Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Village Stay: discovering the other side of the story

The other day I decided I wanted to see the other side of things for a change. What I mean by this is that often with work I spend my time with men. Men tend to be the producers of mangoes, exporters are primarily men, but even though processors do tend to be women they are women from urban centers who are educated and usually very well off. So I wanted to learn about how the average women lives and what life is like in a village setting.

I went to a village called Dodougou. It’s only about 20km from Bobo but it feels like much further. You head down the highway till you reach the village of Coro, a tourist attraction, know for its weird rocks scattered everywhere. Once you reach Coro you head down a dirt road, which is anything but smooth. You pass several smaller villages then reach a larger village. In the market you cut through the stands and head along an even smaller dirt road. Following this road through fields and wide open spaces, you finally find Dodougou. Though the distance is short the trip takes about 3 hours.

Dodougou is a mid sized village that spreads out over much flat land. The village is divided into 4 sections based on ethnicity and language. There is the Mossi section that speak Mooré, the Bobo section that speak Bobo, the Dioula section that speak Dioula and the Tiéfo section that speak Tiéfo. There is also a population of Peuls that live more on the periphery than being integrated as part of the community. Dodougou has no electricity; limited cell phone access (you need to walk around in a circle till you find the right spot and hope the wind doesn’t change direction); a couple water pumps, but mainly wells; a brand new and opening this month community grain storage; no latrines (you go in the bushes); a primary school, but no high school (kids have to go to Bobo); and nothing but foot paths to get around.

I spent a week in Dodougou cooking; fetching water and wood; learning different traditional skills and economic activities that woman partake in, but most importantly making friends.

Learning a woman’s traditional skill

Shea butter

Shea butter, a much sought after product among the cosmetic and chocolate industries, yet a tradition within many West African villages. Many people have seen and probably used shea butter products for dry skin, and many have surely eaten chocolate without realizing that shea butter was a key ingredient. Here shea is used primarily both as a cream for dry skin and as an oil for cooking. Traditionally women have engaged in shea processing mainly for local consumption, but in recent years shea has become an increasingly important exportable commodity (unfortunately usually as a raw nut rather than a processed product where the value add and the monetary gain is so much higher).

I admit I have been one to indulge in chocolate and to use shea butter on my skin but with little knowledge or even reflection on where shea comes from, what it looks like and the process it has do go through to become this final product that I enjoy. In Dodougou shea processing is an old tradition and you can ask pretty much any woman and she will tell or show you all the steps. I spent 3 days working with a grandmother, a mother and her daughters to learn these steps.

Step 1:

Collect the shea nuts from the shea trees that grow throughout the forest and in people’s yards. These shea trees have two prime seasons, one for nut collection and one for caterpillar collection, both contributing enormously to local diets.


Pound the nuts with a pestle and mortar to separate the fine outer shell from the inner nut. This is relatively easy as the outer sell breaks easily and the inner nut is harder so keeps it’s shape. You pound just for a little while till it looks like most are broken or at least cracked open.

Step 3: Now it is sorting time. You separate the outer shells from the nuts, discarding the outer shell. The nuts are an oval shape with a slightly wrinkled surface and a deep brown colour. If any shells are not broken you just tap them with a rock and they open right up.

Step 4:

The crushing begins. Using a rounded rock against a flat rock slab you pound the nuts into little pieces. It is at this step that you start to realize why shea is used in chocolate. It smells so much like chocolate and it smells so good! This is quite a long step as you can only crush about 1-3 nuts at a time. It is also tiring due to the repeated movement.

Step 5:

Once all is crushed you boil the mixture over the fire till it becomes soft. Then let it cool.

Step 6:

The cooled mixture is placed back in the pestle and mortar and pounded till it starts to become smooth.

Step 7:

Once it looks pretty smooth the mixture is taken in small amounts and crushed using a smooth slab and a rounded rock. Looking much like melted chocolate (and smelling much like chocolate as well!) the mixture pours and is collected onto a pile of sand at the end of the rock slab.

Step 8:

Taking the smooth mixture you now mix it by hand, creating an incredible rhythm and music. The women use their arms like a giant blender or mixer which helps separate the oil and the fiber. This step takes both arm strength and lots of work!

Step 9:

The smooth creamy mixture is now transferred to the fire to boil again. This boiling step will separate the oil from the fiber and the sand will fall to the bottom. It froths and boils for quite some time and then sure enough the oil separates up to the top and the fiber and sand sink to the bottom.

Step 10:

Oil is skimmed off and the residue is discarded. Once cooled the once deep brown mixture is now a creamy white and is ready to be used either as a skin cream or as cooking oil.

Family life

The family with whom I stayed is a complex mix of four families and a fifth family there temporarily. The compound is set up with 7 houses each consisting of one room and facing into a central courtyard. Each woman occupies one house which is where she does all the cooking and where she and all the children sleep. Each man has his own house. The roles of the sexes and age hierarchy are much defined. The oldest brother is the head of the house hold and the main large family decision maker. Each male is head of their own individual household and the decision maker for that family. The woman’s prime role is as house maker; she does all the cooking making sure it is ready for when the man wants it, all the cleaning (inside and outside the house, laundry, dishes etc…), most of the food processing (grinding grains into flour etc…), the children’s education and raising, gardening for household consumption and any other income generating activities (shea butter, market selling, making charcoal etc…). The men’s role is farming for consumption and sale (grain crops, vegetable and fruit crops, cotton etc…), building of houses, chairs, beds etc… and any other contract or permanent positions outside of the home (mechanic, tradesman etc…). At the head of this household is the patrilineal grandmother, she is the eldest and much respected, she is head of the women, though will obey her eldest son’s decisions.

The children have different roles and jobs depending on their age and sex. The girls follow in their mother’s footsteps doing much of the housework, cooking, cleaning, fetching water and taking care of their younger siblings. From a very young age (about 6 years old) girls are used to carrying their younger siblings on their backs, feeding them, changing them and generally taking care of them. Little boys are required to help their father with his work or to run errands for the mother.

The family’s “work”

Regular activities for family consumption

Income generating activities


  • Wood collection
  • Water fetching
  • Children’s education
  • Grain processing
  • Food preparation
  • Laundry
  • House and courtyard cleaning
  • Dishes
  • Prepare water for showers

  • Charcoal making
  • Prepare Sorghum for Dolo
  • Wood gathering
  • Vegetable gathering for sale in the market


  • Chair and bed making
  • Mattress making
  • Farming : Sorghum, Corn, Millet
  • Wild animal trapping
  • Duck raising
  • Cotton farming
  • Vegetable gardens
  • Contract work outside of the house

Learning to cook

Cooking is the village clock. Women’s days are run around the hours where meals are to be prepared and served. If the meal is even slightly late the husband gets quite annoyed, so all other chores and activities need to be fit in around those cooking hours. Cooking is done over an open fire pit using gathered wood. Most meals consist of tô and sauce or rice and sauce. The sauces tend to be peanut paste based, dried ochra or leaf based (often baobab tree leaves).

The women and children of each household eat together within their household and the men are served a portion of all the women’s cooking from all the households. The women therefore have to be timed together to be able to serve the men all at the same time. Nothing is wasted. Leftover sauces will be reheated the next day and left over tô can be kept a few days in water.

Fetching water

Well water is gathered with a bucket on a rope while balancing over a hole. I have to admit that throwing the bucket in has a certain technique that requires practice and the right wrist movement, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone ever fell in the hole. Once the bucket is full you hoist it up and fill another bucket. This is where the fun begins, well at least for me. To bring water back to the large pottery jugs that keep the water cool and dust free at the house, you carry it on your head. Now not being someone with great natural balance it became a game to see how much water I could carry, how much I would spill and how much would be left at the end. Considering that it is quite hot out, I can say that the water that did spill felt quite nice, but the more you spill means the more trips you need to do. Each woman fetches water for her household use and often does 2-3 trips a day. The younger children try to help out and the older daughters often take turns fetching the water.

Fetching wood

Wood for cooking is gathered in the surrounding area. Technically the Government does not allow you to cut down live trees, but in the village I am not sure how they monitor this. Using a hand axe women venture out into the forest to gather and chop wood required for cooking. This is an activity that occurs every 2-3 days. The pile of wood is tied together with a strip of material and then carried back home on their heads. The wood here is dense and heavy and after a while makes your head soar from carrying it. My attempts at chopping branches were met with both laughter and disbelief. I can say that my accuracy is not that great and that my arm strength is limited! I’m much better at the gathering than the cutting!


Charcoal is a prime economic activity of many women in the villages and also a much better heat source for cooking then straight wood. Women gather the larger trunks of trees from the tree they had used for cooking wood. The trunks are piled into a dug out hole. Dirt is piled onto the wood creating a dome like structure. The fire is set within the wood and the dirt create an oven effect raising the temperature of the inside fire. The fire burns for about 2 days and the mound shrinks in size. Using a hand tool, a daba, the women dig the still very hot charcoal out from the dirt mound, opening the mound little by little and pouring on water to stop the fire. This part of the activity is quite difficult as the mound is both very hot and the digging creates lots of dust and smoke. Women protect themselves with a piece of clothe wrapped around their mouth and nose, but all of them will tell you that the dust and smoke can make you very sick. Once the mound is opened and the charcoal removed to the side it is left to cool. The charcoal is then gathered into large bags and brought either to the market or on the side of the road to sell.

Sun baked pottery

I was fortunate to meet with an elderly woman potter which is another traditional woman’s activity. Pottery pots are used primarily for storing water but are also used for incense burning or grain storage. The pots are made with termite dirt mixed with water, then formed into coils that are placed on top of each other, the coils are then smoothed and joined with slip (water and termite dirt). Once the pot is formed a corn cob without the grains is rub along the outside to create texture and design. The pots are left in the sun to dry and cook by solar heat. Pots are made in all sizes from small bowls to ones nearly as tall as my shoulders. Apparently the pots can last many years.

Spending time with the kids and women

Women’s days are spent primarily at home and therefore the youngest children stay with their mothers or aunts. In this family, 6 of the 16 children were in school, while 2 others are already married (at age 18) and no longer at home. The 2 teenagers are off at high school in Bobo, while the other 4 are at the local 3 classroom school with classes of mix grades and age. This left 8 children at home playing together and helping around the house. The women communally take care of the children, but work independently on their household activities. I spent most of my time with Mamou and Rachel (Sally is her original Muslim name, but since marrying a Catholic her Christian name became Rachel). Mamou was the only woman who spoke French, though her education was limited. Mamou had worked as a nanny and housekeeper for a French family in the Ivory Coast for most of her life and returned to Burkina during the war. She was of great help in explaining things to me and for having conversations. Mamou is a very proud yet slightly jaded woman who has lived another life and experience many things, she became my cultural informant (and the cultural informant about me for the other women) and I know she was constantly watching over me.

Rachel is caring and curious. She showed me around the market, taught me to fetch water and wood, showed me how to cook and taught me about traditional medicine and where to gather it. Rachel and I spent our days together and many an afternoon exchanging knowledge and ideas. I helped her learn how to write the alphabet and her and her daughter’s name and she taught me different sentences in Dioula. This opportunity came from Rachel’s initiative. She asked if I could teach her to write her name and some words in French. She has a strong desire to learn, but a hesitation due to an inner feeling of not being able to do it that had to be over come. The first time she took the pen she laughed as she created a rough wiggly line then immediately passed it back to me saying that it wasn’t good. I told her to keep trying. She started to copy the letters that I had written down for her. I would draw step by step the letters in the sand and she would copy on paper. She became so passionate about learning to write that she would be so focused she wouldn’t hear those that were around her. As she practiced and her letters improved she became excited. She was so happy by the end to be able to write her name. The ironic thing is that even though her husband is literate and that he teaches reading and writing in the village (to men mainly) he still couldn’t see what the point was in his wife learning to write.

The other women kept about their routines calling me over to show me how to do something special, like make tô or grind flour. In all I was much more of a curiosity to them and they thought it was hilarious that I wanted to learn what they do naturally.

As for the kids it took about a day before they warmed up to me and were comfortable with the idea of a stranger. Most importantly this was their first real interaction with a white person so most of the time they were full of giggles. They would help me out when I wasn’t sure how to do things and would follow me around. We would play together and laugh.

One week in a village is just long enough to start to build some good friendships, but too short to really appreciate and understand life and the culture. Village life is different from city life in so many aspects that I am still ignorant about. Tradition is lived and breathed with all activities and interactions, time moves slower yet seems more quite structured and people spend the time to stop and say hello and to drop in on friends. The time I spent there was short and with hopes I will be able to return to reconnect and meet the new baby.


Anonymous said...

hey mlle.peters , it's illicia hopefully you can email me at illicia@hotmail.com. this year we were awesome at the relay meet on may 9 2008, i got 2 ribbons. one for atom mix and atom girls. i really hope that you can come back to teach next year hope you write / type back to me really really soon .! mrs. evers came by to see us alot i hope you talk to her alot too. right now it's 9:46 pm on monday , may 12th 2008. oh ya! this week we are having the auditions for the lip sync i'll try to send you a picture of our class and my new baby nephew.

from : illicia jade orr- campbell!!!!!!!~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anonymous said...

hey, mlle.peters, this year we have a new student in our class his name is rayne last year i think he went to a all french school in the grade 3 class they have a new student too. her name is makalia , i think thats how you spell it. everyone reallly misses you both of the rileys some times cry. mme.patterson /mlle.springett got married and ms rollins and her are really nice. oh ya! in popstars it was so cool me, annika , maggie and jennifer did great we made it . and proformed to avril lavigne's : skater boy. got to go. night bye.

(10:00(almost) mon.,may 12th /08!!)
and it's illicia j. orr- campbell!