Monday, March 28, 2011

Shea Butter and Oil

     The shea tree (in Arabic, the lulu tree) grows across Africa in a narrow band lying south of the Sahara Desert. The tree lives for a long time – between 200 and 300 years - and grows abundantly in South Sudan, where it is revered. Lulu trees provide shade, their fruit is edible, and the nuts of the tree are used for oil and food. During Sudan’s long civil wars, when food was very scarce, the nuts helped many people survive. Children would collect the nuts, and their mothers made oil out of them. The calories and nutrients in the oil helped people stay alive. The nutritious oil is still a main source of food during the yearly dry season that lasts from November to May there.

     Today, some women’s groups in South Sudan have started businesses to make and market shea (or lulu) butter and/or its refined counterpart, shea oil. There are now a few dozen lulu nut processing centers in South Sudan owned and operated by women, who are considered to be the traditional guardians of the lulu tree. Typically each center employs about 20 women, who are often from different tribes. In order for their business to be successful, they must overlook their tribal differences and learn to work together and cooperate with each other. In return, they are building a peaceful living situation in their communities and enjoy a dependable and substantial source of income for their families.

     Typically, women now working in lulu nut processing used to eke out a living by selling meager produce from their gardens in the market, or by making beer and alcoholic drinks to sell. These activities did not produce enough money for them to send their children to school. With the extra money they earn from lulu nut processing, they can send their children to school and also enjoy a somewhat higher standard of living.

     Converting lulu nuts into butter and oil is hard work, and in Sudanese women’s cooperatives, it’s done by hand. First, the fruit which surrounds the nuts is removed, and the nuts are spread out to dry in the sun. Then the hard outer shells of the nuts are broken with sharp rocks and removed. The inner parts of the nuts are then pounded with heavy wooden pestles in a funduk to crush them. The flour formed by crushing the nuts is then roasted in huge pots over a fire, and during this process it must be constantly stirred. After roasting, water is added and the nuts are pounded in the funduk again to form a smooth paste. The paste is kneaded by hand, and then the oil is separated from the butter. Water is added to separate out the oil, which floats to the top of the mixture, where it is removed and the excess water is squeezed out. The oil is then boiled slowly over a fire, which evaporates any traces of remaining water. Meanwhile the butter, which remains in the roasting pan, is cooled and then formed into balls to be sold.

     In Africa, shea butter is used as cooking oil, as a wax for water proofing, for hairdressing and in making candles. It is said to have anti-inflammatory properties and so is also used in medicinal ointments. Companies outside Africa buy shea butter and oil to use in products such as skin moisturizers, salves, and lotions. It is also used in preparing foods - occasionally even the chocolate industry uses it, substituting it for cocoa butter!

     Some of the women in the women’s literacy groups supported by Mercy Beyond Borders in Rumbek, South Sudan, are experimenting with shea butter production in an effort to generate money and raise their standard of living. Below, a woman uses a pestle and funduk to pound the nuts into flour. If you haven’t seen shea butter for sale in the stores, perhaps you will soon – and maybe this woman will have had a part in making it! You may want to buy some and try it – shea butter goes on nicely, as it melts at body temperature and absorbs rapidly into the skin without leaving a greasy feeling, and is reported to be very good for the skin. Be sure that it carries the “Fair Trade Certified” label, which ensures that a fair portion of the proceeds go to the people who produced it. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Early Marriage of Young Girls in South Sudan

     Girls in South Sudan marry young – typically, at 12 or 14. In many tribes, girls are considered to be ready for marriage as soon as they reach puberty. Sometimes girls who do not feel they are ready for marriage will try to hide their periods for as long as possible. By the age of eighteen, a woman who is still single and without children will often be stigmatized as unmarriageable.

     For people living in South Sudan, marriage is generally not a choice, but an obligation. Everyone is expected to marry and raise a family. Men are generally encouraged to marry as many wives as possible toward this aim.

     Marriages are arranged, and there are several reasons parents may want to marry their daughters early: The groom’s family pays a “bride price” in cows to the girl’s family (the number of cows paid varies according to the tribe and region). Sources of income in South Sudan are limited, so there is a financial incentive to marry off daughters in order to collect the bride price.  In a poor family, an older girl may be seen as an economic burden for the family. Early marriage is also seen as a strategy to prevent girls from becoming pregnant outside of marriage, which is not well accepted. Parents may also think that marrying their daughter will help protect her from sexual assault, which was a common tactic during the civil war.

     Not uncommonly, girls are married to men much older than they are, or to men who already have one or more wives. Marriage nearly always means the end of education for girls who are attending school. It can lead to other problems too, such as complications of pregnancy and domestic abuse. Young girls whose bodies are not fully developed are more likely to develop problems during pregnancy and childbirth.

     The Child Act was passed into law in South Sudan in October 2008, which technically makes it illegal to force a girl under 18 to marry, and also illegal to prevent a girl who is a mother from continuing her education after one year of lactation. It does not prohibit early marriage per se, only forcing the girl to marry. However, many early marriages continue to take place despite the girl’s objections.

     Pictured below is a girl from St. Bakhita Primary School in Narus, Sudan. For now she remains unmarried and in school, but every year several of her classmates leave school at term breaks, are married off during the brief interval, and do not return when the school reopens. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Accelerated Learning Programs in South Sudan

     School in Southern Sudan is divided into two levels: Primary School, which consists of grades 1 through 8, and Secondary School, which includes Forms 1 through 4. In all states of South Sudan except Western Equatoria, less than five percent of children have completed Primary School; in Western Equatoria, the number is between 5 and 10 percent. Some of the reasons so few have completed even eight years of school include: a large number of people having been displaced from their homes due to war, famine, or poverty; a large number of people living a semi-nomadic lifestyle and the expectation that boys will spend time away from home in cattle camps; the need for girls to take responsibility for household chores; cultural attitudes and beliefs which do not emphasize academic learning; and a lack of schools, teachers, and supplies.

     In many parts of Africa including South Sudan, people who have had to leave school for a period of time – even for several years – and then desire to return to school go back to the same grade they were in when they left, even though they may now be many years older than other students in that grade. This results in undesirable situations in classrooms such as having 7 year olds studying alongside men in their twenties.

     The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) has been developed as an alternative, faster system of learning for older children and adults. Eight years of primary school are condensed into four, with students typically attending school for only 3 to 4 hours per day. The condensed timetable enables older children who are studying in the lower grades to catch up with their peers, and girls are attracted to the reduced hours, which allows more time for them to complete their duties at home. As a result, a higher percentage of girls study in ALP programs than in normal primary school. This includes girls who are already mothers, which is notable – because traditionally, mothers attending school would not have been acceptable in their communities.   

     In addition to the regular syllabus taught in South Sudan Schools, the ALP curriculum also teaches life skills such as vocational skills, parenting skills, leadership, health education including HIV/AIDS, gender issues and peace building. ALP programs are resulting in rising literacy rates of young people, especially girls. They are also contributing to increased confidence, in particular for girls, and to youth of both genders being better prepared to be productive members of society. Mercy Beyond Borders is a proud supporter of ALP programs in the towns of Mapuordit and Boma, South Sudan.