Greetings from Bolgatanga, Ghana
June 11, 2010
I’ve spent the last few days in northern Ghana assisting the Widows & Orphans Movement. Founded in 1993 by Madam Betty Ayagiba, WOM serves 8,000+ widows throughout the northern regions. The organization focuses on empowering women though skills training that facilitates job acquisition (traditional kente cloth and basket weaving, seamstress skills, hair styling and shea butter production), microcredit loans to widows to support new enterprise, legal rights education and protection from abuse, HIV education, as well as nutritional, educational and medical support for orphans. Sound like an insurmountable task? One cannot imagine how large the mission is until you understand the plight of widows in northern Ghana.
Teaching the women how to weigh each ingredient
Traditional tribal practices in this region can be particularly cruel to widows. Upon the death of a husband (who may die at any age and for any reason), the wife is automatically accused of witchcraft and blamed for his death. She must then endure a series of dehumanizing and dangerous rituals lasting a week or more. Among them: being stripped naked in public and made to wear only leaves, having her head shaved, being made to drink a putrid concoction created by a soothsayer to prove her innocence, being doused in boiling water, etc. After the shame and humiliation, she must then take a new husband from the deceased’s family in order to continue bearing children in his name. If she refuses, she is rejected and regarded as an outcast- she loses all of her property and her home. As many of these women are illiterate and have many children to care for, the outcome is often unthinkably horrid. Worse yet, tradition holds that the first man to sleep with a widow must marry her, leading to frequent rapes of widows who are particularly young or beautiful.
Gathering wood to build a fire to melt all of our ingredients
I was invited to Ghana after meeting a local woman at the Global Shea Conference in Bamako, Mali in March of this year. She asked me to help train the women in the creation of finished goods using their shea butter, as buyers for the raw shea butter itself are often hard to locate and offering finished goods could add value to the WOM operations. After 3 planes and 23 hours of straight flying, I landed in Accra, Ghana’s capital city for a few meetings with my friends at the West Africa Trade Hub. The very next morning, I hopped a 6am charter flight to Tamale and was greeted by Mr. Clements, WOM’s accountant. We then continued 2 hours north by car, passing round mud homes with thatched roofs and gorgeous shea parklands to arrive in Bolgatanga.
Pouring fresh shea butter balms
WOM had diligently gathered 22 widows together from in and around Bolgatanga and we spent the next two days in a series of trainings. The women learned how to make a simple balm out of readily available local ingredients, how to cost the product accordingly and how to label and market the balm throughout Ghana. We took a trip to a local salon to do market research, studying the various types of product available, their origin, ingredients and cost. We learned that local pomades are typically created with mineral oil or petroleum jelly and artificial dyes. The balm these women will be offering is 100% natural, with more than 80% locally-produced shea butter, creating a rich hydrator for the brutal West African climate. I was continually impressed by the motivation and bravery of these women and their determination to lift themselves and their children out of poverty, as well as the dedication of Madam Betty in serving them. My time in Bolgatanga also included a visit to Madam Lucy, the Deputy Regional Director of Bolgatanga to plead with her to offer her support and any available resources to this new endeavor.
Success! They’re cooling down…
The women plan to imminently enter the market with their pomade within the next month or two and I’ll be working with them to secure other locally available cosmetic materials to formulate several complimentary products in hopes of employing a full-time team of women to produce soaps, soaks and balms to further support the critical work of WOM. For now, I’ve said goodbye to the widows and wished them much luck in this exciting new project. I am eternally grateful to Madame Betty and her team for their warm hospitality while in Bolgatanga and for the deep appreciation of women’s rights I’ve reinforced while here. I’m transiting back through Tamale today to facilitate some meetings between Madame Betty and a shea buyer I am familiar with locally, then heading four hours west by car to Bole to work with another group for the next few days. I hear the road to Bole is 87 kinds of crazy…let the adventure begin!
The beautiful widows of Bolgatanga