Selling shea butter from around the world at a Washington D.C. street market. (Photo: Oscar Abello)
This is not a parable about one western government official who tried to undo gender inequality in a single action. This is a true story, as I heard from that official, who admitted that change does not come so easily.
A western trade official is visiting a rural African village. The official represents her country’s interests in Africa, both in terms of trade and economic development on the continent. During her visit she has been learning about local commodities and products. She is particularly interested in shea butter.
Shea butter is made from the nut of the shea tree, which is native to tropical Africa. Like most processed products the value of shea butter is much higher than the value of raw shea nuts, giving those who collect the nuts great incentive to transform them into butter. Better quality butter earns a higher market price but also requires more advanced and costly technology. Given the limited availability of such machinery in rural locales, the nuts must be pounded using a heavy mortar and pestle. It is grueling work, and the results will not be as valuable as the final product sold to foreign markets.
On the official’s visit to the village, she finds a group of women in the process of grinding shea nuts. It is very hot in the sun where they are working and a baby is sleeping on one woman’s back. Meanwhile, the official observes a group of men idly standing in the shade.
Eager to sample some of the raw shea butter, which would be quite different from the shea butter the official purchases at home, the official offers to buy some of the butter from the women. While they haphazardly transferred globs of butter into a plastic bag – glass jars are prohibitively expensive to import, though they also would have increased the value of the butter- one of the men from the shade approaches the trade official. He informs the official that he would handle the payment for the shea butter and directs the official to give the money to him. The official refuses, sensing the injustice of paying the man for the women’s hard work.
As the official prepares to leave the village, she pulls one of the women aside and offers to buy some of the shea butter from her directly. After sneaking some bills into the woman’s hand, the official and her convoy drive off.
Another western representative in the truck, one who works for a government agency specifically dedicated to development aid, turns to the trade official and said, “That money will not end up with that woman. We could turn this truck around right now, and we would see that those men are standing in the shade, counting it.” The first official knew she was right.
It would be nice to believe development is as easy as redirecting money to those who work hard for it. Unfortunately, systems of power that reinforce inequality are embedded in society and difficult to change. If those systems are not reformed, however, no simple actions or programs can reverse current structures.
Just something to think about next time you buy shea butter.