In most villages in Mali, during most times of the year, you will hear the steady pounding of women who stand with mortar and pestle in hand, pounding shea nuts. It’s a soothing sound that is steady and constant and sounds like a carpenter pounding with a soft, heavy mallet. It’s soothing. If you follow the sound, you will usually find several women in a compound, pounding and some bent over large tubs of hot emulsifying shea, mixing it like human Bosch machines. They working together. They help each other. They are making shea butter, one of the finest products made in West Africa. This is women’s work. It’s hard work. It’s hot work. It’s soothing work.
The shea nuts are collected off the ground when they fall from the trees during harvest time. They are dried or roasted and stored during the rest of the year. Today in Bassa this group of women was making the shea butter from the roasted and ground nuts.
In the villages you see many of these roasting ovens. The nuts are roasted over slow-burning fires. They have a peculiar smell. Sometimes the nuts are spread on the ground to dry in the hot sun.
Here are some photos I’ve taken in other villages. These women are using stones to crack and shell the nuts. The nut is taken from the shell and pounded or ground in a machine to make a paste. Many villages have a grinding machine that the villagers share.
After the nuts are ground, the paste looks like this:
This is washed and mixed with water over and over until the oils separate and emulsify. That’s what the women were doing today. Here’s a little video clip:
Eventually the impurities are washed out and the shea butter is clean.
This woman has made her finished product into a large heavy ball she’ll wrap in leaves and bind to take to the market to sell.
Shea butter is an ingredient in many beauty products, creams and lotions. It’s used here on the skin, in the hair, for wounds or burns, for bites or sunburns, and for general aches and pains. It’s also used as their main cooking oil. The shea nut is a gift to the women of West Africa. It’s a perfect ingredient and a perfect remedy for most things that ail you.
You can learn more about the process of making shea butter here: