Returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) Jenn Rowley and Joe Daniels spent a week in San Ramón visiting with old friends and building improved wood ovens in the rural community of San Roque. We asked Jenn to share her reflections on their time in San Ramón.
“La Carretera se ve bien nueva” remarks my long-time buddy Joe to our Nicaraguan driver and confidant,
Don Esteban. “Verdad que si!” Don Esteban responds, then launches into the history of infrastructure and
development of Nicaragua. I am staring blanking out the window in the back, trying to keep up with the
conversation and admiring the rolling landscape that is this beautiful country and wondering “How is this
all going to go?”
Joe and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Nicaragua several years ago. Joe was an environmental volunteer from 2013-2015 and I was a TEFL volunteer from 2014-2016; both of us served in the department of Matagalpa. We often met up in the major city on the weekend to catch up and swap teaching stories; with both of us being cut from the vivacious extravert quilt of life, we have a lot in common and thoroughly enjoyed our time in Nicaragua. Fast forward 5 years – I am building out a van with my partner and Joe has a house, spouse, and a wickedly impressive resume of community and environmental advocacy work. Joe had called me almost 8 months ago and asked if I wanted to join him training Nicaraguan contractors to make the famous Peace Corps improved wood ovens with Sister Communities of San Ramon, Nicaragua (SCSRN).
It was a common project for environmental volunteers; you would get the family who wanted this eco-friendly stove to purchase at least 20% of the material, then the Peace Corps volunteer would assist in fundraising the rest of the material and help the family build the oven. The ovens are made from locally-sourced material, including bricks, horse manure, a 55-gallon drum, and a few other items. These ovens use less wood and generate less smoke than traditional ovens.
The family chooses a 4 ft x 8 ft spot with a roof overhead, builds out a table with cinder blocks, then the volunteer and the family work together establishing a base layer of bricks on top of the table, all the while cementing the bricks together with a horse manure and mud mixture. About half way through, the 55-gallon drum sits on top of the bricks, and the rest of the bricks and encase the drum. The drum has a welded door hinge and a metal rack that sits inside the drum for baking. The building process generally takes anywhere from 3-6 hours, depending on how fast you can cut the bricks and mix the mud concoction.
When Joe called to invite me, I didn’t even let him finish his question – “YEP, I’m in.” I said cheerfully. Joe had done a total of 18 ovens while he was in Peace Corps, and it showed. Our first oven was in the home of Maribel, her husband who was a contractor, and her daughter. As soon as we rolled up to the site Joe got started right away –his keen eyes scanned the table and the materials. “We’ve got to soak these bricks in water so they’re easier to cut,” he said immediately. Maribel’s husband got right on it and quickly surpassed Joe’s expertise. The other Nicaraguan contractor we were working with, Jaime, also quickly picked up the trade. By 9AM the next morning he had 75% of another oven complete at a neighboring house; this guy was good.
Joe and the contractors were the symphony, and SCSRN was the conductor; from water systems to oven projects, SCSRN is the voluntary mud and horse manure mixture that held this project together. The SCSRN is a 501(c)(3) non-profit based out of Durham, North Carolina and is designed around grassroots principles that lead to community based cross-cultural connections. SCSRN organized our housing, food, and transportation to the oven sites as well as allowed for ample time to get to know the community members of San Ramón. They provided us with the contractor connections, resources, and energy that allowed this project to take off far faster than Joe and I had previously imagined. I can’t help but think back to that first car ride with Don Esteban and respond to my former self by saying “Yeah Jen…it went pretty dang well.”
During their stay, Jen and Joe completed six ovens with the help of the local contractors. We are in the process of building 14 more, and demand is growing! We hope to continue to build these ovens for years to come, as they not only protect the families from harmful smoke, but also provide a source of income for rural families. We can’t wait to receive Joe and Jen here in San Ramón again soon!