Teaching Soapmaking in Ghana
It didn’t really hit me until the day before we boarded the plane. “What kind of foolish adventure have I gotten us into this time?” My wife Sandy Lincoln and myself were traveling to Ghana, West Africa for two weeks to teach soap making in a rural village. A nonprofit (NGO) had contacted The Soap Guild looking for a volunteer. After much back and forth, it was decided that I would go. It took some convincing, but since Sandy brings her own unique skills to the table (librarian, bookstore owner, homesteader, entrepreneur, textiles), the NGO agreed to pay her way. She became the official record keeper and photographer. We would work for free for two weeks, but our travel would be paid for. The experience would change our lives.
After 19 hours of traveling, with a very brief stopover in London (squeezing in picture taking and breakfast) we arrived at Accra, capital of Ghana. Clearing customs, we walked out of the airport into mayhem! A large hand painted sign warned “Beware of Tricksters” (con men). We quickly located Benjamin Kusi and company, who had come to pick us up, and headed downtown. They worked for the NGO that brought us there, and their job was to look after us.
Accra is a bustling city of entrepreneurs. Everyone has something to sell. Their store was often a large bowl balanced on their heads. The air was thick with fumes from the low grade diesel used there, and the asthma inhaler I brought saw its first use in over two years. We stayed in a well run, clean hotel, where I got my first lesson in negotiating a lower rate. Everything is negotiable in Africa.
Somewhat better rested, we were picked up by Benjamin and Adonai the following morning, and endured the 7 hour drive to Kumasi, where we stayed at another excellent, clean hotel. Quite civilized! The next day was Sunday, and we were expected to rest up further. However, I was quite anxious to get to work, and we continued traveling on to Asawinso Village, where we would be teaching.
Walking through the village (2,900 people, 50% under 10 yrs.) of mud huts with palm, tin and bamboo roofs, goats everywhere, children everywhere; we felt disoriented and out of place. It was still winter back home. Here the temperature was at least 95F and humid!
Young children would scream and hide when they saw this strange white skinned man. I was the first Caucasian they had ever seen. Sandy seemed to elicit less extreme reactions. The children were incredible, and I spent several hours playing with them and taking pictures. A dozen ran down the path playing with a toy truck. Toys were few, but enjoyed by all. I once saw six young boys laboriously pushing a metal farm wagon up a long hill, so they could enjoy the dangerous trip back down! When we returned from work that night, they were still at it.
We checked into the Cane Basket Motel, where I began repairing the wiring and plumbing in our room. Primitive and run down by US standards, it soon became obvious that this was more than posh by local comparison. “Hello, Hello. How are you today”? We greeted everyone with a smile, in true Ghana fashion.
Soap School began promptly at 9AM. This meant we started about 9:45 or so. Since we ended promptly at 5PM (sixish), we were able to get in a solid session of teaching and soap making for 12 straight days. By the end they knew this stuff cold.
The first day started with a review of equipment and procedures. I had brought and donated a good scale, ladle, spoon, sieve, and s/s screening. They danced for joy when they realized they could keep the scale! Lesson 1 was how to Tare Weight the Scale, which everyone enjoyed immensely. The ice now broken, we standardized their Alata Soap formula, from a measured to a weighed recipe.
We tried making cold process soap the first day, a complete failure, but an important learning and teaching experience. Their potash was about 1/3 the strength of KOH, and had other issues as well. I needed to understand the raw materials they used and the equipment we had available.
After the cold process soap fell apart in the 120F heat (in the sun), the group looked at me and asked what we were to do next. I replied, “I do not know. We will have to make an experiment!”
This instilled, right from the start, a sense of experimentation and learning. I believed that by providing the group with better tools, procedures, and an understanding of the Saponification Reaction, they would be able to continue long after we left. This seems to be the case, and I look forward to seeing their progress over the next year.
The group made a batch of semi-boiled (Alata) soap. Palm and palm kernel oils were mixed with a solution made from homemade potash (from cocoa pods). This was boiled in a big cast aluminum pot and stirred constantly with a long bamboo spoon for 2 hours. The mixture boiled up and foamed. Then they removed the flame and cooled, picking it apart to let the air out. A few hours later it was cool enough to handle and hand pack into balls. Clearly the group already had solid soap making experience. What they had worked; it was our job to make it better in terms of scent, consistency, mildness, and texture. Weary, we retreated to the Cane Basket Motel.
The next day we focused on the chemistry of soap. Stuck on explaining the Alkali Balance, I took a long board and placed it over a rock, like a seesaw. I put 2 young children on one end, and told three others to stand on the other end and make the board balance. My students quickly objected that this was almost impossible to do. “That’s correct!” I shouted. “That is why we must measure so carefully and do everything the same each time”. Understanding dawned quickly, and our progress went very well from that point on.
We made another batch of Alata Soap, using our new knowledge. Much better! “Our knowledge makes us strong!” We chanted after every lesson. This became our class motto.
The next day began with a review, as did every day. We delved deeply into the chemistry of soap, what makes it lather, the mysteries of glycerin. After a few hours we all had enough, and began our first, and perhaps West Africa’s first, batch of full boiled liquid soap. This we made with palm kernel oil, topped off with a little red palm oil. It took 8 days of cooking and adjusting to determine the alkali balance, but after we skimmed and settled the batch, we had some nice looking and good lathering product. We used it on dishes, laundry, skin, hair and cleaning.
The group studied Aromatherapy, medicinal plants, natural pest control. Natural birth control too!
Sandy had brought a collection of Jeannie Rose oils, and we studied blending and perfumery principles. This led to a discussion on steam distillation, and a field trip to a nearby moon shiners still. Seeing that this village had an in depth knowledge of the distillation of alcohol, we resolved to build an essential oil still, and go into the essential oil business as well. This was progressing well by the time we left.
Self Help International showed up the next day and conducted a business management seminar. I jumped in with a quick marketing vignette about adding value. After meeting with the staff, we went back to Soap School.
I put in a full day and a half on marketing, including shelf talkers (it is a little sign, but it says a lot), hang tags, labeling. Sandy talked about how to set up a product display, and sell more effectively. We stopped only to make more soap.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is wasted in Africa. The skimming from the liquid soap (palm oil waxy material) were added to the Alata Soap. Best batch ever made. It was a lesson I was to learn over and over again.
We focused on the texture of the soap, experimenting with pressing it into a tube to compress it. This worked eventually, and we designed a simple pressing machine, though Sandy and I did not have enough time to see it finished.
And every evening the sound of households pounding their yams and cassava roots reminded us it was time to go… back to the Cane Basket Motel where we taught the staff about Western expectations of food service, how to make Vermont style home fries and, of course, the natural birth control method. I gave personal business consultations with 4 employees there. Everyone is an entrepreneur in Ghana.
Suddenly, it was time to go. The students had all learned their lessons well. We had a graduation ceremony and exchanged many gifts. We danced and drank Guinness (Sandy and I) and Coca-Cola (everyone else).
Of course there was more: The way they walked 2½ miles to gather firewood, even the youngest with a piece on her head. The way they pounded their food with 8 ft mortars. They were the happiest people I have ever met. Only the sense of “I have no money” flawed the vibe so to speak. One of our brightest moments was when our host exclaimed, “I get it, we are sitting on riches”. Our work was successful!
We remain involved with Ghana, fascinated by a country that holds close to its traditional tribal ways, yet is now putting up its first 10 story building. Cognizant that our effects here are much more influential than back home, we look forward to our return. Madawase’ (Thank You)
With Best Regards,
Larry Plesent, President