I traveled to three remote villages in northern Ghana with the Body Shop to see where they source shea butter. I have always been interested in the positive potential of ethical trade, and examining the enormous implications that production chains have on the world. We arrived to see women adorned in patterns and colors that seemed to hold the sunshine, balancing their crop of shea beans on their heads. Culturally, the shea tree is the property of the women in a family. It takes two days to grind, roast, knead and clarify the butter, which then cools and sets. Having bought the Body Shop’s shea butter at home in London, I found it surreal to see its holistic handmade process a world away.
Enchanted by these women and the possibilities shea butter offered, Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, began a twofold trade program that has developed since her first visit in 1987. In addition to increasing income and giving women a voice in their society, a 21 percent annual premium was delegated to community development projects, like the teacher accommodations I opened during my visit. It was a touching moment: A young girl, hair swept back into patterned cloths matching the chief’s, came forward carrying an orange silk pillow with keys and scissors on it. After I was dressed in local clothes, she led the procession to the new building. Exploring the village of Mbanayili, I saw for myself how community is at the heart of it. While the women sang as they made shea butter, a daughter ran the family shop and the men gathered to rethatch the roof of a mud hut.
One day, intensely curious, I played journalist, camera ready. A woman in her 70s led me to her mud-hut home, and my girly questions built surprise bridges across our cultural gulf: Did you love your husband when you met him? Do you still? What are your dreams? One of her husband’s other three wives came and sat beside her. She still has “the love” for him, she said, laughing. I invited their questions then. Was I married? No. Did I have children? None. How sad, they said. Suddenly I felt an obscure loneliness that contrasted with their intricately webbed community.
Before leaving Mbanayili we visited the chief’s mud-hut palace for our formal goodbye. Smiling, he gave us two lovely guinea fowl and eight yams as gifts. They were beyond generous, marking an important part of their tradition and culture. But there was also the larger impact of our gifts: shea butter in exchange for steel wells and concrete schools. “Long may you continue to support us, and we support you,” Madame Fati Paul, a local leader, said. The same spirit of community I had experienced so profoundly in the villages permeated that hut.
This article was published by US Vogue in 2012.