Blisters for Butter: Reflecting on my Experiences at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Gladys Sala Petey supervises production teams in Ghana for Shea Yeleen International.

Before my volunteer experience at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I had reservations regarding the effectiveness of the event. When the Festival was described to me, I immediately thought of early 20th century World’s Fairs and their displays of indigenous peoples, which typically exploited minority groups for the amusement and astonishment of the American public. Thoughts of “Exotic Others” and “Noble Savages” reverberated in my mind as I apprehensively entered the Peace Corps area on July 4, 2011 and found my station for the day, the Shea Butter tent.  At that point, as I began to remove the blue tarps from the tables and shake the water from the foldable chairs, I had no idea how my assumptions would be quickly disproven by the countless visitors to our tent, and that I would earn the “best” blisters of my life!!

As the Ghanaian women arrived at our tent, I had an immediate connection with the three of them. As a doctoral student at the University of Florida, I have traveled to Ghana for the past two summers to conduct research on Ghana’s contemporary fashion and have grown to love Ghana’s diverse peoples and cultures. The women welcomed me into their group and happily passed their oversized mortar and pestle to me (which isn’t surprising, considering how DIFFICULT pounding shea nuts can be).  We worked as a team; Gladys Sala Petey and I would switch between pounding shea nuts, and the other women would work on refining various consistencies of the shea butter. As the tent began to fill with people, I became an unofficial spokesperson for the women, explaining the process of making shea butter and soliciting help from our visitors, who were often happy to oblige.

Christopher Richards helps Gladys Sala Petey to demonstrate the shea butter production process for visitors.

Contrary to my expectations, I quickly realized that the visitors to our tent were actively learning about the creation of shea butter. As I described the process to a large group of visitors, I watched one mother turn to her husband and children to describe, almost verbatim, the various stages for producing shea butter. Concurrently, several visitors who assisted pounding shea nuts quietly reflected how they were reminded of their own past experiences in India and Brazil, where they had utilized a similar process for hulling rice.  By the end of the day, I was simply amazed at how much active learning had occurred at our booth. Not only did visitors leave us with a better understanding of the process for creating shea butter, but the production of shea butter had been humanized. Shea butter was no longer simply a product on the shelves of supermarkets, an exotic additive to lotions and shampoos; it was now connected to a group of women, to whom all of the visitors could relate. When I finally left for the day, as I felt the blisters covering my fingers, I couldn’t help but smile. I knew the blisters would ultimately disappear, but the experience and the connections I made will last a lifetime.

For more information about the Festival participants from Ghana and Shea Yeleen International, click here.

Christopher L. Richards is a Ph.D. student in African art history at the University of Florida. He is among 12 students who assisted Festival artists as part of the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA), a program offered by the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

  • Brett Ivers

    Chris, what an experience! All my lotions come from The Body Shop and almost all have shea butter in them. I had no idea the process for making it is so labor intensive.
    The fabrics (in the two pictures) are beautiful…Glad to hear that you are doing so well at the Smithsonian.

  • Gail Marie Code

    I would expect that the products we purchase now are done through commercial processing, but the mortar and pestle is certainly the origin of so many homemade products within their native countries. While in Ghana for 4 months in 1980, a Ghanian girlfriend treated me to supper. She had learned that I had never tried fufu, a staple during that impoverished time, and hence the invite. When I arrived at the appointed time, with humbling amazement I learned she had been pounding cassava since morning, preparing the fufu for her guest. Twenty six years later, as this BBC 2006 Ghanian news article headline states, “Modern technology and changing lifestyles mean a growing number of Ghanians are now being spared one of the most tedious jobs on earth – making fufu. Now there are brands of instant fufu: you just mix the pre-cooked powder in water, stir it on the cooker for five minutes, or better still, just shove it in the microwave.” Fufu sits heavy in the stomach, and I remember hearing it said that it gave a person the sensation of being full sooner, when there was little to eat. Nevertheless, fufu was a beloved staple. I will never forget that act of kindness/love! How many of us would do that if the situation were reversed?