I was in a van filled with tourists on my way from Marrakech to the southern coastal town of Essaouira when I saw a goat in the tree next to the road.
As we drove, I saw more. They were everywhere, standing on the gnarled limbs like Christmas ornaments. They were chewing kernels from the Argan tree. It turns out that the goats eat the kernels. Then they poop them out and the undigested pits are collected, roasted and turned into extremely valuable oils used in cosmetics and for cooking (Josie Maran's whole make-up and skin care line is infused with the stuff as are the popular Moroccan Oil products).
I tried it, of course. It is quite possible you also have slathered some undigested goat poop on your face and rubbed it into your hair without even knowing.
The van veered off the road in a cloud of dust, rolling to a stop at a low, white-washed building. This was an argan cooperative that had obviously struck some sort of deal with our van driver whose job had been only to get us to Essaouira.
“Go look.” He ordered us now. I rolled my eyes at him as I stumbled out onto the gravel. I hate being told what to do.
Inside, women wearing long woolen socks and bright smocks sat in a horseshoe shape on the ground, demonstrating the different steps of the refinement process. They didn’t look particularly happy, but then again I suppose most of us don’t when we’re at work.
UNESCO works with local Berber women to form cooperatives like this which have made Argan oil available worldwide and given jobs to women who otherwise would have lived without any financial freedom and limited access to the outside world, kept at home by the patriarchal system that dominates Berber culture.
The US is a relatively new market for argan, but it has been used in Europe for decades and by Berber women for centuries. Even though it's an oil, when applied regularly, argan can actually reduce excess oil in the skin. It's also an anti-inflammatory, reduces scar tissue, wrinkles and stretch marks and smoothes and nourishes hair. (I will take this moment to attest to its miracle properties as my hair is smoother and the crevasse-like wrinkles between my eyes that make me imagine I'm becoming my Grandpa Bob when I stare at myself in the mirror for too long have become significantly less visible since I began to smear some on my face every night.)
The roasted argan kernel is also refined to make highly nutritious cooking oil, I was told by a woman in a headscarf who passed me a basket with pieces of ripped-up bread for dipping. If you can forget about the anus that it once passed through, it tastes a bit like peanut oil. Yum.
I do believe that every little bit we can do helps, and that it is infinitely better to buy something that benefits rather than harms. But I also think it is dangerous to think we are doing our part to eradicate poverty or misogyny simply by making a purchase.
Looking at the women sitting on the dirt spinning their grinders like performers in the world’s slowest circus act, I wondered who among them was an artist or a writer or an engineer deep inside and I felt that though this life was likely far preferable to one imprisoned in their husband's home, they should have more options than grinding up nuts to make me feel pretty.