fire Cooking
Open Fire Cooking: A young woman watching over the meal she is cooking for her family over an open fire cook stove. (Source: Greengirl) (1/2)

NIGERIA- According to a United Nations Development Programme research, Nigeria tops the list of countries where women suffer various ailments resulting from the use of firewood. Correspondingly, a World Health Organization report states that “Over 98,000 Nigerian women die annually from use of firewood. If a woman cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner, it is equivalent to smoking between three and 20 packets of cigarettes a day.”

I grew hope in a middle class home, where the choice of heating and cooking fuel was well within control. Gas, kerosene or open fire stoves were on hand, and the type of food as well as quantity of what was to be cooked determined the means employed. For foods like beans, the kerosene stove was a ready option while meals like rice and yam, were prepared on the gas cooker. My mum only made use of firewood when large cooking needed to be done, particularly, during festivities- birthday parties, Christmas celebrations and anniversaries. As a rule, such cooking was done outdoor!

In Nigeria, traditional open fire stoves fueled by firewood, come in handy for domestic cooking and heating. Those who cannot afford to use cleaner alternatives or buy sufficient firewood spend long hours each day searching for fuel wood, or resort to collecting and using various forms of biomass- dead wood, grass, shrubs, saw dust, wood chips, trimmings, twig, animal dung, crop residue, and related plant materials. While this is possible for women in rural areas, their urban counterparts mostly rely on firewood merchants.

In addition to the daily struggles and troubles that women face in finding sufficient firewood to meet their energy needs, the smoke and residue from their open fire stoves pose grave dangers to their health. Those who are most susceptible are women like Hauwa Jubrin who cooks with firewood in her poorly ventilated 3.24 square meter kitchen. At the time of my visit, Hausa was in her windowless kitchen. She was hard at work- scouring black soot off the back of a large pot which had obviously been used over her open fireplace.

With Hauwa’s permission, I pushed the half opened metal door, which doubles as access into her kitchen and her family’s dwelling. I gingerly stepped into the fume-cloudy kitchen. The smoke blackened walls was eye-catching as the rays of the mid morning sun; beamed in from a bordering doorway that leads to the main house. Haphazardly placed buckets bowls, tripod pots, kitchen utensils, a wooden mortar, two weather beaten medium-sized shelves, ash, and fireplace occupied whatever little space was available on the flaked concrete floor. The stand for the fireplace was three big well stationed stones.

I watched with stinging eyes as a handful of firewood sandwiched between the stones, burned and bellowed fumes without consideration. The smoke disturbs me, and it is killing my eyes. I use firewood because I don’t have money to buy a stove or gas” laments Hauwa as she sniffles and attempts to wipe away dripping tears with the back of her wet ash-soiled hands. According to her, “she uses about N150 ($0.70) worth of firewood daily”. Hours after I left her house, I could still feel the irritation from the smoke in my eyes and throat.

In an attempt to nourish their families, countless women are undoubtedly exposed to smoke and toxins, that are associated with an endless list of health problems, including pneumonia, lung cancer, low birth weight and impaired vision. Some women are knowledgeable about the negative effects of using firewood for cooking, and do their best to stay away from the smoking fire while cooking. Standing by the big pot of meal she was cooking over an open fire, in her semi-open kitchen space, Khadijat says “I don’t always stay by the fire when I am cooking. However, if I am cooking something like tuwo masara (meal made from corn flour), I have to stay there to make it”.

When asked if the smoke from the fire disturbs her in any way she explains further- “It depends! For example it is not good for someone who is asthmatic or who has related ailment; but if you are normal, there is no problem”.

Do you know of any woman who developed such an ailment as a result of using firewood? I curiously added. “Many people!” she exclaims and suddenly calls out to her mother (who all the while was standing by and listening thoughtfully) to seek collaboration. Khadijat went on to cite an example of a woman who she referred to as Mai-waina (a person who makes and sells Waina (Hausa rice cake). Waina is cooked over open fire in a baked mud pot that has muffin sized holes. Khadijat suspects that Mai-waina developed high blood pressure and weakness from long years of doing Waina business.

Many women remain stuck to the age long tradition of cooking over open fire stoves as they believe that it cooks food faster, properly and makes it tastier. Queen, a young lady who does most of the cooking in her family’s home just loves to cook with firewood. She believes that if one is healthy, and does not stay too long around the fireplace, the smoke would not pose any health risks. In another vein, Aunty Salamatu, an accomplished academic says “I only use firewood during festive seasons like Easter and Christmas. At such times it is helpful for large domestic cooking. Whenever I have to resort to cooking with firewood, I do it outdoors and stay away because of my health”.

My organization, Women Initiative for Sustainable Environment (WISE) is a partner of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. WISE hopes to continue exploring such partnerships towards saving disadvantaged women from avoidable and stoppable exposures to deadly cooking options. There is an urgent need for increased awareness on and access to clean, safe and affordable cooking options like solar cookers, clean cook stoves, wonder bags. I remain hopeful that the predicaments of smoke scenting and distressed women will be tackled, decisively.

The Path to Participation Initiative from World Pulse and No Ceilings

Comments 10

Log in or register to post comments
Yvette Warren
May 12, 2015
May 12, 2015

Thank you, Olanike. Until now, I had never realized the extent of damage done with open fire cooking methods.

Does WISE also promote the use of cooking bags to save fuel and active cooking time?

Olanike
May 18, 2015
May 18, 2015

Dearest Yvette,

It gladdens my heart to know that you gained new insight on the damage that open fire cooking methods pose. I remain concerned that so many women are either ignorant or too poor to afford cleaner alternatives. With increased awareness, there sure is a way out for both groups.

In 2008, WISE participated in the 1st African Women and Water Conference, held at Karen Nbi Kenya; and came back home with different solar cooking technology like the 'solar cook it' and cooking basket. The idea behind the 'cooking basket' is very similar to that of the cooking bags. The long and short of it is that WISE is committed to promoting any type of cooking technology that is safe, healthy and environment friendly. So, cooking bags makes our list.

Thank you for asking to know more.

Hugs,

Olanike

Adanna
May 14, 2015
May 14, 2015

Dear Olanike,

Thank you for sharing. Even as a little girl, I have always believed that open fire cooking methods were not good for health. I have seen many women in the rural areas who suffer from eye problems and other health issues as a result of the open fire cooking method but sadly very few of them really understand how dangerous this is.

I am glad your organization WISE is creating more awareness.

x

Adanna

Olanike
May 18, 2015
May 18, 2015

Dear Adanna,

Thank you for reaching out, and also shedding more light about open fire cooking methods; by sharing your first hand experience. The sad reality is that even when some women are aware of the associated risks, they have little or no power of choosing cleaner alternatives.

Thank you loads for acknowledging the efforts that WISE is making towards creating more awareness. Slow as the desired change may seem, it is surely gaining momentum by the day. Your support counts and means a lot to me.

Love and Blessings, Olanike

Edith Kalanzi
May 16, 2015
May 16, 2015

Greengirl, thanks for this wake-up call. I  wasn't that aware of such effects of firewood smoke especially  given that firewood users (and others) usually attest to the fact that food and water taste better and have a sweet scent ... Ever heard of that? 

best, Edith

Olanike
May 18, 2015
May 18, 2015

Hello Edith,

I am happy that you found time to read the post and also give me a feed back. You are definitely not alone when it comes to the issue of awareness on the many negative effects of open fire cooking on women.

I have heard it said time and again that "food cooked over firewood tatses better. Though I didn't lay emphasis on this line of thought, I mentioned it in the article- "Many women remain stuck to the age long tradition of cooking over open fire stoves as they believe that it cooks food faster, properly and makes it tastier". What I haven't heard of is that it makes water taste better and have a sweet scent.

It is asserted in many quarters that Nigerian men, prefer meals prepared over open fire because it is tastier. I find this inclination highly questionable particularly when a woman has to cook in a poorly ventilated and smoke filled kitchen.The question I can't hold back but ask myself and others is if such men also prefer a smoke scenting and distressed woman?

For real change to happen across board, there is need for increased awareness and advocacy to happen, urgently. You would agree with me that is essential for everyone who is aware to keep spreading the word.

Together we can, together we will!

Warm regards,

Olanike

amymorros
May 17, 2015
May 17, 2015

Thank you for your work. I have heard of this and seen women cooking over these fires during my time in Mali. I guess that this tradition is very hard to change, espeically when people think the food tastes better.

Women cannot continue to sacrifice their health and well-being like this. Thank you for educating them about clean cookstove alternatives. I took a look at the website and it it amazing how many types of clean cookstoves there are. 

Olanike
May 18, 2015
May 18, 2015

Hello Amy,

I sincerely appreciate knowing about your experience in Mali. It is interesting to know that people in mali also share the 'ideology of better taste'. Now it is becoming more obvious that the problem cuts across traditions, cultures, countries etc.

One consolation I have is that when people become more informed and aware of the associated health risks of firewood cooking, and how the tastiness of the food is not worth the health of any woman, I believe change will become to happen at a faster rate. in the light of this, I just must echo your words- "Women cannot continue to sacrifice their health and well-being like this".

Thank you for adding your voice!

In appreciation,

Olanike  

Obisakin Busayo
May 19, 2015
May 19, 2015

Dearest Sister Thank you so much for this wonderful piece, it is going to open the eyes of the world the more to the plight of underpriledged women in the developing countries. Women that are still using firewood are the real down trodden ones and they are still the majority in our world. Many women have died of lung problems as a result of using firewood. Yet she must cook for her family if not she is irresponsible as far as the society is concerned. Also the believes that the food taste better, there is nothing like that, I eat food cooked with firewood for many years, except that you will be tasting smoke which is irritating in your food, it is hell. We need to sensitize our people of the health hazards and also make the alternatives for cooking affordable for them. Thanks once again my dear sister for the wonderful piece

Love Busayo

Olanike
May 19, 2015
May 19, 2015

Big sister, thank you so much for your insightful comment. It is quite pathetic that it is only in recent times that the plight of women who rely on firewood for cooking and heating; is coming on the front burner. Well, better late than never. We can only pray that efforts targetted towards introducing cleaner alternatives are backed by strong political will.

I really loved that you threw more light on the issue of the alleged tastiness that firewood cooked food has. There is no doubting the fact that such food can only taste of smoke; which would defnitely not be palatable. Thank you loads for the vivid explanation you gave on this.

We are definitely on the same page when it comes to the issue of the need to "to sensitize our people of the health hazards and also make cleaner alternatives affordable for them". Every seemingly little effort counts!

Hugs,

Olanike