Afghanistan: Sandali stoves, a blessing and a curse

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Contributed date

April 24, 2020 - 10:30pm

Critical Commentary

I chose this piece from the International Red Cross not only because it captures the variability of circumstances that can be described as energy vulnerability, but also because it is a story, and it provides a simple case study to apply the 'assemblage approach' to the analysis of energy vulnerability. Using Day and Walker's (2013) "six  fundamental features of assemblage thinking" as a guide, I will attempt to deconstruct this story so as to discern how the collective whole is functioning in this case.

We can see how the "diverse network of human, non-human and abstract entities" interact in this case to form a process of energy vulnerability. The story takes place in a neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan.  The urban form described suggests a slum style of development built into the hillside without adequate amenities or infrastructure. Material "actants" in this case include the apartment with plastic sheeting in the window panes instead of glass, the inner room where the family spends most time around the "sandali stove" ( a makeshift table covered in blankets and surrounded by cushions with a coal fired heating source within) and the busy market the slum is centered around and the grocery kiosk the family owns relate to the abstract harsh winter weather of the mountainous region. The human actants, family itself (Sardar, his parents and brothers), the International Aid Agency and the clinic it runs, its staff and the interactions between them and the population, all of these entities interact in a dynamic process that effects choices, perceptions, and the environment creating a process of fluctuating energy vulnerability.

"Space and Time" collapse between the single unit of family to the neighborhood and economy, and the trans-national geo politics of war, the decades of war in the country and the forces that pushed the family into urbanization from their home in the countryside into the slums of the city. These elements also effect "agency". In this case, we have an actual agency, the ICRC, creating a sense of agency among the disabled community, providing medical care and financial assistance in the form of micro loans. The grocery kiosk creates some form of agency for Sardar, who can spend his days in the market engaging with the local community and making some form of income for his family. The agency of the family unit itself may be compromised in a place where they are not from and have a tenuous relation to their home. Then there is the agency of the sandali stove, which is the subject of the article and the dichotomous power it has to bring the family together and to cause harm, even death.

The sense of agency is also "dynamic and in flux", not static. Sardar's sense of independence and resilience can shift with his access to work and his relationship to family and well as the clinic. The money received to buy wood fuel for more sophisticated stoves is in flux and relative to the use of the sandali. "Messiness and variety" are illustrated throughout all of this, perhaps most pointedly by the main human subject's disability, in this case caused by war and its effect, the inability to feel pain in his legs and feet which hardly fits into the typical narrative of fuel poverty. By using assemblage thinking to analyze energy vulnerability in this case study, "revealed are people and their actions and decisions, material entities and their properties, other living organisms and their agendas, abstract entities such as traditions, beliefs, practices and policies, non-human nature and its cycles." (Bickerstaff et. Al, 2013)


Barry, Jessica. (2009, January 23) International Committee of the Red Cross

Retrieved April 20, 2020 from



Cite as

Jessica Barry, "Afghanistan: Sandali stoves, a blessing and a curse", contributed by Roya Haider, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 24 April 2020, accessed 29 November 2023.