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Agbanga Karite

Shea butter and culture in central Togo

A child growing up in central Togo will be introduced to shea butter from birth. Every linguistic group has their own name for the shea tree and shea butter. In the language of Kaboli, shea butter is called oyi and the shea tree is eggi-oyi. Knowing the cultural importance and medicinal uses of shea butter in central and northern Togo is very essential, since it is a valuable natural resource for this region. Shea butter is an important food and cosmetic oil, and shea butter is also deeply embedded in the ceremonial practices of various ethnic groups in central Togo.

Shea Butter Culture

The Fulani group Atafade near Kaboli use shea butter during and before wedding ceremonies. First, the bride applies shea butter to her face and arms at least three months before the wedding day to beautify her skin. The shea butter that she uses is made especially for this purpose by her mother or other female relatives. The groom also uses shea butter to prepare for the wedding. He applies shea butter mixed with herbs to his chest to prepare for the ritual whipping - the Godja ritual - which he will endure.

The bride's parents will whip the groom on his chest 30 times to test how brave their future son-in-law is and how dedicated he is to marrying their daughter. If the groom shows signs of weakness during the ritual, the parents can refuse to accept him, and he must wait until the next year to try again. This whipping ritual can leave serious bruises and even wounds on the groom's chest. Shea butter mixed with wild honey is applied to hasten the healing. Readers should not think of this as a primitive ritual. The main point of the Godja ritual is to test how much the man truly loves the bride since he is willing to endure physical pain for her. It is a way of demonstrating to the bride's parents that she will be safe and that he will do what he needs to protect her.

Shea butter is also part of the everyday culture in central Togo. The people in the Okalakun plateau use the byproducts from making shea butter in their homes. The red milky water that is collected after removing the shea oil is mixed with clay to form bricks. The people of this region believe that termites do not like the scent of the shea water and will be repelled from the house. This prevention method is very effective, and has been adopted throughout central and northern Togo. It is especially used for making granaries to store corn, millet and yams, which are very vulnerable to termites.

The red liquid byproduct also has artistic uses. After the shea oil is collected, the remaining red water is let sit for 3 weeks or more. The shea water becomes concentrated into a thick red paste. This shea paste is mixed with clay and applied to floors and walls to make them look attractive. The shea paste is also used to draw figures and decorations on the walls. This natural paint made from the byproduct of producing shea butter is very economical, since industrial paint is very expensive and chemically dangerous.

Making shea butter is a way of life for women of central Togo. Making shea butter gives women a chance to socialize and talk about their family issues and receive consultation from each other. Making shea butter is almost entirely women's work, so they feel free to talk about their family situations. Shea butter is also group work. For example three to six women will pound the shea kernels at the same time. Since this can be very tiring work, they help pass the time by singing or discussing family matters.

Moreover, making shea butter can provide women with social economic stability and economic equality within their family institutions. The women make the shea butter and bring it to the local markets for sale. The money is then used to purchase material, household items, food, school books and other essential items. Throughout Togo, women who do not have to solely depend on their husbands for economic income have more freedom than those that do.

Shea Butter and Health Care

The use of shea butter for healing and health care is unlimited in Togo. The application of shea butter to the skin begins at birth and continues throughout life. In addition to general skin application, shea butter is also used in specific circumstances. In the dry Harmattan season in central and northern Togo, one's feet can easily crack and bleed. Regular applications of shea butter is used to help heal and prevent cracked heals. For babies born during this season, shea butter is used to help keep the umbilical cord from drying out too quickly and bleeding. Shea butter is also applied to burns, sprains, insect stings and broken bones. People in central Togo have long believed shea butter has anti-inflammatory properties, which is now being shown in clinical trials. Shea butter is also used in soap making, and is a major ingredient in some traditional soaps.

Shea Butter and Cooking

Another important use of shea butter in central Togo is for cooking. Shea butter can be made at home and does no't require any special equipment. Therefore, even the most economically disadvantaged can make their own shea butter for cooking. Shea butter is used for frying bean cakes, for example. We also eat the fruits, which ripen during the planting season and make a good snack while working in the fields.

Furthermore, the byproducts of making shea butter - the red water, nut shells, and unused kernels are used in farming. The byproducts of shea butter production help improve the soil condition by providing organic matter which improves water filtration and soil texture. Using shea butter byproducts provides multiple benefits; the farmers save money and improve the health and productivity of their soils.


In sum, shea butter is engrained in the culture of central and northern Togo. Shea butter has ceremonial uses and well as being a daily staple for cooking and skin care. The byproducts are used for art and improving soil. We should think of shea butter not just as a product but a natural part of life. We should also do everything in our power to protect the shea trees and indigenous knowledge surrounding this wonderful natural resource. This is the goal and primary duty of the Agbanga Karite Group.

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