I started this blog because I thought you would like to know a little bit more about where your soaps and oils come from, how they are produced and who produces them. So I am Yvette Abrahams, I hold a doctorate in history from the University of Cape Town. But my interest in local plants started many years before I studied at university. As a child I loved gardening with my mother and already in the long ago days when I lived in Mitchell’s Plain running arts and culture projects, I was fascinated by indigenous plants. Truth be told, though I love talking, I love doing even more, and plants were a way to connect to my indigenous heritage without necessarily using words.
I live on a small holding just outside Cape Town, and I have recently started this cosmetics business after dreaming of it for many years.
I live organically for the love of it. I really have noticed a difference in my health, in my relation to the world and all its creatures since I started doing this. One of the things which began to fascinate me was how hard it can be to live 100 % organic, in fact I began making little lists of what I could get and what I could not. After five years it is still a mission, and in one of these blogs I will share with you the details of those lists.
Pretty much top of the list was soap and oils. When you think that your skin absorbs 40% of what you put on it, it becomes rather important what you use to clean yourself and moisturize. So far, there is only one company in South Africa that makes fully organic soaps, but they are priced out of my range. I understand about paying more for organic, this makes sense to me, since all it means is I am paying for good health and a clean environment up front. Still, 130 bucks a bar (naming no names) is way out of my league. Then there are a few imports, just as expensive, and anyway I have a strong commitment to supporting my local economy as far as I can. I have been making natural soaps and oils for my own use for about 16 years, so I thought this could be my contribution to creating a green economy.
I make my soaps and oils by hand, in an iron pot the old-fashioned way. When I was studying Khoesan history, I needed to read old travel writings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In most of them there was a mention of the “greasy Hottentots”. There were constant references to the “dirty, greasy Hottentots” and after a few months I thought to myself “what the heck is this grease, anyway?”. I finally tracked the recipe down (in Le Vaillant , for those of you who interested in ancient history), and it turned out that the historical Khoesan would steep herbs in butter or plant oil, which they would smear on their skin. They would also make soap from sheep tail’s fat and ganna bos. The oil was moisturizing, slightly antiseptic and skin softening. It also protects from sunburn. and the historical Khoesan would often follow up the oil by sprinkling powdered buchu leaves over themselves. This helped to repel fleas and made them smell nice.
This was the beginning of Dr Abrahams’ buchu oil. I have updated the recipe a little, for instance, I use vegetable oils instead of sheep tail’s fat for the soap, and I am often syncretic in my approach, that is to say I have no objection to including a herb which is exotic in origin. Cultures change and grow, and Khoesan culture is no different in this respect. In fact balanced change and growth is central to our culture.
Although the contents may be updated, I make the oil using traditional methods. I did this initially just because I wanted to show it could be done. Now I have incorporated renewable energy into the picture. I installed a biogas digester a couple of years ago, there is a solar panel for the geyser, and I also use three solar cookers. It is lots of fun experimenting to see which model solar cooker works best for soap and oil. I collect rainwater and never use tap water for my soaps and oils. It really makes a difference. This is what I mean by growth and change in a balanced way. I like to think I am keeping alive Khoesan values while updating them with new technologies. It gives me real pleasure to think I am making something which is not just good for my skin, but helps to give something back to the environment as well. To me that is culture.
Often I have been unable to get an indigenous plant in sufficient quantities. The ecosystems in which they used to grow have dissappeared and now they are to be found only in nature reserves, sort of like animals in a zoo. They are nice to look at but not really part of our economy any more. I am growing many ancient oil plants on my smallholding, but it will be a couple of years before they bear fruit. Because of this I substitute some indigenous ingredients with exotic ones which have similar chemical qualities and that I can find on the market. For about the past three years I have gradually been replacing my natural inputs with organic ones. They can be quite hard to find. The organic palm oil, for instance, I have had to import from the UK. I am working on trying to find a supplier in West Africa, at the moment there are just no projects set up with that kind of export capacity. Well, there is one in Ghana but all their produce goes to an organic soap company in California who cannot spare me any. It doesn’t help that I am a small producer who needs to buy in small quantities, but with time no doubt something will work out. In the meantime I feel quite good about working with a supplier in North Yorkshire. It is such an economically depressed area of the UK it might almost be a developing country. And my suppliers are really kind to me, they give me a decent price for good quality oil, and are very helpful about obliging with minor quantities.
The coconut oil, olive oil and cocoa butter I get from suppliers in Cape Town, again, they are great to work with, they give me the best price possible and are extremely helpful to a small business. As far as possible I work with second grade oils, that is, oils that are from a second pressing or from raw material that is fine, just not suitable for food. For example my coconut oil is from dried organic coconut, it has quite a low nutritional value but retains the same fine moisturizing and lathering qualities as first grade coconut oil. It is all I need for a good soap. I am really fortunate to have suppliers who understand my needs and are willing to source these types of oils for me.
The one ingredient giving me real problems is beeswax. I cannot not use it, it is such an ancient ingredient and has many qualities which are not replicable in any other oil. But I am still struggling to find a certified organic source of beeswax, I keep on thinking I have found somebody and then when it comes to delivery they fail me. I suspect this is because many beekeepers produce organically but are unable to get certification, either because they are too small or because they live next to a fruit farm or something. Bees fly so far and wide that it is almost impossible to demonstrate that they have no exposure to chemicals. You practically have to live next to a nature reserve in order to be able to get certified. I am now looking at a possible supplier in the Karoo, and will keep you updated on this blog. In the meantime I am not too worried, it stands to reason that bees cannot be too exposed to pesticides or they would die before they produced any wax. Also, I use beeswax in such small quantities that it does not affect the organic status of the product. In most countries you are allowed to certify organic with up to 5 % inorganic content, provided that you are unable to obtain the ingredient organically. We still have a long way to go. I would like to think I am helping by creating a demand for organic products.
Oh, and don’t worry you vegans, I make a completely vegan body butter and liquid soap, in separate pots. It may not be absolutely traditional but they are nice. That is the advantage of making things by hand, it is no trouble to do a batch or two separately. Each soap you get will be a little different, they are mixed by hand, cut by hand and sold by weight. This saves a lot of carbon and guarantees you quality. Like I said, I do this for the love of it. In fact, I woke up this morning dreaming of a batch of liquid soap. I think I must go make it now.
Welcome to Khoelife! I hope we shall meet many times on this blog.