“Si waati sera” (Shea time has arrived)!

This year, the women in my shea butter association decided to split the production between a couple of days rather than trying to make it all at once – a process which proved to be exhausting last year. At the September meeting of the association, after a short break for planting season and Ramadan, the women set two dates for production – October 6 and October 13.  The villages were split between the two days and the arrangements were made regarding time, location, food preparation and “si gosilaw” (shea butter beaters).

I arrived at the first location on October 6 around 9 am and was excited to see that the women had already begun the time-consuming, labor-intensive work of processing the shea butter.

In reality, their work started much earlier than the morning of October 6.  The transformation process started several months ago, with the women walking through the fields in the early morning hours to search for fallen shea fruit.  After collecting the shea fruit, the women then removed the meat of the fruit to expose a nut.  This nut was then boiled to ensure the kernel inside the nut will produce the best quality shea butter.  After the nuts were boiled and dried, the shells were cracked, leaving only the shea kernel, which was dried extremely well, pounded into a powder, and made into a paste by a machine.  This all happened before the women arrived at the “Si baara yoro” or shea work place. Because good nuts make good butter, this time-consuming process is vital to making a quality product.  Through several workshops and a couple of years of practice, the women of “Si Teriw” have adopted these techniques and I was proud to see that they showed up with eight large buckets of high quality shea kernels collectively.

Upon my arrival at the processing location (a small open space situated between rows of millet, under the shade of a large shea tree) the women were adding water to the shea kernel paste and letting it “sunogo” or sleep.  After sitting for a bit, the by-hand beating started, and I was again in awe of the incredible strength and endurance of Malian women!  You can see all of this in photos here.  I even took a crack at the butter beating, but my 2 minute stint was put to shame by the women of the group who can easily be bent over a bucket of separating shea butter for more than an hour.

After a full day of work, with breaks taken only for lunch, praying and tea, the women were left with excellent liquid shea oil that would cool over night and present itself as first-rate shea butter the following day.  I was so proud of the women for their hard work in collecting shea nuts, the attention they paid to the painstaking process of boiling and drying the nuts, and the intense physical labor they endured to complete the shea butter transformation.  At the end of the day, I gave them a little pep talk, with the help of my language tutor (!), to let them know how excited I was about their progress and how I knew they would continue to succeed for years to come, “Ni Allah sonna ma,” or “if God wills it.”

Although I was incredibly excited and impressed with the women of the association, no good Peace Corps story comes without a “but.”  While this production was going on in village, another group of women from the association decided to “go rogue” and produce their shea butter without the help of others from the association.  I believe the main reason they decided to make butter on their own terms was that they felt left out of the decision-making process, because they didn’t attend the meeting when the dates were set and they weren’t informed of the decision within a timeframe that they felt was appropriate.  My question to them was, “Why didn’t you just ask someone what you missed at the meeting?  If you miss a meeting, it is your responsibility to follow-up and see what you missed, right?”  Although I could tell this argument made sense to them, they chose to be stubborn and go it alone.  Luckily, we were able to talk through the situation with all of the involved parties and it appears that it will all work out in the end.  This situation demonstrates that stubbornness is truly human flaw that wreaks its havoc the world over…

The second official round of shea production took place on October 13, and its success certainly rivaled the first production day.

Now that all of the shea butter has been produced, it appears the women nearly doubled their production numbers from last year.  They are planning to sell the butter at local market after the height of the shea butter season in order to realize a greater profit.  At our next meeting, on November 17, we will be discussing a shea butter sales strategy, setting the prices for varying levels of quality, and developing a soap making schedule for the coming months.

It is hard to believe that this is my last shea season with the women of “Si Teriw.”  Next year, I will only be in-country for the collection portion of the process.  But based on the progress the women have made as an association and their dedication to making and selling high-quality shea butter and soap, I foresee great successes for them next year and for years to come, ni Allah sonna ma.