The Fire That Laughs

The Fire That Laughs

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This past summer, we were fortunate enough to have Bryce Leary return to us one more time as the program and activity director for boys camp. Bryce (a Chewonki camper and counselor who has been with us for 14 years!) had recently returned from a 26-month stint in the Peace Corps and we were eager to learn about his adventures.  

Bryce Leary and young Senegalese friends

The Peace Corps deployed Bryce to Senegal, a country of 15 million people in coastal West Africa and Bryce says what he had learned at Chewonki also proved useful in Senegal.

Bryce’s assignment in Senegal was to support agriculture in and around the village of Ndianda, about 75 road miles south of the capital city, Dakar. The farmers in Ndianda “primarily grow sorghum, millet, and corn supplemented with small amounts of rice,” say Bryce. “The two big cash crops are onions and peanuts. People also grow vegetables both for themselves and for market.”

Leary and his host uncle, village elder Mbagnick Dione, in his onion field

As Bryce got to know his host family, make friends, and learn Serer (one of the local languages), he soon became involved in other efforts to strengthen the community around him. He supported a scholarship program for girls, and ran a summer camp focused on girls’ empowerment. As he learned more about the girls and women at work around him, Bryce grew concerned about the impacts of their cooking methods.

The land around Ndianda was thickly forested until the 1980s, but unchecked harvesting for fuel and profit has left the landscape largely treeless. People then turned to a more readily available fuel: cattle dung. He saw women and girls burning it over indoor cooking fires that spewed choking black smoke.

“They were surrounded by this smoke as they cooked,” he says, “It causes lots of health problems,” including diseases of the eyes and lungs. “I also noticed that the time it takes to gather fuel and cook meals makes it difficult for girls to go to school.”

Leary with friend and work partner Seynabou Diouf and her daughter Khady

Bryce, who led the farm activity at Boys Camp for many years, remembered the earthenware “cob oven” that he and other campers used to cook pizzas outside at Chewonki’s farm. He researched similar ovens and stoves already in use in West African countries. Why not in Senegal?

His elderly host aunt, Yacine, told Leary that villagers long ago used a better stove design but over time, the know-how had been lost. Leary and his local partners developed a new model that burns dung much more efficiently, reducing cooking times, needed fuel, and toxic smoke. That also means girls have more time to spend in school.

The new mud stove

The building materials are termite clay, finely sifted donkey manure, dried grass, and water, plus three rocks to hold up the cooking pot.  Stoves for outdoor use are finished with a coating of lime plaster or baobab tree leaf powder to make them waterproof.

The people of Ndianda call the new stove “Furno no Billi,” which in Serer means “the fire that laughs.” Bryce eventually organized a multi-village program to train 20 women to teach other women how to build them.

Leary and first host mother Penda Gniing during his end-of-training celebration

This fall Bryce headed to Washington, D.C., to begin studying for a master’s degree in international development at American University’s School of International Service. He hopes to manage project-based work in foreign countries. “It’s not unlike what I’m doing at Chewonki this summer,” he said with a grin. “I like seeing the big picture and making sure the people ‘in the field’ have what they need to achieve their goals.”

Bryce noted that his own country faces many problems, but to him, “The problems in some other parts of the world feel even more pressing,” he says. His experience in Senegal convinced him that working side-by-side with people in their own communities is a key to success. “If local people have the knowledge and information they need, it’s possible to make progress.”  

Bryce will spend this fall at American University’s School of International Service studying for his masters degree

Leary grew up in Falmouth, Maine, a world away from Senegal, but his parents made sure to instill in him “a spirit of kindness” that transcends cultural differences. “The importance of kindness, generosity, and serving, which anyone can, and should, have,” infuses his relationships with other people and his professional goals. Along with his organizational skills, Leary’s kindness has distinguished him on the Chewonki campus.

Thank you for the inspiration and good work Bryce!