My research in humanitarian engineering took me to Honduras this past April to field test a sensor system that monitors the impact and adoption rates of improved cookstoves. The sensor, called the Fuel, Usage and Emissions Logger (FUEL), measures household fuel and cookstove usage. It was the first test in a real-world setting, to ensure that the sensor functioned both in the elements (rain, humidity, etc) and that it would be accepted by households, as it requires a change in habit.
On my third day in Honduras, in a village of 23 households called El Eden, I went with a family to collect firewood. This particular family collects wood on a daily basis, although it’s common for families to go 2-3 times per week. The couple, an older man about 70 years old and his wife, had waited for me to arrive before they left. By that time it had reached mid-day and was close to 100 degrees. Normally they would go much earlier in the day when it was cooler.
I left with the man and a woman from another house. As we began our steep descent through tidy rows of coffee plants, two other women joined the group, both carrying bags to hold wood and machetes to cut it. I wore jeans and running sneakers, the women from El Eden wore skirts and rubber flip flops. After about 20 minutes of walking (a shorter trip than usual), we reached a clearing in the woods, and everyone used a machete to swing at thick branches on fallen trees. My translator and I had no machetes, so we tried to collect wood by hand but were mostly useless.
After each person had collected a large enough pile to fill a sack about 3 feet long by 2 feet wide, we sat in the shade. One of the women had dug up an edible plant, Santa Maria, to bring back for her garden. We ate some of that and talked for a while as I fumbled with my flimsy Spanish.
When it was time to return to the village, I offered to carry one of the women’s bags, wondering if I could even make it back the whole way. She complied, but didn’t seem to think that I could either! The women tied up the bags with rope or a shirt, and hoisted them up onto their heads. That seemed difficult to me so I tried the Santa Claus approach and slung the bag over my back. I then decided they were probably holding it over their heads for a reason, and eventually followed suit. I could barely balance the bag on my head, and could feel the weight compressing my neck and back. I trudged behind the others, arms aching but determined to make it to the top. After a decent amount of sweating and pain, I could finally see the corrugated metal rooftops that indicated that we were almost there. Reaching the houses, I was so tall that I kept banging into rooftops with the bag of wood, almost taking off a roof or two. I decided then to leave it to the people who knew better.
I was thrown into the reality of their lives- it had been easy to visit households and observe the peaceful-seeming cadence of life, but actively participating in firewood collection exposed me to the drastically less idyllic but essential tasks that people do to survive. It seemed to me, and makes sense, that people accept these tasks as a fact of life, but that does not mean that it isn’t still challenging. As one example, people in El Eden may have developed stronger muscles for carrying large loads (compared to me), but firewood collection can still cause hernias. Better understanding how households perceive these tasks will come with more time spent in the field, talking to and being with people to really understand how they view their lives and where the most pressing challenges lie.
It wasn’t until we were halfway back up the hill, sweating under the relentless sun, that I realized that this trip occurred during the hottest point in the day only because they had postponed collection to wait for me to arrive. This is one of the trade-offs and privileges of having the positionality of a researcher that I have learned about in Anthropologic Research Design, and began to identify for myself, something I hope to mitigate in my future research. It seems like power dynamics have to be carefully navigated and leveled, and unintended consequences of research agendas need to be continually considered to minimize invasiveness, especially when it involves human life. I hope to continue to improve upon this through my past and future experiences as a researcher so I can begin to recognize and identify where these inequalities lie and avoid perpetuating them as we work together to identify and solve challenges.