Monthly Archives: April 2012

Graceful Hands

*Published on April 19, 2012 in HandEye magazine

Like most African countries Ghana was divided into territories by colonial conquerors, which separated tribes and left modern nations with populations often speaking many languages. Although English is the official language of Ghana with Twii being spoken by the local majority, there are huge swaths up north, just outside of Tamale, where only Dagbani is spoken.

I spent two weeks in the village of Gushie with a wonderful passion project called Just Shea ( www.justshea.com ), here the population speaks Dagbani and stops for Muslim prayers five times each day. The purpose of the trip was to build a large storage barn with the women shea harvesters so they can store their harvest to take advantage of the vagaries of the market place and thus increase their income. The work was hot, exhausting and ultimately rewarding.

While in Gushie, we had a local translator, Zacharias, who was wise, young, fun, and hard working. Zacharias’ father is the village weaver and basket maker. So in between toting buckets and baskets of stones and searching the depleted local stores for cement, I visited Mohammed Zacharias and watched and learned.

In northern Ghana, in the town of Bolatanga, there is a renowned crafts market where finely woven baskets made from sweet grass and veta vera straw are piled high and the bags are adorned with well-crafted leather handles. But in Gushie, a village with no electricity, no flush toilets, poor access to transportation and difficult roads, a trip to Bolatanga is rarely undertaken and so all the baskets you see are made by Mohammed who at 75 is still hard at work every day.

Mohammed uses rush-like amterail stripped from the Mitragyna Inermis, the Latin name for a local wild tree. The branches and bark of this tree are wonderfully insect resistant, which provides an extra protective shield to crops or fruits stored in these baskets. Outside Mohammed’s hut, made from mud and straw, you see piles of the rushes cut into long strips or soaking in water.

Inside his cool, thatched hut Mohammed weaves quickly, with no patterns or plans. He is clothed in a loincloth and his still deft fingers wind in and out of the upright struts inserted to guide and hold the basket. He let me work on one basket that had been started and I clumsily wove nearly chanting to my self “now under, now over, now under” until I had finished a row. But Mohammed wove basket after basket as children peeked in to laugh or visit him. As the basket rose to the desired height he stopped his in and out weaving motion and began to literally wrap the top of the basket in cut reeds. This wrapping motion tied off the basket struts and made a tight, smooth edge for a basket that will be handled by women and children.

These are not beautiful baskets, nor perfect nor water tight, but they have a heft and purpose that comes from being needed. They are tools. The reeds themselves morph in color from purple to greens and ambers, and the random gradations give them a birdlike sheen. The baskets can be seen everywhere, collecting shea nuts; holding them by a fire waiting to be cooked and processed; containing utensils, or are carried on women’s heads as they head out to the bush to gather. On one occasion, as I waited in the relentless sun, I purchased a basket for one Ghanaian cedi, about 75 cents (the word cidi is taken from the Akan word for cowry shell, which was the original currency). I popped my basket on my head as a hat. As my head sunk in, I peeked out to the laughter of children and adults alike. But I was much cooler.

One of the unique uses I saw for the sturdy baskets, which most closely resemble a kind of hard wicker used in America for laundry baskets, was to create dovecotes. The local chief had commissioned the basket houses to encourage the doves to nest near his front door. And on one unbearably hot afternoon as we sat on a mat, also woven by Mohammed of thatching grass, I stopped sweating long enough to hear the soft coo of the doves as they settled back into their baskets at dusk. It was a wonderful. I understood why the chief had commissioned Mohammed to create homes for these soothing birds.

As I walked around the Gushie during my two week visit, I noticed Mohammed’s handiwork everywhere from the mats we sat on to the thick thatch that can be set up to create a barrier—a door for nighttime—to the baskets. I now have a strong purple-tinged basket sitting on the porch of my Hudson Valley home. I use it to catch my gardening tools when I return after a day of taming the weeds. The weather is still chilly and slightly damp 100 miles north of New York City, but Mohammed’s basket retains a kind of heat and utilitarian pride. I reserve the right to pop it in my head in the August heat to cool down.

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*Published on April 23, 2012 in EDGE

I have produced a lot of theater; I have seen even more and rarely have a seen a show as perfect and full of wonder as “Peter and the Starcatcher,” now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on the glittering White Way.

David Rossmer, Adam Chanler-Berat, Carson Elrod, and the cast of "Peter and the Starcatcher"

David Rossmer, Adam Chanler-Berat, Carson Elrod, and the cast of “Peter and the Starcatcher”  (Source: Joan Marcus)
 

Too often of late, a big Broadway show means money thrown at flying super heroes, phantoms, or witches. Funds are expensed for huge set pieces, magic tricks, and major orchestras, but “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which presents the back-story of the Peter Pan saga, is the antidote to all of that. It is the real deal, offering up transformative moments in the theater where you laugh, tear up, and leave thoroughly enchanted.

It is as if the 99% finally grappled back the producing reins from the uber-rich 1% on Broadway and as though finally craft, nuance, and imagination took precedence over throwing millions at manufacturing magic.

The proscenium has been transformed to resemble a Victorian playhouse and on stage are a series of ropes, grates, and crates all suggesting a dock or ship. There is the barest suggestion of a set until the show begins and then everything is dipped in wonder.

Designer Donyale Werle has made wide worlds from bits of string and sealing wax. Ropes are held to become the frame of a small cabin, they slip and slant to be the deck or ramps, and they wiggle and become waves, or are squared into a boxing ring. And the actors sway to and fro so convincingly that you would swear the stage was tilting.

In the second act the stage is again transformed by bits of aqua, moss green, and marine blue cloth to create an exotic island. When Peter and the boys are lost in a jungle, it is a host of hoisted green umbrellas held aloft by other cast members. These are the seeds of prestidigitation, the belief that we believe what we are shown when it is evinced with such artistic gusto.

The play, written by Rick Elice, is a wild romp where a dozen actors switch characters. Pirates morph to good guys, men to women, and back again. There are occasional wonderful songs, by Wayne Barker, and a lovely three-piece band that seems to be able to make any sound effect necessary. The music enlivens the play, but doesn’t send it into the realm of musical.

The main characters are the father, Lord Astor, her majesty’s Queen Victoria sea captain, played with class and grace by Rick Holmes. There is his daughter Molly, who will in time become the mother of beloved Wendy in the J.M. Barrie tale, played with extreme pluck and tomboy humor by Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Of course there is the orphan called “boy,” who will soon earn the name Peter Pan; Adam Chanler-Berat embodies him as a wistful man-child. Peter has two hapless friends who have been sold into slavery with him and tossed into the hold of the pirate ship; they are Greg Hildreth and Carson Elrod, one, always hungry, the other lean to the bone, but both a hoot.

Of course there are pirates, and yes, often the good sailors switch to become pirates until they hit the island and all transform into natives, called Mollusks. They are governed by their fearless leader Fighting Prawn, the wonderful Teddy Bergman, whose ridiculous chanting of Italian food names scares everyone and empowers his hoard. Pinot grigio, linguini, scampi, lasagna!

After intermission, the entire cast is called upon to become mermaids and opens the act on the apron singing the rousing “Swim On,” a song about being transformed by your courage and a dash of stardust. The mermaids are in bras and sarongs. It is a testament to the ingenuity of the creators and the brilliance of the costume designer Paloma Young, that each set of nipples is given a different hilarious twist. Strainers, mustard bottle, upside down bowls, colanders, and gleaming metal steamers adorn the mermaid’s bodices. I chose to detail this as a metaphor for the incredible and constantly gob smacking imagination and out-of-the-box thinking that went into every nook and cranny of “Peter and the Starcatcher”.

And I have not even begun to tell you about the man who will become Captain Hook. The true caught star is Christian Borle, who many of us just discovered on the TV mini series, “Smash.” He is so funny, so unhinged as Black Stash, the pirate who slams his hand in a trunk, thus necessitating the hook.

By the show’s end you will be holding your sides from giggling and guffawing. No need for an abs workout on the day you see the show, just sit back and yuck it up. Every double entendre, each mimed fall, every eye roll is beyond perfect. And so much credit has to go to the duo of directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, who obviously honed this cast into an ensemble where improvisation and suggestions were obviously sought and treasured. A show like this takes a theatrical village to create.

I never wanted the curtain to come down on Neverland. And in the end, isn’t the enduring glory of childhood the endless unfolding of magic and belief? It has all been captured by dint of stardust and is available for all to see. Fly to see “Peter and the Starcatcher”.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” enjoys an extended run at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th St. For info or tickets call 212-719-4099 or visit www.peterandthestarcatcher.com/

Bouncing to Jeduako, Ghana

*Published on UMCOR

April 19, 2012—The roads in Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana, morph from gray pavement to pumpkin-pie-colored dirt in the blink of an eye. They are choked with cars, bikes, and enormous delivery trucks packed with cargo, workmen, logs, or bleating sheep. Women, young men, and children weave in and out of traffic proffering water, dried mangoes, tissues, homemade goodies, and phone cards. The chaotic, dusty, hot scene spins a magical spell and screams, “I am an African City!”

But as soon as we head out of the city, we are bouncing side to side on rutted dirt roads in the 4×4 we borrowed from Bishop Moses Quayson. We are on our way to the village of Jeduako to visit a series of projects that are part of the Sustainable Agriculture and Development program at UMCOR (UMCOR SA&D). I am sitting in the back, the radio blares, Twii conversation pings back and forth, and I am mesmerized by the enormous straight-trunked bako trees we pass. I love the way still unripe mangoes with their long stems hang like Christmas ornaments from tree branches.

I try to snap pictures as we rock on the rutted roads, which have been made worse by recent rain. I notice the crayon-yellow village weaver birds  making tiny basket-like nests in branches that hang over lakes and rivers. They dart in and out of our path just long enough for my eye to register their bright color, and then I see a whole host of them, as my guide—and UMCOR trainer—Kofi Saakwah, points out that we are nearing the village.

I see a bright, canary-colored swath moving along the road and quickly realize it is a group of schoolgirls sporting yellow uniforms, their arms linked as they wend their way home.

We arrive in Jeduako, and though the vehicle has stopped, I feel as if I am still swaying, as if I might feel the effects of the jostling and bumping as I fall asleep tonight. As soon as my feet hit the dirt, though, and the village kids clamber over to us, I am filled with the joy and pride of this village. I am ready to hear the stories of beekeeping, animal husbandry, and cooking with soy and Moringa.

We make our way though a group of very little kids and over to a table set up under a mango tree. The farmers taking part in the programs bring plastic chairs and wooden benches, and circle round. At first there are maybe 20 participants at the meeting, but one by one, as farmers rise to tell the story of their hives, the tragic saga of the plague that took their first round of livestock, or the miraculous increase in the health of their children and elders due to the introduction of soy products and the miracle plant Moringa, the crowd expands exponentially. I am overjoyed when the women bring out a big container of soy kabobs to try—they are amazing, a chuck-a-block filled with protein—and I become alert and ready for anything.

The project was begun with micro-loans to farmers chosen by the villagers, without religious affiliation as a prerequisite. The phrase I heard over and over was “We are looking for hard workers, who want to learn and do better.” And they certainly found them. The UMCOR program identifies food scarcity and instability as something to be eradicated through training, awareness of one’s own assets, and finding affordable, local solutions and interventions. And the utilization of a naturally occurring plant like Moringa is truly a godsend. The classes with a para-vet have supplied the needed knowledge to keep herds alive and thriving.

Many farmers also participate in the beekeeping program, which has provided them income they use to send their children to school or to build a new home. Now, the core beekeepers are starting to educate others in the village. There are innovative solar extractors, which program participants use cooperatively to extract honey in a sanitary fashion, thus rendering the honey from Jeduako among the finest in the region. During my visit, Bishop Quayson ordered 30 gallons. Orders like this have allowed the farmers to pay off their loans. This means when one micro-loan is paid off, the funds are made available to another group of farmers and villagers. Churches can play a role as intermediaries to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their products.

In the philanthropy world, there is discussion about the general failure of traditional development grants, with the argument these merely provide funds, but they do not teach or enrich developing populations, thus rendering them less stable, rather than more. The argument continues, saying that as funds wane or disappear, villagers are thrown into worse situations than before.

UMCOR programs stress involvement, learning, and ownership, thus better ensuring continuity long after the initial training was provided. Certainly in Jeduako, the level of commitment, pride, and competency I witnessed is remarkable, and the belief that the fruits of these projects will continue for generations is inescapable.

Your gift to UMCOR SA&D, UMCOR Advance #982188, supports projects like these in Jeduako.

From Northern Ghana and the Gushie Women’s Shea Nut Collective

*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.