The Women Behind the Shea Butter

Jeremy Su

Over the past year and a half, I have been personally documenting my travels to Ghana and West Africa for my work at Burn Design Lab. I was able to meet and work with many amazing women who process hand crafted shea butter for a living. Normally, my camera and I are drawn towards the outdoors and landscapes (and who wouldn't, living up in the Pacific Northwest). However, during my time in West Africa, I always find that my lens gravitates towards the people. Ghana, specifically, is filled with some of the most warm and welcoming people that I have met and their stories and lives are truly amazing. Here are a couple of the women that I have met that inspire me and motivate me in my work. 

Samata No 1

Samata (#1) Iddrisu at the Tiyumtaba Cooperative

Samata #1 - June 23, 2022

After 3 long months of implementing the pilot phase of our project and producing 10 locally manufactured roasters in Ghana, I visited the Tiyumtaba Cooperative outside of Tamale, Ghana to install our very first set of roasters and train around 100 women. One of these women, Samata Iddrisu, also known as Samata #1 (because there are two Samatas in their group), is the organizer of the group. After losing a family member and being away from the cooperative for some time, she told me that “this is my first time back to processing since they died and I was worried about having to do the roasting again. But today when I came and used your improved roaster, it has already made me happier." Her feedback on our roaster reminded me of why and who I was doing this work for and the rest of that afternoon I was able to forget the blood, sweat, and tears I had put into the production of these pilot roasters. 

When she was talking to me, I tried to pick up words in her local Dagbani language, however, I couldn't get over this sense of sadness in her eyes, but beneath it was a glimmer of hopefulness that I was able to capture once we had finished our conversation. Behind the camera, I was hopeful that all this work wasn't for nothing and that our technology was truly going to impact their lives in a positive way. If that day was any indication, I would say we are on the right track. 

Lungblaa Flipped

A reflection of Meimunatu "Lungblaa" Salifu cleaning impurities from her shea butter at the Pagsung Cooperative

Lungblaa - November 18, 2021

Meimunatu "Lungblaa" Salifu and I met each other a little more than a year ago. She has been processing at Pagsung with the same women and they have formed one big family after working together for so many years. Last November, I had the chance to spend a full week with them gathering data and feedback and also documenting the entire hand-crafted shea butter process. It was during that time that I got to know her and the rest of the 'family' much better. Lungblaa came to the cooperative late one morning and met us all under the shaded tree as we were talking. She started yelling at the other women, but in Dagbani so I couldn't fully understand. After a few seconds of that, all the other women burst out laughing and yelling back at her. Abdul later explained to me that she was mad that during her absence, they didn't call her or ask where she was. All of the women were joking about it for the rest of the day.

This May (2022), I spoke with her again and one of the things that resonated with me still to this day was her one passing statement: "I hope that when you go home, you still care about us like the way you do while you’re here." I immediately felt two very contrasting feelings, the first being despair. I immediately wondered if she was implying or thinking that I did forget about them when I was gone, then I asked myself what have I done or said to make her feel that way? Was it simply my lack of presence that made her think that? After mulling it over later that day, I decided to think of it on the flip side - where she truly understands my love and appreciation for her and the rest of the women, as well as believing that the work we are doing is motivated by the fact that it will benefit their lives in the long run. 

Learn more about our Shea Project and how you can get involved.