The Magic Stove

Karen Treanor

Copyright 2003 by Karen Treanor


Photo of an old iron stove.

The morning after we arrived at our new home in Swaziland I got up to make coffee and investigate my kitchen.

We had come to this small Southern African kingdom as part of a Peace Corps technical assistance team. After a period of training and orientation, we had been assigned our various houses. The Peace Corps staff had been extremely helpful in all manner of things such as providing maps, teaching us the rudiments of the language, and making sure we had inoculations against cholera and other nasty diseases. They even took us on trips around the beautiful countryside.

They had been just a tad remiss on some of the practical details, as I was about to find out.

Squatting like a Jules Verne space-ship in the kitchen was a black iron stove with nickel trim, with the word "M-A-G-I-C" on its oven door.

"Every housewife's dream," I said to myself. "Wonder where it turns on?"

Even at that early hour it didn't take long to discover that this stove was not electric, nor gas, nor even kerosene-powered. OK, it's a coal stove. That must mean there's some coal around somewhere.

I discovered a coal bin lurking behind a small outbuilding. It was nearly empty, but I managed to scoop up a bucketful of spiderwebbed dusty coal.

This I poured into what appeared to be the firebox of the Magic stove. After crumpling in some newspaper, I lit it. It burned briefly and went out. A smell of coal gas floated into the room, but no heat followed it. I felt stupid. Here we were, part of a technical aid team to a developing country, and I couldn't even make a cup of coffee.

What would Mother do in a case like this? I asked myself. Find something to get the coal to go, obviously. I rummaged under the sink and found a hard yellow bar of soap and more spiderwebs. Even my clever mother, who had once jury-rigged a fanbelt out of garters, would be hard-pressed to find any inspiration here.

On the pelmet over the window was a bottle of clear fluid. I got it down and pried out the crumbly cork. Sniffed. Mmm, certainly smells flammable.

I doused the sullenly smoking coal with half the contents of the bottle. The label was torn, but I could see the letters "B-E", which probably stood for "Best Firestarter" or something like that. A strong vapour rose up from the liquid as it hit the slightly warm firebox.

Guardian angels must go on duty early. For some reason, rather than stick a lit match straight into the firebox, I stood back and tossed it in the direction of the coal.

There was a tremendous explosion. All six stove lids flew up like so many large black beetles. Little bits of soot floated gently in the air. Long greasy black threads festooned the table, sink, pelmets and me. As a sort of afterthought, the stovepipe fell out of its mooring and clattered onto the floor in three pieces, spewing lumps of soot everywhere.

A roar from the bedroom told me that my husband, for once, had not slept through one of my domestic disasters. I quickly put the bottle of firelighter back on the pelmet.

Gene came into the kitchen, stumbling and staggering in the attempt to get into his trousers while running. (I don't know what it is about men--if the trump of doom was sounding, they'd all be late, having stopped to get their pants on.)

"What the hell is going on? What have you done?" he demanded.

"I was just trying to get the stove going," I explained meekly.

"Since when does coal explode?"

"Well it does in mines, that's why they have those canaries, for the gas." I protested.

"What did you put in besides coal?"

"Just some stuff I found. It smelled flammable." I nodded to the bottle on the pelmet.

Gene took down the bottle, uncorked it, and sniffed.

"That's benzine!" he exclaimed. "B as in Bomb, E as in explosion, N as in Nuclear--you might have killed yourself."

"How should I know benzine? I took second year French rather than Chemistry." I said, sweeping up the bigger lumps of soot.

Muttering, Gene went back to the bedroom to finish dressing. He returned to announce there was no hot water. After a fruitless search for the hot water tank, we realized that hot water came from pipes in the back of the stove, and unless the stove was going, there was no hot water. Getting the stove going was assuming more importance that I had ever expected. Gene eventually got it put back together and managed to start a fire. An hour later there was enough warm water to remove the accumulated coal dust and smuts from our bodies and hair.

Obviously this sort of thing could not go on every morning for the next two years. The problem solved itself later in the day when a young boy came to the door looking for work. Shadrach and his successors Meshach and Abel (no, we never had an Abednego) were whizkids at getting the stove going. They came every morning, cleaned and started the stove, had some breakfast, and went off to school. Weekends I had to cope by myself, but under the tutelage of 12 year old Shadrach, I learned. You start with small dry bits of wood to make a good coal fire, he explained, and we went on from there.

The one unexpected dividend of the Great Stove Explosion was that the blast had blown twenty years' accumulation of soot, dirt, dead birds and leaves out of the chimney. Once everything was reassembled it worked beautifully. For the next two years we had all the hot water we needed, and made the most marvelous roasts and stews and bread in the old black stove.

Once you got the hang of it, it was truly M-A-G-I-C.   


We were one of the first two families to be recruited in the summer of 1970.  We had a three month old and a three year old.  The Nieblas family from California had a pair of primary school kids.  By 1970 the Peace Corps brass had realised that it made more sense to recruit skilled tradesmen and run them through a cross cultural training and language course than to try and make BA generalists into tradesmen.  And since skilled tradies are usually grown men with families, they had to accept that concept in Washington.  I am sure there were many nervous nellies in Foggy Bottom worried about sending American children to the Third World, but in fact our kids had a wonderful life in several parts of Africa—one of them was born there—and never came to any harm.  None of my children ever got shot “by accident” as seems to be all too common in the modern USA.  We often joked about having infected the younger Peace Corps Volunteers with the baby bug, because there were quite a few babies born to young couples after we arrived.

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