Kuli Kuli in Ghana

IN DECEMBER 2014, KULI KULI CO-FOUNDERS LISA CURTIS AND JORDAN MONCHARMONT TRAVELED TO GHANA TO MEET THE WOMEN WHO TEND DAILY TO THE MORINGA PLANTS THAT MAKE THEIR WAY INTO KULI KULI PRODUCTS. WITH A MISSION TO BETTER UNDERSTAND DAILY LIFE FOR THESE WOMEN AND THEIR FAMILIES IN THE VILLAGE, AND MEET WITH LOCAL PARTNERS, THEY EMBARKED UPON A WEEK-LONG VOYAGE ACROSS THE COUNTRY. BELOW JORDAN REFLECTS ON THIS EXPERIENCE, AND HOW HIS UNDERSTANDING OF THE CONTEXT IN GHANA WAS DEEPENED AS A RESULT OF THEIR TRIP. — Interviewed and edited by Leigh Biddlecome

What was the experience like traveling around Ghana?

Hot! We did a lot of travel on foot, but we also took taxis and long-distance buses. The idea of a schedule doesn’t really exist for these buses: they leave only once they’re filled up with passengers. Until then, they attract a lot of attention from food sellers, who are eager to take advantage of the rumbling stomachs of delayed passengers. I ended up buying a delicious fried cuttlefish (think earthy squid) from a lady selling just next to our bus.

So what was the typical scene outside the bus or taxi window once you got moving?

What I didn’t expect about Ghana is how varied the landscape is. The northern half of the country is desert — very dry, brown, with low-lying shrubs and occasionally trees in the distance. But southern Ghana is more tropical — rolling green hills that plunge into the ocean, jungles, lush grasses. When we went from Tamale (in the north) to the first village where our moringa comes from, it was mostly very dusty, with long stretches of arid, reddish dirt, then wheat fields as we got closer to the village.

Tell us about your first stop on the trip: Tamale and Sana’yili village.

Tamale is the largest city in northern Ghana, and is where many NGOs are headquartered since it is the more impoverished part of the country. We flew there from the capital, Accra, and then got in a taxi to reach Sana’yili — the village which supplies organic moringa powder for Kuli Kuli. Getting there involved driving out on the main road (a one lane highway) and then a dirt road for about a half hour.

What aspect of the village was most surprising to you upon first arriving?

It was pretty incredible to realize how close the village is to a bustling city (Tamale) and yet still very underdeveloped . There was no running water, no well — they haul their water from a nearby dam — and while they did have electricity for a bit of time, it was later lost. Also, since gas prices make driving prohibitively expensive for most villagers, their world is restricted to how far they can walk. Of the 100 people in the village, only about 10 people leave on a regular basis.

On the path to Sana'yili

Were you able to speak to the women in the village who grow the moringa? What is their role within the community?

We spoke to them through an interpreter, Latif, who is the head organizer for farmers around this area in Tamale and works for Fair Harvest (our partners in Ghana that work directly to source the moringa). In the morning, we saw the women walk all the way to the river to do laundry, wash the clothes there, and then go back to the village to tend to (non-moringa) crops and cattle in an area a couple miles away from the village. In the later part of the day they would walk back and work on the weeding and maintenance of the moringa plants.

Women of Sana'yili working in the moringa fields (and with Kuli Kuli Bars!)

How has growing moringa for Kuli Kuli changed the women's role within the community, and what they have used the extra income for?

We heard some inspiring words from one young woman in her 30s, a leader amongst the women farmers: she told us that the money earned from the moringa helped the women buy uniforms for their kids so they could go to school. This was a great moment for us — to hear directly from her that this extra income from moringa goes towards the advancement of their families.

How is this different than the income that comes in from other crops?

Moringa is much more of a cash crop for these women as opposed to a subsistence crop (even if they do use some of it in porridges that they consume). For the other crops, it’s the men who make and take the money, but with moringa, the money is put directly into the women’s hands.

Moringa drying in the Sana'yili processing facility

Were there any other moments that shifted your perspective of the reality of life in the village, or how they see you?

Meeting with the chief impressed upon me that simply giving away money to villages will not engender the kind of change we would hope for in terms of development. Our time there also brought us face-to-face with their perceptions of us, and what our role is as a company. For example, the vice-chief of the village thanked us for buying their moringa, but also asked for help in building a school, a well, and bringing in electricity. While we are confident that we provide a fair market price for their moringa, the challenge here is conveying what we can do with them (rather than simply for them) -- and this communication can be difficult given the wide cultural and language gap.

There is some fantastic footage that your videographer took of a big dance and celebration the village put on the first night you were there. Tell us more about what it was like to be brought into this ritual.

Imagine a huge empty circle, three to four people deep on the edges — the entire population of the village was there, as well as a few nearby villages too. We were ushered to one side where the village elders were seated. Then, the gathering officially began when the village elder stood up and thanked us for being there, passed the speaking honor on to his ‘second-in-command’, then to Latif, and to Lisa.

Once the speeches were over, music and dancing began. There were drums, stringed instruments, a flute, and several dancers began to perform. Then, they drew us into the dancing, which we were a bit hesitant to join at first — flashbacks to middle school dances! — but we eventually joined the circle alongside everyone else. I was then persuaded into a ‘dance-off’ with one of the villagers who had a particularly elaborate costume with feathers, a straw skirt, and make-up resembling a skeleton. Needless to say, he won.

After an hour or so, darkness descended and everything stopped — without electricity or any other form of light, the rhythm of the day is completely dependent upon sunlight.

After you had spent a couple days at this village, you and Lisa visited another village called Tuna’yili where there was a Peace Corps Volunteer. What was different about this village from the first?

This one was only about 500 ft off the main road, and there was a marked difference in the quality of construction of the buildings. In Sana’yili, aside from the main chieftain’s hut, there had been just freestanding huts, but Tuna’yili had clustered huts and felt like a compound. The Peace Corps Volunteer we met had learned the local language and was our translator while we were there.

Tell us a bit about the projects related to moringa that the Peace Corps Volunteer was working on.

She was looking to fund a project that would enable the villagers to plant a larger plantation of moringa. At that time, they were still working on getting the timing right, since moringa can only be planted at certain times of the year. Walking around the village we saw some tall moringa trees — 20 feet high! — that some families had planted for their personal use.

Did you get to eat any fresh moringa on the trip?

Towards the end of our time in Ghana, Lisa and I ate in a vegetarian restaurant where we had a moringa and avocado salad and a moringa smoothie. Of course, as we had learned in the village, this is not actually how most Ghanaians would eat their moringa…they tend to boil the leaves or add them into sauces.

Moringa and Avocado Salad

The last part of your trip was to Cape Coast, an area of Ghana that served as the final departure point for thousands of slaves taken out of Africa. How did your visit there make you reflect on Kuli Kuli’s work as a whole in Ghana?

We went to Cape Coast in order to explore and see another side of Ghana, and once there, the enormity of what had happened in the castle was undeniable. It really forces you to confront the history and legacy of the slave trade. Being there also helped us reflect on another — more recent — injustice that motivates our work: unsustainable aid in the form of 'free stuff'. This is why we feel so strongly about working with communities to create sustainable, fair wage livelihoods through moringa cultivation.

Leigh Biddlecome is a writer and storyteller for small business and nonprofits. You can read more of her work at www.leighbiddlecome.com

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