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How I Fell in Love with a Complicated Commodity

We unwittingly put so much onto our bodies. It takes a science degree to understand the list of ingredients lotions and hair care products contain. Isopropyl myristate, coumarin, geraniol. Have you ever heard of these? Do you want them on your hair, creeping down your back, or the side of your face on a hot summer day? The thought brings back a term I learned in high school economics: caveat emptor [let the buyer beware]. Sometimes I wish the rules of the marketplace were simpler so consumers could be assured they purchased exactly what they intended. No hidden malware.

COVID-essential worker mandates meant no non-essential NYC foot traffic, and street vendors and fairs were suspended. The funny thing was that when I walked into a drug store or a department store during the pandemic and scanned the beauty shelves, I discovered two things. There was more shelf space devoted to the needs of varied hair textures of the Black woman or man, and many of those products contained shea butter. It dawned on me that the shea nut tree is in high demand.

Some say it’s a natural antioxidant bustling with essential fatty acids and vitamins A, E, and F. It’s great for baby’s skin and everybody else’s. The butter from that nut even ends up in chocolates, and African women use a by-product as cooking oil. Engineers say it can repurpose one by-product into electricity.

I became aware of the product sometime in the 1990s at the African Street Festival at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. The event drew hundreds of local and international vendors and thousands of attendees from places just as diverse. Vendors sold handcrafted bracelets and earrings, beaded necklaces and African print clothing. Wooden masks and soapstone figures were among the artifacts available. Oh, and the food––delectable. And somewhere on a small table, there would be, at least, one vendor who sold black soap, incense, Egyptian oils, and, of course, shea butter.

( Typical African Street Festival vendor’s table/MJM Collection)

I wanted to know more about that tree and learned it grows in abundance in the savannah regions of the southern Sahara, predominantly in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Uganda, though the tree grows in a few other African countries as well. It could grow as tall as thirty-five to forty feet and produces a fruit with a nut with a byproduct that has found its way to the Americas and to Europe. The demand for shea nut is so high environmentalists are concerned that it could result in the destruction of the precious tree and the loss of the jobs affiliated with turning the nut into so many products. The region’s ecology and precious centuries-old agroforestry is also at risk of being lost.

(Photographer, LuisaPuccini/Canva)

I had purchased from local vendors because they aided the local economy. They used some of their proceeds to purchase from the local diners who employed locals who used local banks which loaned to local residents, and maybe even sponsored a local team or health fair. The whole community benefited. Then COVID came.

Lots of female manual labor goes into transforming that nut into hand-crafted butter using techniques passed down from mother to daughter over generations. Their work sustains a village, even though it doesn’t provide enough to finance roads, nor can they produce a fire without burning down trees. In some cases, to complete the butter-making process, they must burn down the very tree that sustains them.

I learned to value that shea butter so much that, in my yet to be published novel, I included a daughter named Kate who works in a natural-hair salon who talks about her first encounter with the precious product and the conflict it caused with her mother who owns the shop. What’s literature without conflict?

“A woman walked into the shop dressed in an ankle-length, wax print, wrap dress, and after she looked around, she walked right past me [Kate]. She approached my mother. I heard her say, ‘I give you a good price, Sister.’ My mother stopped braiding her client’s hair and wiped her hands in a towel. The women in the vendor’s village lean over large tubs and with their bare hands churn the shea nut solution into butter which she used for her product. Mommy inspected it, dabbed a little on the back of her hand and sniffed. ‘Mm. Love the feel and smells like lavender.’ Before she even tested it, I knew what my mother’s response would be. She was sold on the vendor’s story. My entrepreneurial story? Shuks!!! Didn’t have the same impact on my mother. She had already written mine herself. They could both take that butter and burn it.”

Should a shea butter product have made daughter Kate so upset? The product which unified women in the motherland was dividing two women in this land. Of course, there’s more to the story. I would hate to think that Kate abhors the product because of one incident. Shea butter benefits are too numerous to ignore. But Kate’s story is fictional.

The real product is more than skin or hair deep, so that it doesn’t matter that countless refined shea butter products can be found in the big box stores and pharmacies or online with just the click of a finger.

(“Shea Butter CloseUp,” Photographer, Pixelshot/Canva)

My heart is full when I can purchase the shea product from the local vendor sitting in his foldable chair behind a foldable table at a street fair or on the Fulton Streets or 125th Streets of the world saying, “Sis, how can I help you today?” Now that's pure butter. Please like and share or head over to my website to leave a comment!


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