During my recent stay in Yameriga village, Regina, humoured me for a day and showed me how to make shea butter. Back home, we pay way too much money for fancy cosmetics containing this miracle butter. In Ghana, the making of shea butter is entirely the woman’s domain. You’ll find it all over the markets selling for almost nothing! Making the butter is an entire day of hard work (I had blisters on my hands!), but in the company of other women chatting and laughing away, pounding, grinding and mixing gets easier and easier.
Step 1: The Shea Tree
Women will leave the house around 3-4 in the morning to be the first ones ready to collect the fallen fruits and nuts. Since the trees are wild and therefore don’t belong to anyone, first come first served!
Step 2: Where I started from
The shea nuts have already been collected, boiled, dried and peeled by hand at this point. Next we pound.
Step 3: Pound ‘em
Myself, Regina and Tata, using stones to crush the nuts up into small small pieces. I was pretty slow compared to the two girls….obviously.
Step 4: Sweat over a fire
Next you take all the crushed shea and stir them in a pot over the fire until they turn black. Very sweaty business.
Step 5: Grind ‘em
Here is the step that gave me blisters but smelled amazing. Now we ground up all the pieces using a grinding stone and creating the most delicious looking melted chocolate-like substance.
Step 6: Work the pipes
Now you basically use your arm as a giant whisk and beat the mixture as hard as you can! The mixture is beat in order to extract the oil. While this was happening, it was pretty cool to watch the dark brown mixture start to turn grey-white as the oil was extracted and started to float to the top.
This part was definitely the most physically exhausting. I only lasted for about a minute before my arm was ready to fall off. Regina was a superstar and beat the shea for a good twenty minutes.
We got the fat out of the nut, and then we rinsed it to get all the brown stuff out. After rinsing, this is what we ended up with. It’s completely white!
Step 8: Sweat over the fire, again
Next, we gathered up all the white fat (it still smelled delicious) and remelted it over the fire, only for it to turn brown again! This shea business is pretty cool.
Step 9: C’est fini!
The ‘almost finished’ product. If left, the oil will solidify into the butter that we are more familiar with. In its oil form, women will use it in most of the household cooking. Regina gave me this oil as a souvenir, so I’ll be bringing some homemade shea butter back to Canada!
Final thoughts? This is tough labour. It’s quite amazing to think that the small amount of shea oil it took Regina and I about 5 hours to make (not including gathering, boiling, drying and peeling) will sell for about 50 cents at the local market. What seemed like a luxurious commodity at home is a normal part of a woman’s livelihood here in Ghana. Made by women, for women so the price suddenly makes sense since women rarely have much disposable income. Regina was quite appalled when I told her how expensive shea butter was in Canada. She then decided she would come to Canada and become very rich selling shea butter there. I felt pretty bad telling her that we don’t have shea trees in Canada.