Which, after all, was what we were there for …
The Big Top
Those of you who know my La Finca persona may remember that I am a troglodyte soapmaker who normally works in my nice cool underground workshop known as the Soap Mines … in PH (which we quickly learnt to pronounce /put’acourt/) I emerged into the light of day with a vengeance. Our workspace was a huge marquee in the grounds of the temporary offices of ESI with transparent plastic sides that could be rolled up when the weather was hot (i.e. every day) to catch any passing breeze … or indeed tropical storm …. It had electricity, lighting and a water pipe that circled the perimeter and gave us taps on each of the tent’s uprights. No sinks, but a storm drain to one side that took care of our washing up … always the most fun part of soapmaking … There was enough space for the audiovisual section at the front where participants sat for their initial theory presentation from Melinda (and for morning … and afternoon … and evening prayers, about which more later), seven workstations, a central table where we kept our equipment and materials and a first aid station. In fact, unconventional as it seemed, it was almost an ideal venue: we enjoyed all working in the same space rather than in separate rooms and it had the facilities we needed. The only drawback was that you can’t actually air-condition an outside space! We could escape to the ESI office during our breaks, though, and I have to say that I was less affected by the heat than those of our team who had come from the UK.
Once all the participants had registered and the unlucky ones turned away, it was time for introductions, first from the ESI Project Manager (the wonderfully-named – and wonderful – Gogo Cookey) who then introduced our leader, Melinda as “The UK’s top soapmaker” with which we certainly agreed, especially as she then introduced us as “some of the best soapmakers in the world” – aw, shucks … We were each then called to the microphone to introduce ourselves. After our typical British reserve of the first few days we rather got into the swing of things and our introductions became quite competitive, involving audience participation and mini-language lessons in French, Spanish, Welsh and Portuguese! I will modestly admit that I scooped first prize on the last day by giving my introduction in Pidgin – and brought the house down ….
I suppose at this point I should explain about Pidgin …. We were quite surprised to find that we had been assigned interpreters from among the ESI staff and volunteers – after all, English is the official language of Nigeria, isn’t it? Well, yes and no … In fact, Nigeria has over 500 spoken languages (yes, languages, not dialects) most of which are tribal-based. The most widely-spoken are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, but all these are very different to each other and not mutually intelligible. English is therefore the official language (the Empire and all that …) and is spoken by all educated Nigerians and many others. However, among our participants were many people who would possibly not understand our own particular brands of British English, and so we had translations into Pidgin or Broken English, which is based on English but with its own vocabulary and grammar rules. My language antenna was quickly raised and I became fascinated by Pidgin, which is quite picturesque … maybe I’ll give you some pidgin lessons in another post!
Down to work
Okay, can’t avoid it any longer! We had three sessions a day, of approximatly 2 hours each. For the morning and afternoon sessions we each had 12 participants (plus any babies that got smuggled in!) and from these we chose one or two of the best from each session to do a third session where they put their soapmaking skills into practice and we watched and gave advice. There was a very wide spread of abilities and education, as the targets were not only village women, as we had originally thought, but also unemployed school-leavers and even graduates, both men and women, and this became particularly clear when we came to the “mathematical” bits of soapmaking. However, it wasn’t by any means universal that the young ‘uns trumped the older ladies in catching on quickly to soapmaking skills.
We were keen to use only equipment and materials that would be available locally to the participants; soap is made from the reaction of oils with an alkali, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and the oils used locally for cooking are red palm oil, palm kernel oil and groundnut oil. The first day we used a mix of red palm and palm kernel, but the red palm oil is,well, RED and our sparkling clean pinnies (and my best white linen trousers) took the brunt of it. From then on we used palm kernel oil on its own. We had to improvise and adapt our methods because of the limitations, but some things worked out to our advantage … I and several of my colleagues use liquid oils such as olive in our soapmaking and stirring these until they thicken – we call it “trace” – can take quite a long time (for me, usually about one episode of The Archers …) We use a stick blender to speed things up, but we had visions of standing around for half an hour, waiting for trace with yawning and glassy-eyed participants fast losing interest. However, when we poured the cooled lye (caustic soda dissolved in water) into the palm kernel oil the first day it was a question of “And now we stir and wait until it – oops, there it goes!”
Our main frustration came in the form of the weighing scales. It’s really important to measure accurately in soapmaking, and of course we all use digital scales. However, what was provided and what was available were mechanical scales, made in China; if you think of an ordinary mechanical kitchen scales, you’ll see that it’s only really possible to weigh in about 50 gram increments, whereas we want to be accurate to one gram! But the main problem is that scales are not routinely used in Africa – food is bought from the market by volume or number of items and baking is usually done by volume, rather like the American use of cups. So it soon became clear that weighing was a problem, and after a day or so we learnt to check by asking “How many grams in a kilogram?” The answer we most enjoyed was 162, and we have NO idea where that came from! Digital scales were rarely used and so it was difficult to explain them until my wonderful interpreter/assistant (of who more later …) said “You know when you go market and buy gold …” and everyone got it!
We weren’t easily able to access essential oils, so we didn’t scent the soap, but we collected spices for colouring, and local herbs that we thought might be suitable in the future as additives. In fact is was amazing the different effects we were able to achieve with very basic ingredients. We poured the soap into small round moulds so that each participant was able to proudly take home their own individual soap bar.