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Building stoves in Guatemala

OXFORD COUNTY, Maine – Paul Bisulca recently took a break from his work as chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

Instead of the long, drawn out task of negotiating the prickly relationship between Maine’s Wabanaki tribes and the state government, Bisulca spent two weeks in Guatemala gaining an immediate sense of accomplishment from building safe cooking stoves for poor Mayan families.

“In the political world, you hope what you do is good stuff, but you really don’t know for a long time. It’s not as tangible as building a stove. It’s extremely rewarding to do something for others and see the work actually get done and get that instant gratification when you see the joy it brings to people.”

Adding to his satisfaction was a sense of cultural connection with another indigenous people, said Bisulca, a Penobscot Indian. He also acted as an ambassador for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, bringing gifts of solidarity from Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander to the Mayan women.

“In the political world, you hope what you do is good stuff, but you really don’t know for a long time. It’s not as tangible as building a stove. It’s extremely rewarding to do something for others and see the work actually get done and get that instant gratification when you see the joy it brings to people.” Paul Bisulca – chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

Bisulca’s wife, Norma, persuaded him to make the trip. A math professor at the University of Maine, she chaperoned a group of honor students last year on a trip to Guatemala where she learned about a Maine-based group called Masons on a Mission.

Masons on a Mission – MOM, for short – is a nonprofit foundation that mobilizes North American masons and others to build cook stoves for impoverished Mayans in Central America, and to train them in stove construction in order to improve public health and safety in the region.

The Mayans ordinarily use “three-stone fires” – open fires built in the middle of three stones with a metal plate, often the lid from a 55 gallon drum, laid over the top to cook on. Three-stone fires are usually inside a dwelling with no chimney or venting systems and cause health problems and safety hazards, including respiratory illnesses and stunted growth in children’s lungs and eye problems, including blindness, in the women who cook with the fires every day. The open fires also cause serious burn injuries to children who accidentally fall into them.

The group replaced the three-stone fires with hand built stoves made from concrete cinder blocks, bricks and mortar. The simple design includes a brick-lined fire box covered by a metal plate that serves as a cook top. The interior is angled so smoke is forced to the back of the stove and up a metal pipe that vents the smoke out the roof.

Twenty-one people, including the Bisulcas and their granddaughter Makayla, went on the trip. They formed five groups who were expected to build five stoves a day.

Bisulca kept a journal in which he detailed his observations of the area’s physical and social landscapes. On the first day, a truck loaded with stove-making supplies and people traveled up a narrow winding road to the Mayan village of Tzununá.


Photo courtesy Norma Bisulca Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission Chairman Paul Bisulca, Penobscot, his wife Norma, and their granddaughter Makayla spent two weeks in Guatemala with Masons on the Move building these vented concrete cooking stoves for Mayan families.

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“The homes were small adobe brick, one room and very simply equipped with home implements, much different from some of the grand estates we viewed along or perched above the lake shore on the boat ride over from Panajachel. This actually reflects the societal divide that we observed in Guatemala, the few extremely rich adjacent to the many extremely poor. The wood fires from the morning meal turned the village into a very smoky place, a situation that abated as the day wore on,” Bisulca wrote.

He said people in the village spoke very little Spanish, except for the children who were learning the language in school. But their time in school was limited, because they often left school as soon as they were able to work to help the family.

The group’s Mayan mason, Manuel, spoke no English. He communicated with the home owner in the dialect of the area. Bisulca said there are 21 Mayan dialects in Guatemala.

“When we finished our stove I presented la senora de la casa (the woman of the house) with a photo of Chief Brenda Commander of the Maliseet tribe and a birch bark rattle as a Wabanaki gift to this Mayan household. I used Brenda’s photo as an inspiration to Mayan women in whose homes we would be working. Manuel translated my Spanish into K’iche’,” Bisulca said.

Norma was particularly moved by some of the stories the women told about their struggles, particularly about the strain when their undocumented husbands traveled to the U.S. to find work.

“They talked about how hard it was trying to raise their kids on their own and about how scared they were for their husbands. In this whole debate about ‘illegal immigrants,’ I don’t think people here realize how dangerous and hard it is for the men and their families, or what a risk they’re taking.”

One night, the Bisulcas had dinner at Miguel’s home. After dinner, which was eaten on a mat in the living/sleeping room, the group went down to see Miguel’s parents and then went to a small circular thatched hut where Miguel’s grandparents sat near a three-stone fire.

“The sight of these two old people in such an austere setting was like one might expect it to have been 100 or more years ago. Before loading up on the pickup trucks I gave Miguel some sweet grass in a plastic bag for his grandfather. I explained to Miguel how we use it for purification and told him that his grandparents seem very traditional and might like this as a gift,” Bisulca said.

The experience with the people of Guatemala was so profoundly gratifying that both Paul and Norma are eager to return.

“It’s different from just writing a check,” Norma said.

Bisulca said he would like to organize a group of Wabanaki people from Maine to travel to Guatemala both for stove building and cultural exchange.

“It’s so worthwhile being there.”