You can find Alice Ebiemi in the backyard behind her house. Scattered all around her are large basins, strainers, and pots, as well as a mortar used to crush cassava into a paste.
The backyard is a small space, but it is enough to arrange all the materials she needs to transform cassava into the product that has been earning her a good income for the past 30 years: chikwangue.
Chikwangue is a culinary specialty from the Haut-Ogooué Province in Southern Gabon. It is a snack made with a simple base of cassava, and has become quite popular.
Mrs. Ebiemi is in her 50s and lives in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. She sells chikwangue in town, supporting herself and her family with this income. By selling chikwangue, she built a four-room house, where she lives with her large family.
Mrs. Ebiemi began producing chikwangue because it was something she could easily do while caring for children. She knew how to prepare it, since her mother did the same work.
The ingredients are not expensive. She explains, “I had just 20,000 CFA francs [$33 US] and I began with this capital.”
Every week, she buys cassava tubers from wholesalers in the market. She has them ground at the same supplier, and places the pasteflour into water, and lets it soak all night where it is stored overnight. The next day, she strains the paste to remove fibres that could compromise the quality of the product. She then kneads the paste before wrapping it in plastic bags.
Once wrapped, the chikwangue is stacked into a kind of traditional steamer for about 45 minutes, during which time it’s partially cooked. The final step is to knead the dough and wrap it again it for final cooking. Then the chikwangue is ready for sale.
Mrs. Ebiemi makes chikwangue once or twice a week. She can make 120 sticks in one batch, and sells each stick for 300 CFA francs ($0.50 US). She makes an average of 960 sticks per month, which gives her an income of 288,000 CFA francs ($450 US).
Mrs. Ebiemi raises five children and many grandchildren alone, so she uses much of her income to manage family problems or purchase medicine. Thus, she can’t save much, although she tries.
She says: “Everyday, I participate in small rotating savings clubs with other cassava sellers or other women who also have an economic activity like me.”
Each member contributes 5,000 CFA francs ($10 US) or more a day, depending on how much they have sold. This system helps Mrs. Ebiemi to save some of her income, despite needing to purchase food and pay for her daughter’s M.A. studies.
These savings would also help Mrs. Ebiemi to restart her business, should she ever suffer a setback.
Cassava allows many women in Libreville to earn an income. Marie and Francoise also depend on making chikwangue. Marie’s spouse has been retired for several years and selling chikwangue allows the family to make ends meet at the end of the month. She says, “This trade helps us enormously. The retirement pension comes every three months, but it’s not regular. So my cassava also helps because we eat some.”
Francoise is raising her children and grandchildren alone, with the help of chikwangue. She dreams of buying a house like Mrs. Ebiemi. She says, “I rent a house with two rooms. This is why I admire Alice [Ebiemi]. She knew that she needed to save to build a house. I was not able and it’s difficult now.”
But as long as she can make chikwangue, she will not give up hope.
Photo credit:T.K. Naliaka