Not long ago, Danielle Grace Warren, a 29-year-old resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, boarded a jet in Accra, Ghana, and after a 22 hour flight, including a layover in Amsterdam, touched down at John F. Kennedy airport. She was returning from a remote village called Gushie, where she had been working quietly to address a continent-wide problem of which few in the West are aware. Millions of women in 19 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa depend for their livelihood on harvesting shea, which produces a cocoa-butter substitute that is used in chocolate bars and, more widely, in high-end cosmetics. Many of the women sell them on the sides of roads and receive as little as 10 dollars for a 200-pound sack.
While gathering the fallen nuts, the women are often bitten by vipers and mambas; it’s estimated that 5 percent of the women who harvest shea have been bitten, and thousands die every year. In Gushie, Warren organized a women’s cooperative to keep shea prices stable, financed the purchase of land on which to construct a silo where the nuts will be stored and began to distribute safety gear – rubber boots, gloves and coats – that offer protection from the snakes. Back in New York, she has formed a company, Just Shea, that will market cosmetics made with the African product and channel the profits into replicating Warren’s program across Ghana and, she hopes, other shea-producing countries.
On a recent Tuesday, she made a trip to pick up the first batch of hand, foot and face creams at a laboratory in Long Island City. Warren, a poet and until recently a lecturer at Hunter College, was amused to find herself as a cosmetics executive. “If you told me three years ago that I would create a luxury skin-care company,” she remarked, “I would have laughed in your face.” Although she has received recognition for her humanitarian work, including a coveted invitation to Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative, she remains an unlikely messenger for Africa’s at-risk women. A high-school dropout from small-town Florida, Warren looks entirely too young to be spearheading an effort to publicize and relieve the plight of tens of thousands across a faraway continent. After an afternoon of business meetings devoted to Just Shea, she will head to her day job at an uptown restaurant, where she tends bar. The irony of the situation isn’t lost on her. “It’s odd to attend a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in the morning,” Warren says, “and then in the evening ask whether someone wants an olive or a twist.”
Warren first went to Africa with One Village Planet, a nonprofit that her father had founded to promote reforestation in Haiti and, eventually, countries farther afield. In another village in Ghana’s heartland, the Ashanti region, she helped dig a fishpond to shore up and diversify the local economy. Warren, who had become interested in the women’s rights movement while in college, was there to insure that women were represented in the work force and received equal pay. She and her father were also on the lookout for trees that would adapt well to Haiti’s arid climate when someone suggested that they take a look at the hardy shea plant. It was during her travels to find seedlings that Warren heard about the potentially lethal shea harvests. “Everyone there kept mentioning ‘the poor women,’” she recalls, “and I began to wonder what they were talking about.”
The shea trade, Warren discovered, benefits 2.3 million people in Ghana alone, where it’s become a $30 million annual business. Women harvest the nuts in the early hours of the morning because the remainder of their days are taken up with childcare and work on their husbands’ subsistence farms, growing millet, onions, gourds and yams. For many, gathering and selling shea is their sole source of income. While picking up the fallen nuts in the bush, sometimes before dawn, the harvesters startle venomous snakes sleeping in the tall grass and often run afoul of stinging ants and scorpions. In Ghana, even a mamba bite – which incapacitates for days, and can be fatal – rarely merits a drive to a hospital; instead, most victims are taken to the village medicine man. In Gushie, Warren approached the local assemblyman, the village chief – a man appointed by the community’s elder women – and the magazia (or “queenmother”) to discuss forming a cooperative and recommend the first members. When she asked the women that joined to sign an agreement, Warren recalls, most couldn’t recognize their writtennames.
Warren has taken a circuitous path to becoming an advocate for Africa’s rural women. For a time, in West Palm Beach, Florida, her father ran a scuba shop while her mother operated a dance school. (“Working for other people was something my family just didn’t do,” she says.) When she was a girl, her family moved briefly to Jamaica, where her parents opened an exotic flower farm. Back in the U.S., having missed months of high school due to a severe bout of mono, Warren decided to drop out and make her way to New York, with a plan to study and write poetry. She has since taught creative writing, paired women in academia and the business world with newspaper editors as part of an effort called the Op-Ed Project, and tended bar. She began working behind a bar in Delray Beach, close to where she grew up; though it provides no health insurance, her current stint leaves her afternoons free and permits her a schedule flexible enough to travel frequently and continue running Just Shea and her outreach organization, One Village Planet-Women’s Development Initiative.
When asked how a poet came to devote most of her time to working on humanitarian issues so far from home, Warren talked about her first visit to Ghana. Soon after arriving at the Ashanti village, she watched a woman repairing a clay house that had been nearly washed away by torrential rains. The woman was wearing a sackcloth dress and a Nike visor; she sat on a three-legged stool and with a flat rock smoothed out the fingerprints left in the clay. Later, Warren lay on her back and looked up at the vivid stars while the village women took turns telling stories about Anansi, a mythical trickster; a guide translated. As a writer, Warren immediately felt a desire to preserve the rural stories and customs; increasingly, the lack of economic opportunity was driving Ghanaians to cities and low-wage factory jobs, eroding what remained of the traditional culture.
Warren describes her work as “trying to learn empathy.” While she readily admits that the lives of the village women she’s met remain remote from her own experience, she likes to cite a passage by South African novelist J.M. Coetzee: “There’s no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.” She believes that her efforts to protect the women and ensure a fair return on their crop will help preserve lives and a centuries-old way of being. In the meantime, back in New York, Warren is keeping busy: applying for grants, publicizing her initiative, writing and, with the help of a new vice president, Wickham Boyle, meeting with buyers at beauty shops and boutiques to secure orders for her line of skin creams. “Culture and progress can coexist,” she says before heading to the subway, on the way to the next appointment.
Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.