*Published on March 29, 2012 on EMME Nation
Women the world over; mothers want the same things. We want safety, joy, and satisfying lives for our children and we will move the heavens to provide that. The women in the northern Ghanaian village of Gushie have a much harder time insuring these simple inalienables come to fruition for their darlings. This was why I traveled for days to meet and work with the great Gushie Women’s Shea Nut Collective.
Our company, Just Shea, an LLC, and its non-profit partner One Village Planet Women’s Development Initiative was begun four years ago by the then 25 year-old Danielle Warren. Warren had been on a fact-finding mission with her father, an agronomist, in search for hardy trees that might grow in Haiti; instead she found a life’s work. Warren set about creating a non-profit that would help the women who harvest shea nuts, which are used to make shea butter that is incorporated into oh so many cosmetics, and food products. The harvesters were plagued by snakebites, as they possessed no protective gear. No boots, hats or gloves.
I joined Just Shea last year as the second in command taking up the stanchion of creating a product line using the rich, emollient shea butter in the hopes that we could concoct products for American women’s face, hands and feet that might sell like hot cakes. We would then utilize the funds to further help the harvesters secure gear, send their sweet round faced kids to school and maybe even build these women a barn where they could store their crops.
And so we launched our products to some good press, made some money and then did a campaign on Global Giving to raise a few more dollars. We loaded the cash into our pockets, really we did and we flew over to Accra, the capital of Ghana. From there we made our way north until we got to the village of Gushie.
Once there, we were excited to see that the women of the Gushie Collective had been busy making cement bricks by hand. There was a field of bricks and the outline of an amazing storage building, 16′ by 60′. OK, the roof was open to the elements, there was no front door, but we nearly wept when we drove up and saw the reality of what we have been plotting and planning for months. We got to work to insure that before we left there would be a place where the women could store their crops and lock the door to keep them in.
Why is this important? I have explained it, the notion of regularizing a supply chain, as allowing the harvesters to capture better moments in a fluctuating market. We all know how wonderful and inexpensive peaches are in August, and how much we have to pay for them if we want one in February. Well the shea nut harvesters, because they had no place to store their crops, sold everything as the lowest point, when the market was flooded with crops from every small village dotting the roads in Ghana. Now with a barn they will be able to sell their crops piece by piece taking advantage of higher prices later in the season. A powerful change for rural women.
What I saw with these women was an endless ability to multi-task with no notion as to the amazing varied work they were doing. When we held the meeting to discuss who would run the building, and how fees would be assessed, the fifty or so women all came with children in tow, and benches on their heads. The voices rose and chattered as our translator and on the ground, the organizational wizard Mohammad Zakariah translated. Babies were at breasts or sitting in trees watching quietly as their mothers ruled the day. Everyone voted, many participated in the lively discussion and then after elections were held they put their seats on their heads and headed home.
Everyday at the construction site Danielle and I received a noontime meal brought by children carried on their heads. It came in a large enameled metal pot decorated with red flowers and green leaves. It was always a rice dish, adorned with spicy tomato sauce or guinea fowl and onions. There were many spoons stuck inside and we all ate silently slurping filtered water from plastic bags ubiquitously sold at roadsides. The men plastering, or tinning the roof and mixing cement stopped and ate their lunches under trees or napped under trucks until the work hive came alive again.
The life in the village saw children wandering alone in wonderful packs. Joyful, really tiny boys and girls playing with goats, running after bottle caps and laughing as they stuck hand bills for new cell phones to their faces. They laughed at this red-faced interloper who made noises like animals and sometimes scared the babies just by virtue of my blue eyes and to them, ghost like appearance. But I was constantly beguiled.
The mother crushing shea nuts over an open fire in a huge caldron with a baby firmly attached to her waiting breast entranced me. I could barley contain myself when the eldest mother of the village Magazia, took my hands to thank me. Her honest fervent gaze needed no interpreter to tell me that she appreciated all the work and the results we were able to create for her and the women in the collective.
I loved teaching clap games to the older girls and dissolving into giggles as we missed our beats. The little kids watched in wonder, then wandered off to challenge goats to the king of the wood mountain or hide from one another behind creaky gates. These are not the games we see children play in America. Our children are too closely watched. We worry about fire and fingers in gates, and skittish animals, but these little ones made worlds of their own away from the eyes of adults who might constantly monitor and adjust kid’s behavior. And one thing I noticed was the absence of crying, of whining. They shared, they fought some, and they haggled over an empty water bottle and laughed gleefully at the photos I could show them instantly. But they seemed so happy and at ease. I even watched one two year-old put himself to bed for the night after rubbing his eyes for a good half hour. ” Go find your bed”, he was told, and without hesitation he was off to slumber.
Eldest mother of the village Magazia, sharing a special moment
It was as if all the hard work, the family and community connections created a sense of peace. True there was palpable poverty, and what we would consider primitive living conditions: no electricity, no toilets, a tiny store selling matches, hot sodas and gum, but there was joy and so much hope for the future.
I trust we added a modicum of belief that others are watching, others care, and all of us as mothers are attempting to hold the hands of our children across time zones and cultures to create in some tiny way, a better tomorrow.
If you would like to purchase Just Shea products please visit
If you would like to donate to complete the barn or buy equipment for the harvesters please visit Global Giving, here is our direct link.