More than a soap maker
“The soaps that I hand-make are all shea butter based using shea butter procured from local women’s co-ops in Tamale, Ghana and surrounding areas”
Meet Niendow the soap maker (pronounced “NIN-doe”; his name means ‘one who returns’). We found his soap before we met him: Traveling to Northern Ghana, an area known for its shea butter, titanic termite mounds and veta vera baskets, we were handed Niendow’s soap by our hostess with the words ‘try this and you will never use any other soap’. The appearance of the soap did not seem to match her words; it was not particularly good looking and was roughly cut and seemed to have seeds in it. It was made with the oil of the Neem tree, aka the “Divine Tree,” “Heal All,” “Nature’s Drugstore,” or “Village Pharmacy”. This oil is used locally to treat acne, to keep skin elastic, and to repel mosquitoes. We took turns sniffing it, it smelt like shea butter and something else, an herb? We decided to try it out of courtesy to our hostess. When we did we wanted to meet Niendow immediately and buy every soap he might have – which turned out not to be much.
We were surprised to see how young he looked when he arrived but when he spoke we felt we were convening with an old soul. Born in Toronto, Canada to a Ghanaian father and French Canadian mother he decided to return to his paternal grandmother in Northern Ghana as a young adult, in his words to challenge himself and do something meaningful with his life. He enrolled in college to study physical therapy while making shea butter based soap on the side.
Soap making is a skill he learned from his father, and although he also works as a physiotherapist and as a poultry farmer, Niendow sees the vital importance of his soap work. “The soaps that I hand-make are all shea butter based using shea butter procured from local women’s co-ops in Tamale, Ghana and surrounding areas. We work closely with the women in a few select villages in order to make consolidated orders and make a greater impact in the villages rather than buying a little here and a little there, which doesn’t leave any significant amount of money in anyone’s pockets”.
The shea tree grows in the wild and is not commercially cultivated, thus has no pesticides or artificial chemicals. Traditionally in Northern Ghana, the shea tree cannot be owned by an individual and it is forbidden to cut or harm the tree. Its butter is edible and it is used in cooking, babies are massaged with it at birth and it is widely used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. The extraction of the oil is mainly done by the women to serve as a source of income.