I believe I will remember today as one of the best, happiest days in my service. It was that good.
I've been trying to plan a demonstration of how to make neem cream for the past 2 years. (The leaves of the neem tree are a natural mosquito repellent, and you can make a repellent cream with them using soap and shea butter) Last year no one really showed much interest – I'd tell people about it and get a polite but obvious brush off. This year people seemed more interested, but there's such a big gap between “that sounds interesting”, “yes, let's do it”, and the logistics involved in setting a concrete date and time and getting people to show up with the materials necessary. While Aicha's visit has yet to produce any action on the library (somehow the mayor is always coming back to town “tomorrow”), it did push Francois to help me set up a day to make neem cream with a group of women (it only took 3 date changes, not bad considering).
The group of women we selected were representatives from all of the surrounding villages, who had come to a formation on making improved stoves that hold in heat and thus burn less wood. They were coming back to Kossouka to get their certificates, so Francois invited Kerry and me to talk to them about making neem cream. I mostly spoke through a translator, but they seemed unusually engaged and enthusiastic about the idea, and I figured I might get a handful to actually show up for the date we'd chosen, the next marche day. I told them they could come just to observe, but if they brought soap and shea butter we could make it together and they could take it home.
I got a call this morning from Francois, saying that he was on his way to OHG to see the dentist but that he asked Harouna to come help me (I'm not sure of Harouna's official position but I see him around the mayor's office fairly frequently). When I arrived at the Mairie at 9am (the time we told the women to arrive, assuming they'd actually arrive at 10) there was already a big crowd waiting! I greeted everyone and sat down to wait a little to see if more would show up and to wait for Harouna to come and help me translate. The two women in the group who spoke good French had to leave so I was really hoping he'd show up. But it being the market day I didn't want to keep people for too long, so as it got near 10am I decided to try and start and hope someone came along soon. Through a wonderful mixture of terrible, simple Moore and some pantomiming and a lot of laughing we got a few women to start grating their soap with my cheese grater, figured out who had brought supplies, explained why oil wouldn't work in the place of shea butter, and sent someone to get water. I asked the Prefet next door for some wood and matches (I figure I should make him some neem cream to thank him once I get my hands on some shea), and then decided that we might as well keep going since things seemed to be going ok.
I was surprised at how many women had brought soap and shea (and even leaves from their own neem trees!) and it was immediately evident that my little tin pot (the biggest one I own besides my dutch oven) was woefully inadequate, we could only make about 2 L at a time. So we stuffed that 2L of water with as many neem leaves as we could, then sat to wait for it to boil, fiddling with the clay enclosure a bit until we had it positioned so the wind could blow into it properly and keep the fire going. We used a big slotted spoon to remove all the leaves, then added the shredded soap. When Kerry and I were experimenting we used the local village hard soap, which grated into a rough yellow powder. But the packaged soap some women had brought grated into beautiful fluffy curls that looked exactly like white cheddar cheese – it was positively cruel! We mixed it in, turning the green leaf-water into a rather unappealing brown color, until it was all melted and mixed. Then it was time for the shea butter. I never knew shea could come in so many colors and consistencies! For some women it was entirely liquid, others a creamy or gritty-looking solid, others half and half, ranging from white to yellow to brown or grey.
I had gathered everyone around to look at the color of the water when we took out the leaves (that's how you know they've been in there long enough, when the water turns green and smells spicy), and they all came to watch as we stirred in the shea. When I declared it done, ready to come off the fire and settle and solidify until tomorrow night, something really unexpected happened. We were all so happy and proud of ourselves, smiling and laughing, but then one woman who had been helping me explain as we went along (I spoke bad Moore and mimed with my hands, she turned it into understandable Moore) started clapping and singing! The other women clapped in rhythm while she sang a thank you song to me, for coming there today to be their teacher and help their families be healthy. (at least I'm pretty sure that's what she was saying) I stood there, probably blushing, definitely cheek-hurting smiling, and tried to accept their thank you's while also thanking them for being there. I didn't have any way to tell them how grateful I was to them all, for coming all the way from villages up to 15km away, for listening to me, for understanding my bad Moore, for being willing to put their own money into trying something that they didn't even know would work, for celebrating working and learning together, for joking with me and teaching me new words and being patient. It was the most amazing feeling in the world, so happy and grateful and humbled and touched. Women here have the most amazing spirit. A good deal of the time they're quiet and shy and deferential to pretty much everyone. On occasion they're fierce and loud and almost cruel-humored. But today they were among women, brash and generous and funny and compassionate and understanding. Amazing.
There was a scramble to split 3L of neem cream 40 ways so everyone could take some home to try, resulting in several people (including the women whose soap and shea we'd used) not getting any. So we decided to go ahead and make more! A woman took a bucket to get more water, the cheese grater got passed around, and off we went. A good deal of the women left after the first batch (and after I made them repeat the formula several times – 1L water, 1 ball of soap, 8 small balls of shea, many many leaves) but the 15 or so that stayed ended up making 4 more batches. We got to see the effect of different soaps - village soap makes the mixture much thicker – and everyone ended up taking home as much as she could carry, even my second pot (the one we'd been grating soap into) was loaned to Mariam the 2nd deputy mayor so we could split up the product of our work. We stayed until about 1pm, then washed up and everyone started going their separate ways. I was tired and dehydrated, but so filled with a sense of pride and joy. Not only did the whole thing go really well, but I did it myself! I got to interact with the women without a translator, and even joked and laughed with them. They probably would have gotten more information if I'd had someone there to help (I did call Sali to ask if someone could come over after work but they must have finished late because no one came), but they all seemed to understand at least the basics I could explain, and were really enthusiastic about it, some even started making plans to get together and sell it! Ah, it's like a Peace Corps dream day, the kind that makes it into pamphlets but only happens rarely in your service.
Sunyata was sad that I didn't take any photos. I thought about it while I was there, and I'm sad I didn't, but I honestly don't think I'll forget it and I didn't want to risk changing the dynamic if I pulled my camera out. The 4 women sitting in a semi-circle, taking turns grating soap onto a rice sack. The piles of different colored soaps, all being tossed into the pot together. A women scooping shea out of her little plastic pail and forming it into sticky balls on the lid. The growing pile of limp, boiled leaves. The big soapy bubbles that formed behind the spoon as we stirred the pot. The tight circle around me, clapping and grinning. The women walking away towards the marche, pots of various sizes balanced carefully on their heads. Using dirt and leaves and dried neem cream to wash my pot out. The old woman examining my hands and tsk-ing at my crazy suggestion that I could come help her weed her fields (I told her I have my own daba, but the truth is that it's trapped under my collapsed hangar). Them telling me alternately that I did or didn't speak Moore, and that I need to teach my husband in nasara-tenga to speak it so he can come live here too. One woman asking me as we were leaving if I would be her friend.
And then I biked home and proceeded to drink about 6 L of water and tea in the past 7 hours. Much better! Right now it's Ramadan, where most of my village goes all day without eating and drinking for 30 days (while working in their fields all day). The no-eating I could do, it would make me grumpy but it seems feasible besides the fact that I don't want to get up to eat at 4am before the sun rises. But not drinking for just a few hours gives me such a massive headache, going all day would truly be a challenge.