Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Let's make some soap!

Early December some women in my village expressed interest in making soap. Making soap is something that all the women can and do make by using oil from a nut that grows locally. However, they were most enthusiastic about making the "good stuff": Kabakuruni which they use to wash clothes and also toubabou sahuna (literal translation: white man's soap). But, since their work with the harvest was not finished we decided to address the idea in the new year.
You are probably asking yourself, "Does Taz even know how to make soap?" Honestly, I had only seen it been done once during one of our trainings but other than that all I had were a handful of recipies. It seemed simple enough, so I was willing to commit as you should really jump on any idea/project that your village is genuinely interested in as it increases the likelihood of it being sustainable. If they want it to succeed, they will make it happen...but not without a fair share of bumps in the road. This is Peace Corps after all.
I took the opportunity to address the women again when they were all gathered for another meeting held by a local NGO. The floor ended up being all mine as the guy never showed up which turned out to be foreshadowing for what I was to experience. I found out that the women weren't solely interested in learning how to make the soap; they wanted to start a small business and generate income for themselves. Therefore, taking things slowly, I gave the women the task of assembling their group and choosing a President, Treasurer and venders by our next meeting in one weeks time.
On the date of our meeting, my homologue and I waited for approximately 45 minutes before I resigned myself to the fact that no one was showing up, so I went in search of some answers. The response I received: "We forgot." Every single one of them. When working with illiterate people in a culture that has no sense of or need for time, this is a common result. If it weren't for the daily radio communication, I'm sure that my village would be oblivious to the day and date and would honestly be none the worse for it.
I could very easily have reminded the women the day before, but in the back of my mind I think I wanted to test them. To see how dependable and accountable they could be. Since that was a total fail, I decided to start over-- clean slate, no expectations. Since this was my first "project," I figured that we, the women and I, would be learning along the way.
With the small group that I could rally together that morning, we decided who would head the positions (which were met by many objections and essentially forced upon the women because they all shy away from any responsibility of importance which I think is due to their lack of education), decided that they would contribute the 12 litres of shea oil as they can produce that themselves at zero cost, and finally decided on a date and place . Everything seemed to be in order.
However, when I returned from my trip to Kita where I bought the rest of the ingredients (peanut oil, lye, and honey) we were met with another little bump. The formation was to be in 2 days time; however, the machine to grind the shea nets had not yet arrived. It had gone travelling to the surrounding villages (there is maybe one machine for our 4 village radius) and wasn't due to return in time for our formation. Not a huge bump, so we just pushed the date back.
FINALLY, the morning of the formation arrived, and thankfully, so did the women!! At first they trickled in each bringing their contribution, 1 litre of shea oil per woman. We soon had the 12 litres needed, but they kept coming until we had collected 29 litres of shea oil. Compared with the 8 women that I rallied that first failed meeting, this was a vast improvement and more than I expected. I was pleased that so many women were committing. We began the formation with my homologue and I explaining and instructing the women who would then perform the tasks. Its really quite simple to make soap: mix the ingredients together, stir continuously in one direction till it begins to set, pour in the mold, ABANA. So, where did I go wrong!!?? We were stirring for an hour, two, almost three hours and the mixtures were not hardening. It should have taken less than an hour. As time moved on, I slowly became deflated. I was responsible- it was my first project and it wasn't working. I felt like I had dropped the ball. Its a horrible feeling that hits you right in the gut.
I tried to stay poised and figure out a solution, but it was the women who saved the day. They took charge and figured out the problem. As it turns out, it wasn't completely my fault, but most importantly our work was salvagable. I had bought the 2kg of lye needed; however, it seems that I had been deceived and taken advantage of in the market. I bought the lye for 1000 cfa- 500 cfa per kilo, but talking to the women at the formation, 1 kg should cost 800 cfa. I was ripped off. I paid more and received less because I am white. This happens all too often actually. It is assumed that the white person has money so their prices will be inflated.
It took another day for us to acquire the correct amount of lye, so after releasing all the control to the women (which I should have done from the get-go), we finished 2 days later. Even though there were more than our fair share of bumps in the road, I think that I can call this a success. Even when I was ready to claim defeat, the women continued to praise the soap we were making. Their positivity kept me from breaking down, and in the end they were right. The soap turned out great. So great that the women of the formation bought half of the stock right off the bat! As soon as we set the prices, they went grabbing at it. AND, the rest of the product was sold in a day and a half! SUCCESS!!

First the women melted the shea tulu by the fire

Mixing the oil, lye, and honey for the Toubab Soap
The soap is in the mold!
The women hand-molding the Kabakuruni

Final Product!

With the money made from this first round, the women are going to be able to continue production and even have profit left over. Making soap here is very lucrative! The women are motivated and excited, and so am I!

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