Monday, May 18, 2009

I've got to admit it's getting better...shea butter that is!

I picked Umu up at the bus station at 3:30 - only a couple hours behind schedule since her bus broke down on the way from Bamako. We found a boy with a push cart to load her bag and rice sack filled with shea nuts and headed over to the taxi area to catch a van to meet Esayi who was waiting on his moto to take Umu back to Zana (I followed on my bike which was safely secured, sort of, onto the roof of the car). Once enough people had reserved all the seats in the van about 8 men threw their weight into the back of the 10 seater van (comfortably filled with 20 people) to kick start the alternator (I'm assuming). Once the engine caught, the driver threw the van into reverse and and we scrambled to get our seats before the car decided it didn't want to run anymore. We sputtered and jerked through a flash rain and wind storm to get to a village on the paved road about 5 miles from Zana where we unloaded our bags and I proceeded to huff and puff on my bike behind Umu and Esayi to get to Zana. A project proposal was approved to buy food for the shea butter formation the money for which I had given Annie before I left for Guinea. Once I arrived, Annie showed me the itemized list with all the purchases she and Esayi made for the formation and how much each item cost. We settled in our formatrice, Umu, who travels around Mali during the hot season doing formations on improved shea butter practices and how to start associations and shared a hot meal before collapsing under our mosquito nets and going to bed. Umu and I got up early Wednesday morning to prepare for the formation. Annie and Baissata, the head of the informal women's association, invited 10 women from each quartier in Zana (there are 4) and 10 extra women to cook the lunch. Esayi and Bachary set up extra desks from the school under the shade of mango trees by the village bank and a chalkboard for talking points. About 6 women pound millet in this area each day and since the mortars in which they pound the grain are so heavy and shade is at a premium, we had a nice rhythm of thump thump thump throughout the formation. By 10:00 a.m. only about 20 women had showed up. Annie was acting nervous and called me over to help pound some millet and shared her concern that no one else was going to show despite her repeated instructions to the women about when and where to show up. She said, Djelika, I'm going to cry! If these women don't want to learn new things, so be it! Annie doesn't normally have a flair for the dramatic so I panicked a little but tried to hide my concern and calm her down by saying that surely the women would show. Sure enough, by 10:15 most of the women had come, though 2 hours later than expected. Umu expressed her dissatisfaction with the women's tardiness and set a ground rule that if they were late again tomorrow each person who came after the start of her formation would have to pay 50 cfa (about 10 cents). However, once Umu got rolling talking about why shea work is important, how proper collection of shea nuts leads to the creation of good shea butter and why it's important to preserve shea trees, the women were all ears. I kept notes during the formation and marked names when women spoke out of turn (another finable offense of 50 cfa). It was pretty funny how the women would hold one another accountable and point out to Umu women who were nodding off or speaking without raising their hand. It's pretty incredible to see women sitting and learning something when they've never had the opportunity for formal education. I hope that their children, especially their daughters, see them learning and say, yeah, me too! I want to learn! I couldn't help but beam at Annie who did an incredible job orchestrating the formation. Ever tried making rice and sauce for over 40 hungry women in pots the size of mini-bathtubs over wood? Me either, but I know it's not easy but no big deal for Annie!
Day one taught us about associations and how Together Everyone Achieves More (doesn't exactly translate in Bambara into such a clean acronym - Nogon Fe An Be Barra Caman Were Ke!) and that pooling our resources (namely, labor) you can get some pretty good butter our of those shea trees. Day two of the formation consisted of taking the ground up shea nuts Umu brought from Bamako and whipping them into a paste similar to the consistency of marshmellow fluff (yum!). It took about 30 minutes to hand whip the 20 kilos of shea nuts and we then put the mixture into a big pot to separate the oil from the residue. This took awhile and Umu used the opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of cleanliness and that all the pots and bowls used were cleaned with soap and water, hands washed similarly and hair wrapped up and sleeves pushed back. Annie had seen this method of shea butter extraction twice: Once with Tamara, the volunteer I replaced, and then again with me this past January at our training in Bamako. The other women usually just boil the shea mixture they get once they grind the shea nuts without whipping it and once they saw the oil that came out of just a few minutes of whipping (per woman) and then boiled they were truly amazed and kept coming up to me saying, i ni baara! (Good work!) An nenya kosebe! (Really cool!). At the end of the formation, Umu spoke to all the women to encourage them to pursue this technique (it's not as radical as I'm maybe making it out to be but education is all about repetition, right?). Then Annie got up and made my heart swell a little. She's such a beautiful woman who works tirelessly to provide for her family but also for her village. She told the women how she'd wanted them to see this technique since she and Tamara had seen it first together in Bamako and now that they finally had, how excited she is to move forward and start an association. She told the women how at the beginning of the formation she wanted to cry but now she was happy again and proud of the work they did.
In the end, Umu collected 1,000 cfa (hey, that's kind of a lot!) in late fees from the women so we were able to buy candy at the end for everyone to enjoy. As rainy season fast approaches (thank goodness, the heat is getting oppressive!) and shea work will begin again, I'm crossing my fingers the women will keep Umu's formation tucked in the back of their minds when collecting shea nuts and processing their butter so they can increase the quality and yields of their work thus providing more and better butter for their family and potentially, an outside market.

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