Women are the backbone and muscle of rural African society.  In addition to cooking, tending crops, and caring for children, they haul water and carry firewood over long distances. To celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa, I’d like to present Wonder Woman’s best accessory:  the Wonderbag.

My Wonderbag.  We found this beauty in the small grocery store an hour's walk away.

My Wonderbag. We found this beauty in the small grocery store an hour’s walk away.

The technology behind the Wonderbag is simple and almost as old as cooking itself:  insulate a hot pot so the heat will slowly cook the food.  Moving a pot from a cooking fire to an insulated bag has three benefits.

1)  Less firewood.  Or propane or electricity or whatever you’re using to cook your food.  Less energy means a smaller carbon footprint.  It means less time spent going to the forest collecting firewood and hauling it home.  If you are cooking over an indoor fire, it also means fewer particulates and reduced risk of bronchitis or asthma.

Reducing fuel means reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

Reducing fuel means reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

2)  Less water.  Slow-cooking food means less water evaporation.  Hauling clean water is hard work, so anything that reduces water consumption helps.

3)  Less time tending the pot.  Anyone who has ever lived with me knows that I tend to get bored watching pots on the stove, resulting in many scorched meals.  With slow-cooking, I use that time for something else with no fear of burning the beans.

I’m from the Great Plains of America and we love slow cookers.  The crock pot is my favorite kitchen appliance by far.  Anything that tastes good over the stove tastes amazing in a crock pot.  With the Wonderbag, I cook my food over the stove for a while (5 minutes for rice, 30 minutes for beans), put in the insulating bag, and let it continue cooking slowly for 45 minutes to a few hours.  Easy peasy.  And no fear of electrical fires.

In the developed world, something like the Wonderbag means using less energy and water, fewer scorched pots in my case, and saving a little bit of time.  In the developing world, something like the Wonderbag means slowing down deforestation, improving respiratory health, and saving several hours per day that can be used for education or income generation.

Happy Women’s Day.

The impact of the wonderbag according to the World Health Organization.

The impact of the Wonderbag on a single family in the developing world according to the World Health Organization.

The beloved borehole pump.  Sweetest water anywhere--just ask the pig.

The beloved borehole pump. Sweetest water anywhere–just ask the pig.

My room-mates have an ongoing bet. Mike has wagered one rand that the borehole will run dry before the South African summer rains return.

KwaZulu-Natal is having a drought.  On the coast, there are bull sharks in St. Lucia that have been trapped in the estuary for eight years because low rains have left the mouth closed to the Indian Ocean.  In our inland area, the maize was half-grown at best, and the livestock are eating the trees because there isn’t enough grass.

The desolation of Cassia:  before and after the munchfest.

The desolation of Cassia: before and after the drought-induced munchfest.

In addition to the drought, there’s a historically huge number of students living at the school, and they do a lot of laundry.  All the time.  Our fences are constantly covered in yellow button-up shirts, and the borehole is having its mettle tested.

Our house does have plumbing.  When it was connected to the water tank on the tower, we could even get water from the faucet, not to mention in the flushing toilet.  But the tank burst, so we’re schlepping water from the borehole 100 m away like everybody else.  We’re also using gray water from laundry to flush the toilet and save hauling a bucket or two.

For folks who are too far from the school borehole, there are springs coming off the mountain.  Some even have pipes attached.  Jojo tanks seemingly in the middle of nowhere must be getting filled somehow.  Small earthen dams are scattered around the circumference of the mountain to water livestock.

Extracting water from the mountain:  developing a spring and an earthen dam.

Extracting water from the mountain: developing a spring and an earthen dam.

Frankly, the borehole life is pretty sweet.  We don’t have to haul water far, and it’s high quality.  During my previous service in Kenya, people would ask me if I had running water–only if you hit the donkey hard enough.  Miu River had low flow and salty water, but many women made their living with donkeys hauling jerry cans of water scooped from a hole in the sand.

People swear this salty water is what made their goat meat taste so delicious.  Miu River, Kenya, around 2000.

People swear this salty water is what made their goat meat taste so delicious. Miu River, Kenya, around 2000.

A fellow volunteer recently asked me whether it was necessary for Peace Corps volunteers to live in “hardship” positions.  Many of us are, and some of us aren’t.  For me, roughing it is all part of the gig.  First, it encourages me to live a simpler life than what I might live in the United States.  Second, it ensures that I live at the same level as the people I am serving and can empathize with them.  Third, I don’t waste water that I have to carry myself.  Water is precious, and I hope I carry some of these conservation practices with me back to America.

Everybody carries water, even the itty-bitties.

Everybody carries water, even the itty-bitties.

My first Peace Corps experience was in Kenya, about 15 years ago.  I was teaching math, biology, and physics in a very, very rural secondary school.  There are certain joys found in rural life in a developing nation, and I was looking forward to finding them again here in South Africa.

However, my current site has been developed out of some of those joyful simplicities I remembered from Kenya, either because South Africa is generally much more wealthy and developed than Kenya or simply through the passing of time. Allow me to illustrate three examples:  bottles, baskets, and tuck shops.  Keep in mind that I am comparing one little village in South Africa today to one little village in Kenya in 2000.

Bottles

Coca-cola is everywhere, so Coke bottles are everywhere.  In Kenya (2000), they were glass.  You paid a deposit and the bottle was dutifully collected and re-used over and over, evident from the scratches it accumulated over its many lifetimes.

Sharing pop with a friend in Kenya (2011).  Not only are the bottles glass, but they are of a reasonable, modest 300 mL size.

Sharing pop with a friend in Kenya (2011). Not only are the bottles made of glass, but they are of a reasonably modest 300 mL size.

The bottles in South Africa, however, are mostly plastic.  While some of the larger municipalities have recycling, the rural areas have no infrastructure to take care of the mass of plastic littering roads, open fields, and school grounds.  I hoard plastic bottles, using them for science experiments, art projects, or to hand to the little ones so they don’t have to put their faces up to the pump and risk getting bonked in the head to drink some water.  The bottles that aren’t free-range litter end up in a burn pile.

Plastic bottles scavenged to teach colour theory.

Plastic bottles scavenged to teach colour theory.

Baskets

Many ladies from my Kenyan village were skilled basket weavers.  The kiondo or kikapu was the traditional gift for weddings and good-byes; I went home with a small fortune of them.  I have one fitted with a leather strap and enclosure that I use as a purse.  It’s beautiful and unique.

A pile of kikapus bestowed upon my Kenyan sister at her wedding.

A pile of kikapus bestowed upon my Kenyan sister at her wedding.

My hand-woven purse is the only one of its kind that I’ve seen in South Africa.  Everyone carries pleather purses and bags made in China.  There are the traditional Zulu ukhamba, beautifully woven and traditionally water-tight, but I have only seen them in tourist shops.

Tuck shops

In Kenya, I rarely went to town to shop for groceries.  It required an hour-long hike up hill and a multi-hour wait for a matatu to come by. With the exception of pasta and tomato paste, I could get all my staples at the local kiosks known as dukas.  They were everywhere:  next to the school, next to my village, next to apparently nothing.

A row of dukas in Kyalavo, Kenya.

A row of dukas in Kyalavo, Kenya.

Many teachers drive in South Africa, so they go to town for all their needs.  People who can’t afford a car can take a shared taxi; even the dirt roads are readily passable.  As a result, there isn’t the demand for a well-stocked, mom and pop shop around the corner.  It took a month for me to find the closest tuck shop a 20 minute walk away.

The bright coral blip in the center is the only tuck shop for kilometers.  A beacon in the wilderness.

The bright coral blip near the center is the only tuck shop for kilometers. A beacon in the wilderness.

Development comes with an increase in quality of life through clean drinking water, access to health clinics, and education.  Sometimes it also comes with a western-style consumerism that squelches conservation, improvisation, and indigenous technology.  I suppose it was the same phenomenon seen in my little Nebraskan town when the big box superstore 90 miles away edged out the local five-and-dime. I have no answers, only observations and a fabulous kikapu purse found nowhere else.