What Do You Have in Common with a Low-Income Indian Mother? More Than You Think

Imagine this: You wake up early, as always, to prepare breakfast for your family. Wiping the sleep from your eyes you shuffle to the kitchen...

Imagine this: You wake up early, as always, to prepare breakfast for your family. Wiping the sleep from your eyes you shuffle to the kitchen and light the stove—out comes billowing black smoke that immediately fills the room. Business as usual. You put on a pot of water to boil porridge. Your 3-year-old is now awake and comes over to watch you cook. They lean against soot-blackened walls and cough chronically as you continue cooking, learning how it’s done. You try to keep low, below the acrid smoke, as you feed the stove and stir the porridge, eyes watering. Breakfast should be ready soon, which is good because the rest of the family is waking up. As the porridge simmers, your mind turns to the day ahead—fetching wood, carrying water, going to market, preparing dinner… Overhead the coal-black thatch roof crouches over you, suspended on a pillow of smoke, but you pay it no mind. After all, it’s been that way since before you were born.
Smoke is known to be toxic. It kills young children around the world at a rate exceeded only by the drama and trauma of childbirth. The negative impact on adult heart disease and life expectancy from cooking in kitchens such as this is well documented. To those who understand the ramifications of breathing smoke and who, importantly, have exposure to other cooking methods, the harm is literally written on the soot-covered wall.
But that’s just the point. You, and the billions of other people who routinely cook their meals in this fashion, don’t know any other way. Your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all cooked like this. And even when you and your peers are informed as to the harm of your approach, you persist. It seems far-fetched to think that a pervasive and ancient cultural practice could be such a vicious killer. Besides, it’s what you know and are comfortable with—it’s what everyone does. So you continue, and the lungs of your family continue to fill with smoke.

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