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Burkina Faso: Shea butter and other secrets

If you know your beauty products, you most likely have heard of shea butter – the natural fat extracted from the fruit of the karite nut. Shea is a natural moisturizer and its high levels of vegetable fats allow it to treat a host of skin conditions, from burns to eczema to rashes. Karite trees are mostly found in the African Savannah, and grow abundantly throughout much of West Africa, especially Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

Western beauty companies have been falling over themselves trying to purchase fresh raw shea from cooperatives of African women. They see it as a win-win proposition: Buying shea provides cosmetic companies with this wonderful natural product while giving African women a chance to earn money harvesting and processing a natural resource.

Burkina Mom was recently handed an advertisement from a Western cosmetic company promoting its use of shea butter from Burkina Faso. While it explained how the women gather the karite nuts, the piece didn’t go into the detail how much work is actually required to process the butter. Burkina Mom fills in the facts.

Here's a few things about shea trees, nuts and butter:

They are trees that must grow for 15 years before they start producing nuts. Each tree produces only about 45 pounds of nuts per year.

When the nuts are ripe, they fall to the ground. So, gathering them is really not labour intensive. What IS very intensive is the amount of labour required to make butter out of the raw nuts. This labour is done exclusively by women.

It involves taking off the pulp, breaking the inner shell, roasting the nuts, then grinding and mixing the paste by hand. It is lots of work, and like many things done by women here, it doesn’t pay that much.

But the while article talks a lot about the “cultivation of shea butter nuts”, there's not one word about the labor actually involved. It is invisible.

Meanwhile, here in Burkina, more and more women are forming cooperatives for shea butter production and sales. Some of the bigger groups are even able to buy simple machines that make the work less backbreaking. So, I have been heartened by the increased use of shea butter in various beauty products. And I guess it’s nice to see West Africa in the media, but I wish they’d get it right. Especially if they want us to buy their over-priced products.

In April, National Geographic published a 5,700-word travelogue about a trip through the Sahel. It wasn’t lost on one blogger that the only Sahelian country the writer Paul Salopek failed to mention was Burkina Faso. She wonders why. It is because Burkina Faso is a quiet, boring country, not known for providing much news. Its AIDS rate is low, the malaria rate may be bad, but the country is very politically stable.

It leads her to wonder what she’ll remember from her two years in Burkina Faso when she returns home in a few months.

From Jill at Jill and Marcus in Burkina Faso:

So what's a girl supposed to do when she's just spent two years in what just might be the most boring country in a continent she really has no interest in? I guess I'll digest and reflect by reading what I've written about this place, talking to RPCVs, and looking at photos. I'm a little hesitant to look at photos, though, for two reasons. The first is that photos of this place have the eerie quality of changing the reality of things. I look out my front door and see my neighbor's pants-less kids playing with a bike tire. No big deal. then I take a picture and suddenly I have a photo of adorable little African kids playing with their little homemade toy, and oh look, they have no pants, isn't that just so cute?! It's very spooky. The other reason is I don't want my memories to be skewed by photos. Humans are so visual and so dumb that we make up stories that never even happened so our memories match our photos. So if I look at my photos that have that eerie AFRICAN quality to them, I'm going to think this place was way more interesting than it is. But that wouldn't be so bad, would it?

Speaking of preconceptions, Ex Africa was witness to his own – from someone also living in Burkina Faso.

From Ex Africa:

The other day I arrived in Ouahigouya. I went to Emily’s house and we shortly left to go eat at Maison de Jeune, a popular buvette. They got good benga (beans in Mooré), what can I say. There were three Japanese volunteers there. Emily knew 2 of them and we striked up a little discussion. I told them I lived in the Sahel, in between Djibo and Dori. The first thing one said was ‘al Qaeda?’ I was rather astonished but tried not to show it on my face. Al Qaeda, WTF?! Are you that prejudiced? She went on to talk about the muslims there. I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The muslims there treat me very nicely. Yes, they treat me curiously, but they are very kind people, Mossi, Peul, and Fulse people alike. I told her yeah most of the population was muslim. She then mentioned al Qaeda once again. We ended the conversation and Emily and I went and found our own table. We looked at each other like “What was that?” I didn’t like that exchange. I don’t think the Japanese volunteer meant anything bad, but I could feel the skepticism as she spoke. Muslims, for the most part, are wonderful, kind people. They are just like Christians, Jews, Animists world round. Most are beautiful, empathetic people. A few bad apples spoil the whole group some people think. Let’s stop the prejudice people.

Clay creates his own presumptions for his neighbors. That of the odd foreigner. 

One of the most satisfying things I do each week is burn my trash. Or more specifically, watch it burn. I do this for two reasons, the first being that I like to. The second is that, if I don't, small children passing my house on the way to school will see what to them is a fresh bag of goodies and peruse through it. They will, without a doubt, be sure to taste everything they find. Jettisoned packets of velveeta-like Vache Qui Rit cheese will be licked clean, just like what I thought were empty tomato paste cans. I find the whole thing kind of disgusting; I prefer to burn. I'll even burn plastic bags: the more colorful the smoke the better! But the environment!!?? I too once felt your pangs of conscience. But I ride a bike as my sole form of local transportation, and I use hardly anything that leaves a wrapper in its wake. I'm probably the most carbon neutral I've been since I had the comfortable, if cramped, sublet of my mother's womb. And did I mention that I really love burning my trash? So one night I found myself with a full box of trash (this is where your boxes go when you send packages) and nothing else planned. Afire in my courtyard, I saw that it was burning quickly, too quickly. This was my whole evening! I can't reread Harry Potter 7 again! (Alas, yes I could, and yes I have). In a race against time, I ran to the field next to me and grabbed dried cornstalks by the armful, returning to feed the fire. I was doing this, going back and forth, a few times before I realized two elderly village women were staring at me, dumbfounded. Did I mention that they sincerely believe large fires at night attract cannibalistic flying sorcerers? Sweating, soot covered, realizing what I'd done, I thought only to say, “Ne t'inquiète pas! La madame ma voisine est chrétienne et a prié pour nous! Toute la domaine scholaire est bien protegé!” Or: Don't worry! My neighbor is a christian and has prayed for us, all the area around the school is well protected! And it is, or so she has told me multiple, multiple times. Thankfully, they probably couldn't hear me as the tall, contented flames crackled happily, noisily, into the night.

A few posts ago, we reported that Stephen Davies and his book, Sophie and the Albino Camel, was shortlisted for the Norfolk Shorts Award for short novels. The book didn’t win, but Stephen reprinted a letter on his blog, Voice in the Desert, he sent to the awards ceremony talking about his book and his love for African stories.

[Sophie and the Albino Camel is] set on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, not far from where I live, and some of the characters are even based on real people. Sophie is based on a real nine year-old English girl called Milly who lives with her parents in Burkina Faso. Muusa ag Litni is based on a bandit who hijacked Gorom-Gorom's ambulance a few years ago and drove off in it, which in my opinion is even worse than stealing a camel!

I've always had a soft spot for African adventure stories. When I was ten, I used to love King Solomon's Mines (by Rider Haggard) and Sahara Adventure (by Wilbur Smith). Stories of exotic and dangerous places used to keep me up late into the night, reading by torchlight under the bedclothes. If you like African adventures, there are lots of recent books for you to choose from. The Door of No Return is very exciting, as is Ringmaster. Or if you enjoyed Sophie and Gidaado's first adventure, there are two more in the same series: Sophie and the Locust Curse and Sophie and the Pancake Plot.

For foreigners living in Burkina Faso, there’s always a time for conversations about bodily functions. Here’s one of those times. From GRITS heads to Burkina:

Upon arrival in Satiri it is obvious that it isn't the “bustling Metropolis” that is Banzon. Our food options are limited to beignets, REALLY salty rice and peanut sauce, and attieke (MY FAVE!). So, of course I chow down on a bowl of attieke (pronounced: uh-check-ay, made from fermented manioc) and some fried fish heads…YUMMY! Things were going great…I was feeling pretty good about the food. It was a little crunchy, and the oil had more of a black color as opposed to the lovely golden brown we are used to. But, hey, it's Burkina…I have seen worse. We eat our meal and head back to her house for a little afternoon nap. As we are walking over to finish drawing the grid lines on the world map I start to feel a bit woozy. Being that I rarely throw up, I almost never recognize the signs when it's about to happen. I attempt to help with the work, but finally give up and we commission a small child to show me back to Rose's house while she continues on the map. We start walking and already I know something isn't right. My mouth starts to water like crazy and I know what's about to happen. We walk past this large group of men sitting around drinking tea and doing pretty much nothing. They enthusiastically greet me and start yelling, “hey, toubabou, hey…how are you? Where are you going? What are you doing?” Well…in t-minus 2 seconds I was heading for the ground…and as for what I was doing…well, puking my guts out while they just stood there and watched. I heard them talking in Jula to one another, “hey…look, the white girl is throwing up.” The whole time I am thinking, “hey, where is that Burkina hospitality…get over her and help me!” At this point I have created a Jackson Pollock painting on the ground, but I catch my breath enough to tell someone to fetch Rose.

The story ends on a happy note:

Truly, after that I felt perfectly fine, and the rest of the week went wonderfully. I just had to avoid the one thing I actually enjoyed eating for the rest of the week. That night as I was talking to Rose about the whole thing we both agreed that while in Africa you can always say, “well, it could have been worse.” I could have had it coming out of both ends in front of all those people, I could have still be throwing up, I could have had wrenching pain…but I didn't. Eh, it's not so bad, and it could always be worse. NEXT!

Moco in Burkina Faso attempts to solve the mystery of the Canadian missionaries.

In addition to each of the two projects, I put in my time at the CSPS (health clinic) each day, assisting with prenatal consultations, weighing babies, and helping with monthly vaccinations. The rest of the time in village, I can be found reading , playing with my posse of little kids, visiting with neighbors and attempting to learn Siamou, or riding my bike to various locations. Cory, the health voluntee in the village of Serekeni, is my closest neighbor, and we've recently been trying to meet the ever-elusive Canadian missionaries who live in my village. The first time we located their house and prowled around, they had yet to return from a year-long trip back to Canada, so we had to be satisfied with a view of the house and yard alone. However, we marveled at the giant screened-in porch which is twice as big as my entire house, the huge water tank providing running water, and the solar panels for electricity. Then we were guiltily interrupted by the guard and made our exit. The second visit, we apparently just missed them by a few hours, they had gone to Orodara for the day. But their presence was evident by the newly-swept courtyard, car tire tracks, and various signs of habitation. After admiring the bouquet of flowers in a glass vase, complete with linen table cloth on the porch, we told the guard we'd try again another time and scampered off, visions of running water and good food flashing through our minds.

Charlie, from Blooming Rose, attempts to teach local women the mystery of embroidery.  

I now have ten ladies doing embroidery with me. We sit on the veranda in the afternoons and there is much laughter, although I gather that most of it is at my Fulfulde. If it's not me saying words that sound like something rude, it's my regular announcement at 6 o'clock that ‘I'm finished'.

Their tenacity to learning has been impressive so far, but we're still a way from producing really good quality work. There is just one lady so far who has been embroidering sarongs that I am ready to sell…I'm hoping to use some of the profits to start a market stall to help the ladies to sell their work locally. It's a small idea but one that I hope will make a big difference to this particular group of stars.

Finally, more proof that Burkina is a little short of earth-shaking events. Here’s a weather report. The good news: in some parts of the country, the hot seasons is being forced out by the beginnings of the heavy rains.

From Lara in Burkina:

This time of year involves a lot of trying to sit as still a possible with a really large bottle of water next to me, under the tree in my courtyard during the repo everyday. Even my students and colleagues have a hard time handling it. My male students wear uniforms with button down shirts and at about 10:30 in the morning when the room really starts to heat up, they start to unbutton them. That's right…it's so hot that my students were literally taking their clothes off! UmmmMoumouni you need to keep your shirt ON during math class.

Well, that was the situation anyway, until a few days ago, when miraculously, a giant dust cloud blew out of the northern sky and was followed by rain, glorious rain, buckets and buckets of rain that lasted for hours. Who hooo!! The French describe someone who is lucky as having many chances, and in this particular case, nous avons eu la vraie chance. My burkinabes tell me that it's ultra rare for it to rain that early, especially so far north in Burkina. Now they can go out into the fields and start cultivating (virtually the only thing 90% of the population will do for the next four months).

  • Bea Olsen

    It´s beauty &interesting site ,refresh me ,really
    I feel very happy 4read all and I knowing this
    faith and hope become me about the human raze
    so go ,go a head and do more !!
    Bea-Uruguay-South América

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