Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's not easy being green (or is it??)

The women's association (plus me!) in the village next door to mine at the formation in July

Here's a photo series of the process of shea nut work from nut to butter:

(left to right) Shea nuts on a solar dryer, Shea nuts ground up and finally, whipping the paste into butter

Money is cold, impersonal and prompts a fatiguing internal dialogue for many.  How much do I make?  How much do I spend?  How much can I save?  As an environment volunteer in Mali I expected that internal dialogue to quiet down a little bit as I began to live "green" and think largely in terms of gardens, compost piles and increased seed yields and that has proved, in part, to be true.  Throughout my training in Mali (we have spent close to 4 months of our 14 months in-country in technical and language training) we have learned methods to improve the environment through Sahel-specific tree planting, to improve nutrition through moringa tree formations and to improve soil quality and plant yield through urine fertilizer.  And yet, as much as the focus remains on all things environmental, my thoughts keep turning to the green that does not grow on trees - money.  How do Malians make money?  On what do they spend it?  How can they make more to better provide for their families? 

Before coming to Mali I thought I would throw myself into whatever work I was assigned with only the thought of helping people in mind.  However, "helping people" has proved a difficult concept to not only justify my being here but also to quantify for others and myself.  The longer I am in Mali the easier it gets to talk about planting trees in order to improve air quality and the amount of water in wells and that improving shea butter means less toxins in your food and, potentially, more money in your pocket.  Yet even as my Bambara improves words can still get fumbled and at times it seems actions are not quite so loud.  However, there is still one language that needs no translation - money.  Number crunching and cost analysis are games I play with myself to justify my own purchases but it feels a lot better to be able to put that to good use and show that work like starting a tree nursery and selling the saplings does not only help the environment - it can help make you money; that using urine fertilizer not only speeds up the growing time (organically) of your banana tree - it also increases the yield leaving more bananas to sell or consume; that drying your shea nuts with the sun rather than tossing them in water-filled pits yields not only a higher quality of butter - it also yields a higher quantity which means consuming less carcinogens from rotted or smoked fruit and also a little extra butter to sell. 

Within each of our sectors in Peace Corps we have specific goals beyond the cultural and into the technical aspects of our work.  One of the environment sector objectives is to improve the commercialization of non-timber forest products (timber forest products meaning wood which is cut and then collected to sell as fuel.  This is not only costly in terms of the environment, expediting desertification, but also time - women and men exert a lot of effort bundling sticks and then transporting it in precariously stacked horse carts into their market towns which can be up to 20 miles away).  In July I coordinated with a shea nut and butter buyer, Sara, in San to come out to the village 2 kilometers from mine to do a formation on improved shea nut collection techniques as well as how to whip the ground shea nuts into butter.  The day after the formation when I biked in to greet some of the women a handful of them proudly showed me they had already begun to adopt the practices.  That felt huge!  Could this one formation really make a difference in the lives of these women?  Would the properly stored nuts garner a higher price when it came time to sell them in October?  Fast forward to this past week to find out!

Cassie and I biked to Dah (the village) around 9 a.m. to wait for Sara's younger brother, Jean, to come and see if the nuts were up to par.  I was nervous because not only was this meeting the culmination of all our shea formation efforts but Cassie was also there to witness it (success or failure, stay tuned!).   Would enough women show to sell?  Would their nuts be up to this buyer's standard?  Despite being a few hours late by my clock, Jean eventually showed up and so did the women.  I expected a handful of women to come with a few baskets of shea nuts each.  Instead, 12 women came out of the woodwork with 626 kilos of nuts between them!  (1,380 pounds for all of you out there operating on the Imperial system like me :)  Jean, impressed with the quality of nuts, called his sister and confirmed that they could buy all the nuts at 150 CFA/kilo (Annie, my host mom, said "bad" nuts sold for 75-100 CFA/kilo last year - a marked improvement - "good" nuts are definitely worth the extra effort!)  At 150 CFA/kilo the women received 93,300 CFA among them (about $204).  As an association (of which there are about 40 members) the women paid 10,000 CFA to join Sara's shea cooperative allowing them access to a higher price, continued shea formations and also help them to formalize their association with papers from San (called a "recipisse" here). 

Korotime Sogoba's good shea nuts dried in the sun and Jean weighing the shea nuts with Kadia

Two of the three overarching goals of Peace Corps involve sharing culturally and on that front I feel fulfilled.  Malians love hearing about America and I spend about 3/4 of each waking hour learning about Mali.  The third goal, technical exchange, is arguably the most important to the American desire for quantifiable results and on that front I have only recently begun to feel satisfied.  "Helping people," instead of being an abstract humanitarian concept, has become real to me through days like these where I see money changing hands.  When I see women pocketing cash they can spend on their families.  When improved environmental practices prove to be worth that extra effort.  With money coming into the villages where I live and work as a result of improved environmental efforts living "green" has never felt so good! 


Martha said...

I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful entry today. It gave me a better understanding of your purpose there - thanks for elaborating and congratulations on your/the Malian women's success!

Jennifer said...

Thanks Martha- I'm glad the post helped to clear up a little bit more what it is I'm actually doing here! I haven't forgotten your suggestion - post coming soon about food in Mali and what I actually eat :)

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