Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Si Tulu Safinye ni Si Tulu Pomati (Shea Butter Soap and Shea Butter Lotion)

As many of you may know, I'm home from Mali!  Currently in the process of studying for the GRE, applying for graduate school and looking for jobs, I'm living between Eugene and Seattle until I get more settled (read: find a job).  I don't have too much more to add to this blog,  but I will post this and at least one other entry before I throw in the blogging towel.  This entry is about the another project that I was involved with this year.  

In May of 2011, I facilitated a 3 day training on the production of shea butter soap and shea butter lotion with the shea association that I had been working with for 2 years.  Over 36 women and 4 men came from 4 different villages to participate.  Our trainer, Sali Traore, has conducted shea butter soap trainings for multiple volunteers and the associations they work with.  She taught the women how to make a shea butter pomade without fragrance, a shea butter and vaseline pomade with fragrance, and various mixtures of shea butter and palm oil soap with and without fragrance.  This was a pretty exciting training for me, because the women that I worked with were so excited to learn these skills.  In two years, I had never seen such excitement.  Many commented, "I've always wanted to learn how to make soap like this." About a month after the training, the association met to make a second batch of soap, to be sure that they could do it even without the trainer around.

Women from the association bought all of the bars of soap from both of these occasions, and bought all of the shea butter lotion.  Through this, they were able to re-earn all of the money that they had put towards the training  (about $100), and double the amount of money they had in their savings account (now about $400).  Each month, the women give each other micro-loans with this money, which they then return with interest the following month.  Women use this money to do their own small business enterprises, or to pay for food and medicine if the need arises.  With this method, and monthly fees, the group's money is constantly increasing.  When the time comes to make shea butter products during the dry season, they use this money to pay for the materials they need.  Each association member is also required to provide 2 large tins of boiled shea nuts to the association each year - this is what they use to make the shea butter that they sell (or that they now turn into soap!).  This is a really small amount of nuts, but it's a great start for this small association.

I am so proud of the women that I worked with during the last two years.  When I arrived, they had less than $40 in their account, were not meeting regularly, and were fighting constantly.  While fights still happen regularly (the President is not one to be questioned), the association has ten times the amount of money that they started with, and is meeting monthly.  During the training this year, they even recorded a tape for our village radio station, encouraging all of the women in the commune to join.

It took me nearly 1.5 years to fully (well, probably not fully) understand the association, shea butter in Mali, and how I could help them.  It's sad that my Peace Corps service is over now that I better understand how to be effective. But, that's one of the downfalls of Peace Corps, and many think that Peace Corps should be 3 years instead of 2, and I full-heartedly agree...but how many people would commit to 3 years?  There are also those who would say Peace Corps should be only 6 months...but then, it wouldn't be Peace Corps, would it? 

Anyway, this shea butter soap and lotion project was quite a success, and I thank all of my friends and family who donated money toward the project and made it happen!  Thank you so much!  Aw ni ce, aw ni baaraji.  Ala k'aw sara!  Ala k'an to nyogonye.

And for your viewing pleasure: First a video of the association making shea butter in early May.  We used this shea butter to make the soap and lotion, and it was one the association's many contributions to the project:


Second, a video of the women singing, dancing, drinking tea and making soap at the training:


Stirring the shea butter and palm oil soap is a multi-person job.  It gets much harder the closer you get to being done.  And yes, we did use large sticks to get the job done:

Here I am using the ProKarite Shea cards from the Peace Corps/Mali Food Security Tool Kit to teach the association about the best practices for producing shea butter.  They've heard this information many times before, but there are still many ways that they can improve.

The entire training group on day 2 of our training:

Our trainer, Sali (in green and white) helping Fatumata cut the first block of soap with our new soap table:

The treasurer of the association, Mayi, counting up all of the soap and lotion, which was divided sold equally and among the 4 villages:

Alright, all for now, I will try to post one more on here in the near future! 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

An ka kolonba

Sorry it's been so long...things are hectic these days with thoughts of returning home (Is it really that time already? What on earth will I do?), wrapping things up here (How do you say goodbye to people who have become like family to you?), and not having a computer any more (mine seems to have called it quits as a result of the heat, dust, etc.). At this point, it looks like I will be returning home to the US in late September, ni Ala sonna.

It has been a very busy few months, probably the busiest in my whole Peace Corps service. One of the main things that happened was the construction of a 1.5 m diameter well in our women's garden. During my initial community assessment (using PACA), the construction of a well was determined to be the top priority of women in my village. This is something that every woman in the association pushed for - an amazing feat considering half of the group refuses to speak to the other half due to a longstanding disagreement.

Project planning began as far back as last November/December, when I worked with Peace Corps staff to learn the basics about building wells. Perhaps you weren't aware, but at the time I knew zilch about building wells. I also met with the entire women's association multiple times to discuss their plans for the future of the garden and their motivation for the project. The association chose 5 women, in addition to my homologue, with whom I would work with to carry out the project. We met regularly throughout the duration of the project to plan, divide responsibilities and troubleshoot. After three weeks of work during May, our beautiful new well was completed.

Sounds rosy, right? Actually, it was one of the hardest, most onerous projects I've ever had to work on. From the first month when I visited a local well digger's house 6 times (not to mention the messages sent by our mayor, dugutigi and additional visits by my homologue), each time to have him say, "Yes! I can dig your well; I will come discuss it with you tomorrow, ni Ala sonna." More than one month was spent in this pursuit as the hot season began and the well-digging season was well into effect. Turns out what he really meant by "yes" was, "I can't do the work, I'm too busy with these other wells that I'm being paid millions of CFA to build by an NGO." The total budget for my well was less than 1,000,000 CFA (~2000 USD). So, we hired well diggers from Bamako, who charged more than three times what we had anticipated as the cost of well digging.

As the project progressed my village wouldn't produce the required community contribution of gravel and sand. I had waited to buy materials for the project until I had the full monetary contribution in hand - turns out that was the easy part! I won't go into details, but it got so bad that I was left shoveling gravel into a donkey cart with a 10 year old boy, who then stood me up and didn't come back for a second load. Further, my homologue, who is my greatest link to the community and who I would call the "mover" of the village, was absent for all but the last couple days of the project due to a death in her family. Then, our lead well digger's foot got infected, which led to a full-blown infection of his body. He couldn't walk or do manual labor the last 2 weeks of the project, though he was at least able to oversee the laying of bricks in the well. Our second well digger's pregnant wife got sick in Bamako, so he had to leave for four days. A local man refused to give sand and gravel to the women's association for free. The women's association president complained that she wasn't given enough compensation to host the well diggers (each of 120 women had contributed a small amount of money and millet). One of the well diggers complained they hadn't eaten meat for a week - on a day that I had planned to spend a fair amount of my own money to buy them a bowl of smoked goat meat. The well diggers from my town started showing up 3 hours late to avoid the tiring task of pulling water (they had to clear the well of 1-2 meters of water each morning before digging could commence, often making them too tired to continue digging once the well was dry).

On the last day of work, I found three young men to pull water out of the well in the morning, allowing all of the well diggers to save their energy for digging. The well was finished that day - a depth of 8.5 meters, width of 1.5 meters, with Dutch bricks laid in the top 3 meters of the well. A few days before the end of the project, my homologue told me that we forgot to sacrifice a chicken before we started digging, and that we could have prevented most of our problems had we done so. Well, shoot, wish I had known!

All of the women were ecstatic that the well was finished. In the morning and afternoon, 10-15 women would be gathered around the well, pulling water for their gardens. At the same time last year, I remember being one of just a few people still trying to hack out a garden with the scarce water that was available!

A week later, when I was in Bamako, I got a call from my homologue saying that the well had dried out each of the last three days. That's not to say the well was dry, but that the women were pulling so much water that they were using up the water faster than it could recharge (there was a little over 6 m3 water). My heart sank - the whole point of the well was to have sufficient water access even at the driest point of the year. I'm told that even if we had dug to our goal of 10 meters, the well would still dry out with the demand that the women are placing on it. Even so, I'm left with a bitter taste in my mouth because my superiors told me to stop digging rather than to dig all of the way to 10 meters. They said we had enough water already and that it was pointless to keep going. And, not knowing about wells, I said okay.

Lessons learned:

-Try even harder to work out the project plan with the women piece by piece. Who will get the sand and gravel? (Where, When, How, How much?)
-Set up a schedule for pulling water to help the well diggers.
-You need to sacrifice a chicken or two before starting well digging
-Don't always trust people when your gut tells you they're wrong, etc.

As far as capacity building, how did I do? That is, after all, why I joined Peace Corps. I did okay. I tried as hard as I could to make the women do the majority of planning and implementation, but it didn't work well. They learned a little about budget management and project planning. The two well diggers from my village are now trained in both top well repair and construction of a well with Dutch bricks. With the materials from the project remaining in the hands of the women’s association, they could easily complete this same type of well on their own, in the future. Capacity building was one of my main goals as a PCV – I didn’t do as well as I had hoped with this project. But, at least we have a well!

Here are some pictures from the well construction; this is from the first day of well digging, when we thought things were going to be easy.

Digging in the well a couple of weeks later – lots of progress!

This is how you get out of the well before there are bricks laid in it.  Kind of looks like fun to be pulled up and down on a rope!

Here is Diama laying the first cement in the well.  We used Dutch bricks, popular with PC/Mali because they use far less cement than other types of bricks. 

These are the men who worked for three weeks to build the new well in my village. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some pictures

May has been an incredibly busy month with trainings in Bamako and Kita, well building in my village and the shea butter soap training this last week.  I plan to write an entry on both the well and the shea butter training, but here are some pictures in the meantime:

Grasshoppers took over my garden in May.  They decimated it.  Goodbye eggplants!

This is what was left of one of my beautiful moringa trees after the grasshoppers got to it.  There were honestly thousands of grasshoppers in my garden.  Thousands.

A beautiful sunset in the garden on one of the first days of well digging.

It's been really hot in Mali this last month and a half, but the mangoes have been great.  Here are all of the women in my village lined up to sell mangoes.  Whenever a truck drives through town, they will immediately be surrounded by 10 mango sellers.  All with the same produce and the same price.  Somehow, they all make a profit.

May is wedding season in my village.  My host brother, Vieux, freshly returned from Libya, was married to Aminata two weeks ago.  This picture is of Aminata (in green), our Dugutigi and my host father Fadiala, Vieux (in the nice suit from Libya), Sali (my host mom and the Dugutigi's third wife), and me.

In early May, all of the volunteers in the Kita region of Mali gathered with our homologues in Kita for 4 days of In-Service Training.  Here we are at a dinner to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Peace Corps in Mali, and the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps in general.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The latest headlines...

 Pumps restored after local men's group threatens destruction of new robinet system

In April 2011, a European NGO celebrated their completion of a brand new water tower and piped water system throughout a small village near Kita.  This new system would solve all of the villagers' problems regarding clean, safe water access and would decrease the amount of time village women had to spend completing the back-breaking task of pulling well water.  The best part was that villagers would only have to pay 10 CFA (~$0.02 US) per bucket of water.  This money would be used to pay for any future repairs to maintain the water system.

At the official opening ceremony for the water system, all of the village members were called to celebrate.  Hunters came in large numbers to shoot off their guns.  Griots came to sing praise for the NGO.  Women came to dance and sing.  The head of the NGO had a big smile on his face as he saw that one faucet had even been installed 3 km away in a nearby village and still received good water pressure from the central water tower.

Within weeks of the opening ceremony, the local water committee decided to remove the handles of the 2 village pumps (one located near the school and one near the doctor's office) to encourage people to use the new water system.  This action coincided with the drying out of most village wells as the hottest month of the year approached.

Chaos erupted.  The local men's association threatened the people in charge of the water system, saying they would destroy all of the new water faucets if the pumps weren't restored by the next day.  The primary reasoning for these threats being that sick patients who come to the village and all students in village should have unrestricted access to free water from the pumps.

After 2 days of intense meetings between the village men at the Dugutigi's (Chief of the Village's) house, the water association members were convinced to reopen the pumps.   The young men's association immediately rescinded their threat to destroy the water faucets.

Adding to all this, the local PCV was confused with the European NGO's actions to place a new water system in village.  A large water tower and associated water faucets already exists on one side of town and has been broken her entire service; the village refuses to pool money together to fix it.  How is it that the best solution to the broken water system is to get a whole new water system?  Further, most new water faucets do no more than 100-200 CFA business per week (10-20 buckets worth) - was this really an appropriate project for the village?  After all, even the local PCV is too cheap to pay 30 CFA ($0.06 US) per day for her 3 buckets of water, which she chooses to get for free at the pumps.

Local association leader lies openly to Spanish NGO

Approximately 3 years ago, a very well-meaning Spanish NGO provided farming and gardening equipment to a local women's association.  Included in this equipment were shovels, watering cans, buckets, a plow ("traditional", cow-led), and a donkey cart.  This Spanish NGO is well known for providing school supplies for local children, benches for classrooms, and building schools and maternities in the area.  In many ways, they are one of the most active NGOs in the commune (similar to a US county).

Since the materials were received 3 years ago, they have been sitting at the house of the traditional women's group leader.  Members of the government-recognized women's association frequently complain that the materials were "stolen" from them by the traditional leaders of the village.

During the last 2 weeks, representatives of the Spanish NGO visited the village to check on the progress and impact of their work and to plan for future projects in the area.  Prior to their arrival, the local PCV and women's President had the following discussion:

President: Aminata, the Spanish NGO is coming to ask what we have been able to achieve with all of the materials they gave us 3 years ago.  The traditional women's leader asked me to speak to the NGO representatives on her behalf at their welcoming ceremony.

PCV: Oh, wow.  But all of those materials are just sitting at her house and have not been utilized.  What are you going to say to them?

President: I am going to lie.  I am going to say that we have used all of the materials for both farming gardening, and that they have greatly increased the quantity and quality of our harvest.  I am going to give them many blessings and tell them how happy we would be if they gave more materials to us and the surrounding villages.

PCV: So, you're really going to lie to them?

President: Of course I am, they'll never know.

The local PCV left this conversation with 2 thoughts:

1. How many times have I been lied to in the past 2 years and not realized it?  (There have been many times that I did realize it)

2.   Knowing that my response might cause the NGO to provide me with more free materials, wouldn't I lie too?

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Shea Association Goes to Ghana

Written April 2, 2011

I have a story, and if I can tell it well enough, it will shed light on many different aspects of Malian culture. Or, I should say, the culture of the Malian village in which I reside.

In March, a commercant from Bamako arrived wanting to buy as many shea nuts as she could. It was a bad year for shea across Mali – the trees didn't produce a lot of fruit – so she was willing to buy good- and bad-quality nuts.1 She said she would give money to the woman's Shea Butter Association (Sabunyuman), such that they would do the buying and make a small profit in the business. But, when the woman arrived after the initial meeting with the association, she refused to give the money to anyone but me, the trustworthy Peace Corps Volunteer. She proceeded to give me the equivalent of $800 US in the middle of village in the front of a small crowd at 9:30 PM.2 This led to me having to run around and buy shea nuts every 2-3 hours over the next week. I had, in effect, become her unpaid employee. I was disturbed by all of this, as it resulted in the association not making any profit, and led to disagreements among association members. And, when the money ran out, I had villagers yelling at me, saying, “You have to buy my nuts! My Grandson's baptism is tomorrow and I need the money.” People thought I was the one buying nuts, not the commercant from Bamako. At the end of the week, the commercant returned to collect her nuts – over 7 tons in the end – to be shipped to Sweden for processing and addition to all sorts of face and body creams for Tubabs like you and me. I was happy to be done with the business, and the shea association was ready to move on, not having benefited as they had hoped they might.

So, last week, the commercant called our association's President to say that she had funding for 4 association members to go all the way to Ghana for the International Shea Conference. The women would get a chance to see the work of shea producers from all over West Africa and the world. This would also be the 1st opportunity for these four women to visit another country. Four association members were found who are slightly older and thus aren't carrying babies on their backs – Fatumata, Sitan, Djeneba and Tutu. Everyone's husband agreed except for Djeneba's.3 He did not want Djeneba going, seemingly because he didn't want his 1st and 2nd wives to fight. But, let's leave Djeneba for a moment, who was heard to say, “There are many good trips that Allah will provide for, and this isn't one of them.”

My homologue, Tutu, spent all day last Wednesday getting ready for the big trip – putting Jabi on her feet, braiding her hair, ironing her clothes and getting her business together. I left her at approximately 5 PM to all of this preparation. After dinner that night, I went by her house to say goodbye, to find that her husband had decided that she was no longer allowed to go.4 All Tutu could do was smile, laugh, and say “I'm not going.” I was angry and wanted to yell at her husband for changing his mind at the last second. The next morning, Tutu asked her eldest son to speak to his father for her. It didn't work. Djeneba, who's husband had been convinced to let her go, also pleaded Tutu's case – to no avail. They told me that their last chance lay with me...

It came down to the 3rd party system – something we had learned about in early Peace Corps training, but I had never had to use in such a serious case.5 At lunch time, I spoke to the Dugutigi (Chief of the Village), who is rumored to be 102 years old and is my host father here. He is also Tutu's husband's host father here6, so he holds large sway over her husband's actions. As soon as I explained the situation, he jumped up (mind his age and the fact that he is mostly blind), told me not to worry and left for Tutu's house. He spoke to her husband and told him that he must allow Tutu to go to the meeting in Ghana. This was the 4th or 5th person of the day to speak to Tutu's husband on her behalf (Tutu herself can have no say in the matter – she was never even give a reason as to why she couldn't go), but he had still refused. Until the Dugutigi came. Tutu came by my house a couple of hours later to say she would be on her way that night.7 Still, he was deeply saddened because her husband had defended his actions to the Dugutigi by saying she doesn't respect him. The woman who gets up every morning at 5 AM to heat bathwater for her husband and his 2nd wife; the woman who, alone, provides nutritious food to the family; the woman who takes care of her husband's blind mother and nearly blind father; the woman who works constantly to improve the lot of her and her husband's 7 children. You say she doesn't respect you?8 I must bite my tongue, as it's not my business, and saying anything would cause more troubles for Tutu than there already are.

The four association members have now left together for Ghana. I'm so excited to hear what they learned on the trip, and of the opportunities it might bring for the further advancement of the association. I'm also excited to hear impressions from their 1st visit to another county, especially one with such a different language and culture.
1So much for the efforts across Mali (including Peace Corps) to educate people about the importance of boiling nuts to produce high quality nuts. People have often said that only boiled, high-quality shea nuts will be bought by exporters, but this commercant was buying anything that remotely resembled a shea nut (even moldy, smelly, yucky clumps of mud).
2This is a huge sum of money in my village. I was quite distressed for the entire time that I had the money, worrying constantly that someone would try to break into my house. I don't normally bring any more than $40 US with me any time that I go to my village.
3In Mali, each household has a “dutigi” or “head of house” who has the last word in all matters. Whatever he says is law, no discussion.
4Tutu's husband's 2nd wife has a history of interfering in Tutu's business. Last year, for instance, whenever Tutu had a Peace Corps training event to attend with me, the 2nd wife would also leave town – leaving no one to cook and care for the family. This year, with the addition of 2 daughter-in-laws to take care of the cooking, things have gotten much better.
5The 3rd Party system is very important in Mali. If you have a problem with someone, or a question of someone, it is rare that you would broach the topic with that person yourself. Instead, you find someone you trust and know is respected, explain your situation, and have them broach the subject with the other party. This avoids fights and embarrassment that might otherwise come from the matter. I have seen it in action when the griots speak for the mayor when dealing with village business. I have seen it when a young man likes a woman – his friend speaks to the woman first, and the woman gives her answer through her own 3rd party. A very functional system, though quite different than Americans' “forward” approach to things. If you were to go about things with the 3rd party system in America, we might say you were being passive aggressive.
6Even though the family has been in the village for 40 or 50 years now, they are not original members of the village. Because of that, Tutu's husband's father is the “guest” of the Dugutigi (Chief of Village), and now that her husband has become head of the house, he is the Dugutigi's guest. Any time there are problems or discussions of marriage in their family, it must be done through the Dugutigi.
8Forgive my American, feminist point of view in this matter...perhaps I've stepped away from the straight story here.

Nako mason

I've had many questions from friends and family back home along the lines of: “How is your garden growing?” And the answer is: “A ka wusa” (literally: It's better). And, it truly is better than last year. I've nearly tripled the amount of produce from my garden last year, and have not needed to buy vegetables from the market in quite some time!

Through the rainy season last year, I grew peanuts, beans, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, corn, hibiscus and tomatoes...most of which were failures. I didn't realize it, since I hadn't been in that spot during the rainy season the year before, but my garden turns into a mud cesspool during the rainy season. Rice would be much better suited to the spot during the rains. I did have a  bountiful peanut crop, which made me very happy because I considered it my first real success in the garden. In addition to the mud, I had been previously unaware of the invasiveness of grass during the rainy season. I would completely clear an area of grass to plant a peppiniere, only to find that new grass seedlings would outgrow my seedlings in a short time.

Lessons learned last year have helped me to grow a much more productive garden this season. I am currently growing “big” onions (called Tubab onions here) and smaller shallots (called African onions), eggplants, lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, green peppers, basil, cilantro, carrots, 2 beets, moringa trees, etc. etc. I tried growing cabbage but grasshoppers devoured all of my seedlings. A second species of grasshopper (black and white with neon stripes) is now attempting to destroy my eggplants and freshly transplanted green peppers. I'm reluctant to buy pesticide and haven't found a natural solution as of yet.

Since pictures speak better than words, here is my garden.  First, a couple pictures of hibiscus: the flower being pollinated and a fruit.  We brew the fruit into a delicious tea:

I grew "kusa" during the rainy season, a strange mix of cucumber and squash.  I had some early successes with the fruits, but everything rotted once my garden turned to a mud cesspool. 

And, here's my overall garden these days (well, back in February or March):

Here are the small "African" onions.  Almost every woman in the garden grows this variety of onion during the gardening season.  There are very few pest problems associated with it, the onions store well, and women can sell them for a large profit in the market.  The leaves are also dried to be used later in the year.  I have a whole bunch of these onions sitting in my house right now.  As soon as my "big" onions are used up (they don't store as well in the heat), I will use them in my cooking.

This is the star of my garden.  I received seeds for this variety of eggplant from my boss at Peace Corps last year and planted a peppiniere in the rainy season.  I have 7 of these plants in my garden, which have produced over 300 fruits since December!  The other women in the garden have been excited about this variety, though a little wary because it looks so different from their own, local variety.  I gave out a lot of the fruits and several women saved the seeds to plant in their own gardens.  Needless to say, I have been eating a lot of small, orange eggplants over the last few months. 

I tried growing green beans last year, but nematodes destroyed them before they produced any fruit.  This year, I had a 3 week run on green beans!  Unfortunately, most women in my village have no idea what these beans are or that you can eat them whole.  I tried to explain their preparation to the women who came by my garden, but I'm not sure I got any converts to grow green beans in their own gardens...

As with last year, the main thing I have planted in my garden is tomatoes.  I buy tomatoes every day in the market, so it makes sense to just grow my own.  And, I haven't had to buy tomatoes for over a month now!  Tomatoes are hard to grow in Mali without using pesticides...they get attacked by moth worms, root diseases, and viruses.  A virus has infected many of my plants, and the tomato plants in other women's gardens.  Still harvested a lot of fruit though!

I ran a couple of informal trainings in the garden about how to make a compost pile and how to plant peppinieres (nurseries for seedling development).  Here are four women at the composting formation, in the middle of building the compost pile: 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Looking for a way to help?

As many of you know, I have been working with my village's shea butter association since I first started work as a volunteer in Mali.  I have written about my work with the shea association multiple times on my blog (see an introduction here, and photos, and information on the training that was held in my village last year).  The women that I work with come from four different rural villages, and the association meets monthly to discuss their plans for the development of the association.  Through these discussions, the women and I have worked together to determine the best way for Peace Corps to help them advance as an association. 

I am currently looking to fund a project to both train my village's shea association members in the production of shea butter soap and lotion and to increase their capacity for the production shea butter.  This project will fund a 3 day training on how to make soap and lotion using shea butter as a base, products that can be sold at the local level.  In addition, the project will help to fund the purchase of different shea butter processing materials (cauldrons, storage and transport containers, buckets, etc.) which will allow the women of the association to increase the amount of shea butter they produce each year. 

If you are interested in helping to fund this project, you can make donations at the Peace Corps website here.  Any contribution that you can make, no matter how large or small, would be welcome and incredibly helpful to the women that I work with on a daily basis in my village.  Thank you in advance!