By Colleen Naughton.

In Peace Corps they usually assign you one “homologue” or work partner and they are usually male. I was very lucky to have a great homologue, Jean-Claude, who really was patient, understood me and really helped me work in the community on improving the water and sanitation situation in the community since I was a WATSAN volunteer. But what I didn’t expect was to have a second, female homologue in his third wife; Elizabeth Traore. She is unique in village since she is one fo three women that can read and write and the only woman to be somewhat fluent in French. She is the only woman to have traveled outside of Mali when there are maybe a couple of men who have. She worked several years in Abijan selling kitchenware.

In the almost three years I have worked in Zeala, Elizabeth become an indispensible leader in the village. As part of Peace Corps, volunteers can take on secondary projects and in the hot season of my first year in 2010; two women from Zeala and I attended a PC training on managing shea cooperatives. Immediately those women came back and called a meeting with all the women to start a shea association in the village. Elizabeth took charge and said anyone that wanted to join needed to pay 750 cfa so that we would know who was really serious. People hesitated at first but soon we had over 50 members and they soon followed Elizabeth’s idea to pay 50 cfa a week so they could start saving money for future projects.

In October of 2010, in coordination with PC Small Project Assistance (SPA) funds we organized a training on how to make ameliorated shea butter where you boil the nuts instead of roast them. Elizabeth was instrumental in helping organize this training and also making sure all the 52 members of the association showed up to each day even though it was during a busy time of the year, harvest season.

The following Spring, I had weekly meetings with the officers of the Shea association to help make goals for their association. They wanted to become a cooperative, they wanted to learn how to make soap, they wanted to make and sell ameliorated shea butter, they wanted to purchase their own grinding and mixing machines and build houses to store them in. We wrote these all down and made a five year plan. We made a budget and project timeline for two projects: a Soap Training and a Grinding Machine project. It took a lot of meetings and Elizabeth was always there to be a translator of my what I like to call Peace Corps Bambara at times.

The following October 2010 the association achieved their first goal in that plan and brought in a trainer to teach the women how to make soap. Though the training was funded again by SPA there is a 33% community contribution requirement and the women brought their own food to the formation and also paid over 50,000 cfa ($100) from the 50 cfa each they had been saving since the previous year in exchange for the training and soap making materials. Again, Elizabeth was instrumental in the planning and execution of this training and had the idea to split the association into different soap making groups to alternate making and selling soap; though Elizabeth would help each group when they needed a little reassurance on the amount of a certain ingredient to add.

In February 2012, the women officially submitted their bylaws, fees, and other paperwork to become an official Shea Cooperative.

Unfortunately, due to the political instability in Mali the women were not able to receive assistance to complete there second goal to purchase a grinder and build a house. On April 7, 2012 all PCVs were evacuated from Mali for the first time in PC history 41 year history there due to a Coup d’Etat and rebellion in the North. But the women in the Shea cooperative didn’t let that discourage them, Elizabeth wouldn’t let them. They started having problems with finding a permanent place to store the soap making materials they had received the previous year and so they decided to build their own house. They asked the chief of the village for land and they granted it to them. They paid for everything out of the money they earned from collectively farming a peanut field of over a hectare the previous year and from their soap profits. The total ended up amounting to over 205,000 cfa (over $400 USD).

When I came back to finish my research after two months away to let the political situation settle down, I was so proud of them and what they had accomplished. More importantly, they were really proud of themselves and were already planning the location to build another house in the future.

The only thing that scares me is that most all the organization, leadership, and writing for the cooperative depends on one woman, Elizabeth. The other women want to learn how to read and write but the literacy teachers, both men, that have been trained by other NGOs in the past often stop showing up to classes after a week. I even had three women coming to my concession almost every night for over a month to have me write on a piece of ply wood in Bambara for them to slowly try to sound out each word but I didn’t have the training or language skills to teach them how to read and write properly.

The women know the future of their cooperative and community depend on them being able to read and write. Without more women to read and write, the women’s shea cooperative will not be able to reach their full potential. Elizabeth has said she would like to be trained to become a literacy teacher to teach the women. The only thing stopping her is paying the school feeds and money to live in Bamako for the month of the classes. I think this is a great solution to the problem of illiteracy for women in Zeala. The other women would be less embarrassed to learn from another woman and Elizabeth would be committed to showing up to class each day. Learning to read and write isn’t the only reason, but also giving the women confidence that they can learn and they can lead.