Story

Malawi's Toxic Kitchens

June 09, 2017|

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In Pitala, a village in the north of Malawi, food is cooked over open fire. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

In Pitala, a village in the north of Malawi, food is cooked over open fire. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Rose Kandodo from Nessa village cooking nsima on an improved cook stove. Compared to open fire, the stove uses only half the wood and smokes less. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Rose Kandodo from Nessa village cooking nsima on an improved cook stove. Compared to open fire, the stove uses only half the wood and smokes less. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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The smoke causes serious heart and lung diseases. It’s victims: mainly women and children. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

The smoke causes serious heart and lung diseases. It’s victims: mainly women and children. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Women and girls are responsible for cooking, and collect wood several times a week. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Women and girls are responsible for cooking, and collect wood several times a week. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Like charcoal, firewood is a source of income for many. Malawi has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Like charcoal, firewood is a source of income for many. Malawi has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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The wood on the ox-cart comes from the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, where villagers are allowed to collect wood for a small fee. The forestry reserve, one of the most important water catchment areas in the country, is increasingly plundered by illegal charcoal burners. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

The wood on the ox-cart comes from the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, where villagers are allowed to collect wood for a small fee. The forestry reserve, one of the most important water catchment areas in the country, is increasingly plundered by illegal charcoal burners. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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In contrast to open fires, the new stove burns less and requires only half as much wood. On the Mgona charcoal market in Lilongwe workers pack bags for wholesalers—even policemen buy the illegal goods for private use. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

In contrast to open fires, the new stove burns less and requires only half as much wood. On the Mgona charcoal market in Lilongwe workers pack bags for wholesalers—even policemen buy the illegal goods for private use. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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In Malawi, even if trading in charcoal is illegal, business is done openly. The illegal exchange is the third biggest trade in the country. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

In Malawi, even if trading in charcoal is illegal, business is done openly. The illegal exchange is the third biggest trade in the country. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Open flames do not just cause smoke. Often, women and children suffer severe injuries and burns from open cooking fires. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Open flames do not just cause smoke. Often, women and children suffer severe injuries and burns from open cooking fires. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Jacqueline, a two-year-old girl, has just come out of surgery. She suffered severe burns when a pot of boiling liquid fell over her small body. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Jacqueline, a two-year-old girl, has just come out of surgery. She suffered severe burns when a pot of boiling liquid fell over her small body. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Mary, who suffers from epilepsy, fell into an open fire when she had a fit. The Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, where she is currently undergoing treatment, has one of the few functioning burn’s units in the country. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Mary, who suffers from epilepsy, fell into an open fire when she had a fit. The Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, where she is currently undergoing treatment, has one of the few functioning burn’s units in the country. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Isaac Salima produces the "Chitetezo Mbaula", an improved but at the same time affordable cook stove made out of clay. Most customers are non-governmental organizations. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Isaac Salima produces the "Chitetezo Mbaula", an improved but at the same time affordable cook stove made out of clay. Most customers are non-governmental organizations. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

It is hot and humid. Vanessa Chirwa coughs. She sits on a wooden bench in the shadow of a mango tree, a fire in front of her. Now and then she lifts the lid of the pot and stirs the simmering sauce. "I have a headache and my eyes are watering. I have to cough and get a burning sensation in my lungs." She points to her chest. "The pain sits here, sometimes I gasp for a breath." All her neighbours know the stabbing chest pain. "This is tradition: as a woman, you have that pain." They rarely go to the doctor. "It's just normal."

The smoke of cooking fires makes Malawi’s women and children sick. According to the WHO, 13,000 of the deaths in the country are directly caused by unclean cooking. Lower respiratory infections are the second most common cause of death amongst the population in Malawi. But the Ministry of Health prioritizes malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS.

Similar to cigarette smoke, soot particles and toxic substances from cooking smoke penetrate the respiratory tract. The pulmonary function is reduced, susceptibility to infection is increased; the smoke can lead to asthma, bronchitis, cancer and chronic heart and lung diseases.

It is a massive problem since around 98 percent of the population cooks with biomass fuel. "Improved" cookers that burn more energy-efficient than open fires could provide a solution: they can save up to 60 percent of wood. In addition, there are less harmful emissions and gases during cooking--it smokes less.

In Malawi, the National Cook Stove Steering Committee hopes to spread clean and efficient stoves in two million homes by 2020. Not an easy goal, however. Some can’t afford a stove; some don’t think it functional or desirable. For Malawi's women, clean cooking stoves are not the "leap into the better future" they had hoped for.

The German version of this article can be accessed here.