By Stephanie Rose Bird

One of the herbs that are vital to the African American Healer’s Medicine Kit is shea butter. In my upcoming workshop at the Open Center, students will have the opportunity to work with this unique healing substance to create their own body butter.

These days shea butter is all the rage. You have probably spotted shea butter as a key ingredient in many types of shampoo, conditioners, hot oil treatments, soaps, lotions and creams, but may not be familiar with its source. The shea tree is a member of the Sapotaceae family Vitellaria parasoxa C.F. Gaertin, formerly called Butryrosperum paradoxum. Shea trees are found exclusively in the African Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert and they grow 150-200 years.

Shea butter, known also as Karite in the Dioula language, is also called Women’s Gold because it brings women income. Shea butter has been traded as a commodity as early as the 14th century. Today shea butter is the third highest export product in Burkina Faso. It is one of few economic commodities under women’s control in Sahelian Africa. The trees have been tenderly cared for my women farmers and their children for hundreds of years.

While in the west we utilize shea almost exclusively in cosmetics, in Africa it has diverse uses:

  • Sole source of fat for the Mossi people of Burkina Faso.
  • Use to make soap, healing balms, cosmetics, candles, lamp oil and waterproof putty for housing.
  • The wood is used for creating tools, flooring, joinery, chairs, utensils and mortar and pestles.
  • Root and bark is medicinal.
  • Imported chocolates contain shea.
  • Shea butter is exported to Japan and Europe to enhance pastry dough and to enrich chocolates.
  • It is used to soothe children’s skin, soften rough skin, protect against sunburn, chapping, irritation, ulcers and rheumatism.

You can begin using shea butter at home in the following ways:

Hot Shea Butter Hair Treatment
The emollient, (softening) quality of shea butter makes it useful for hair and body care, as it is easily and quickly absorbed when applied topically. For most types of hair, shea is a good hot oil treatment, wherein it is melted, cooled slightly, then applied warm to the ends of hair where split ends occur) and to the scalp. Using a clean (art) paintbrush is a handy way to apply the warmed oil to scalp.

  • Part hair in sections as you work.
  • Work quickly otherwise shea will solidify.
  • Put on a plastic cap; sit out in the sun if possible or under a dryer for at least 30 minutes. Alternatively, cover head with a bath towel to retain heat.
  • After a half hour shampoo thoroughly and rinse.

Shea adds shine to the hair and softens it.

Hair Pomade
Pomades play an important role to African American haircare. Today, people of various ethnicities use them. Pomades are useful for those with naturally curly or wavy hair who want to smooth their hair for an elegant up-do like a chignon or French twist—this works especially well on freshly shampooed, wet hair.

  • Scoop out about a teaspoon of shea butter in the palm of hands (use less for short hair and more for longer hair).
  • Place your palms together.
  • Rub gently, using your body heat to melt the shea butter.
  • Once shea transforms from solid to liquid rub on your hair.
  • Then style as usual.

This works well as weekly hair dressing pomade for thick, curly and wavy hair to add gloss and shine.

Stephanie Rose Bird, BFA, MFA, a former professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, is the author of five books including: The Big Book of Soul; A Healing Grove: African Tree Medicine, Remedies and Rituals; and Mama Nature’s Spiritual Guide to Weight Loss. A member of the American Botanical Council’s Herb Research Society, the International Center for Traditional Childbearing (Black Midwives and Healers), and the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, she has won numerous prestigious awards, grants and fellowships and conducts workshops nationally. Visit her website HERE.

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