Soaperwoman

After the most amazing early morning dive (we saw manta rays and I nearly exploded!) I walked over to the volunteer house to learn how to make soap with Benji. When I got there all of the kit was laid out on the table outside under the veranda. This included some essential oils, two large plastic bowls with a wooden stick, a tub of water, three large bottles of what looked like oil, a lot of silicone moulds, a plastic bag filled with white powder and a bowl of green soupy-looking liquid.

“Jambo Florence,” Benji said with a smile, “Are you ready to learn to make the soap?”

“I’m so ready,” I said, looking out at all the equipment in excitement. I really wanted to learn. I got out my notebook and pen so that I could write it all down as we went.

“So we are going to be using the cold method.” Benji explained, “This means we don’t use any external heat, only the heat from the reaction of making the soaps.” Benji looked at me to make sure I was following and I nodded while taking my notes.

“Now when I learned how to make the soap my teachers told me enough information to fill twenty five pages, but what I tell you is going to fill one, maybe two. They made it much more complicated than it needed to be and if I am to teach the Women’s Group how to make the soap it needs to be simple,” Part of the work that KCWA (Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association) does is helping women in the community find alternative livelihoods that reduce reliance on fishing and soap-making is one of them. Benji has taught lots of women in the community this method of making soaps.

“So firstly let’s talk about the ingredients and why we are using them,” Benji continued, “Firstly we need our base oil and we are using the coconut oil.” He tapped a huge bottle filled with a yellow-orange liquid. “We need to have a hard oil so that our final soap is hard and strong. Sometimes people use tallow or lard, but we will use the coconut. We also need a soft oil like a cooking oil, but you can choose which one you like. We use fifty percent soft oil and fifty percent hard oil to improve the lathering and the lifespan of the soap. Have you ever used the soap that cracks?” I nodded,

“Yeah I have, when you leave it for a while sometimes they crack and dry out,”

“This is what we are wanting to avoid. If you only use the hard oil your soap with be like a stone and if you only use the soft it will fall apart when you use it. This is why we need the balance,”

“Which soft oil do you think is best to use?” I asked, thinking of all the different options; vegetable, olive, sunflower, groundnut.

“It depends on what you are needing for your skin,” Benji explained, “If you want to add something to your soap, or change something in your soap you must always think about the effect on the skin. Different oils have different benefits so what your skin will want will be different to what your friend’s skin will want. I would like to use the olive oil, but here it is very expensive so we will be using the vegetable oil.” I frantically scribbled all of this down into my notebook before he continued,

“Next we have the caustic soda which is also called lye or the chemists call it sodium hydroxide. It is a natural chemical that does not stay in the soap, but evaporates after two or three weeks. This is when the soap is safe to use and will not cause irritations on your skin.” He paused to allow me to catch up with my writing.

“If you make the soap in enclosed spaces you need to make sure you wear the goggles, mask, long sleeves for your legs and your arms and gloves,” I glanced down at myself a little nervously, wearing nothing but a beach dress.

“For today, I will use the soda,” Benji said.

“Are you sure?” I asked, looking at his exposed hands, “Are there any gloves anywhere that we can get for you?” Benji laughed at my concern,

“No it’s okay I will be careful. I have done this many times,” I allowed myself to be convinced and Benji moved on.

“Next we need the herbal extract,” he said, pointing to what looked like a Whole Foods green smoothie sitting in a big ceramic bowl. “Today we use neem because of its antibacterial and anti fungal properties.”

“And how did you make this?” I asked, stirring the vibrant green mixture and dislodging the layer of froth that had gathered on top.

“I just put the leaves in the blender,” Benji said simply.

“Did you strain it as well?”

“No it does not need. Also I like the spots of green from the leaves to be in the soap.”

“What else could you use instead of neem?” I asked, unsure as to whether I’d be able to source it in the UK.

“You can use anything that is important for your skin. You can use the mint, the aloe Vera, avocados. You could even use pineapple or papaya. It is your choice. Just make sure you know the effect on the skin of what you put into your soap,” I smiled. I liked the idea of personalising soaps depending on the herbal properties of the plants you were using. It was a whole different kind of science to what I’m used to. Benji went on,

“If I could I would use the avocados because they make very smooth soaps but they can be difficult to find here.” I was relieved, avocados were definitely something I’d be able to find in the UK.

“Then the only other ingredients are water and if you want dyes or perfumes you can put them in too.” Benji added.

“Now for the method I have made things much simpler. The teachers that taught me said you need a measuring jug or a weighing scales and a thermometer but the women in the village do not have these things. They do not have a blender or any expensive equipment. Therefore, in my recipe, you just need a container,” Benji held up the bottom third of a Sprite bottle that had been cut to make a cup. “Mixture one: you put five measures of water into a bowl and add two measures of the caustic soda.” I wrote this down.

“And it is very important, very important, that you write this down also,” I paused and looked up at Benji, unsure as to what he was going to say next.

“You never put the water into the soda but add the soda to the water. Otherwise you do not make soap, you make a bomb,” he said with such an innocent smile that I had to stifle a laugh.

“Then you stir them together and let it cool to around sixty to seventy degrees Celsius. This is mixture one. If you do not have a thermometer you can use yourself as a thermometer. The mix will heat to over ninety degrees which your skin cannot stand. When you can put your finger on the outside of the bowl and hold for ten seconds you know that the mixture is cool enough to be using.” I wrote this all down, amazed at how ingenious Benji had been in simplifying his recipe.

“Once you have that you put it to the side and you make the next mixture, mixture two. You add seven and a half measures of coconut oil and six measures of your soft oil to a bowl. Then you put in one and a half measures of herbal extract and mix it together. If you have a blender this makes things faster but if you are in the village and there is no power you can just mix by hand.

“Then you pour the first mixture into the second mixture and stir it gradually. It will thicken very suddenly but you keep going until it becomes a uniform paste. This is when you can add your dyes and perfumes and then once they are inside the mix you pour into the moulds.”

“Wait, that’s it?” I asked, looking up from my notes. I had never really thought of soap as being something that would be easy to make yourself.

“Yes. You leave in the moulds overnight and then leave for two or three weeks before you use them for the soda to evaporate. Sometimes I have used the soap after a week and not had skin irritations but it is better wait longer if you can. Just to be safe.”

“Perfect,” I said, “Let’s do this,” I stood up and put my notebook down, keen to get started.

“First we will clean and grease the moulds to make sure the soaps are easy to remove,” Benji said and rinsed the first mould in a bucket of water. There were eight different sheets of silicone moulds, which could produce either six or twelve bars of soap. Each needed to be washed and greased and once we were done we could move on to the more exciting part. I added the water to the bowl and Benji, true to his word, was very careful when adding the caustic soda and did not end up with severe chemical burns as I had originally feared. I leaned over the bowl, eagerly waiting for a dramatic reaction to take place. Sadly I was disappointed. There wasn’t even any fizzing.

“Always have a bowl of water with you in case you get some soda onto your hands,” Benji advised, carefully tying the neck of the plastic bag closed. “Then you can put them in the water to stop the burning,” He then handed me the stick that he had taken from the garden and peeled the bark off. We didn’t want to use one of the spoons from the kitchen to mix such harsh chemicals so this one worked a treat.

“Be careful,” Benji warned as I angled myself over the bowl to see what was happening, “The fumes they will go straight up. You need to hold the stick at an angle like this,” He said and took the stick from me so that his face was far away from the bowl but the stick could still reach into the mixture.

“Ah okay, thank you,” I said and resumed my stirring. Even from this distance I could feel the heat of the reaction radiating out from the bowl. “Wow, it’s hot,” I said and Benji lifted the bowl so I could feel the heat from underneath. This was one exothermic reaction (Chemistry A-Level why do you still haunt me like this). Once that was all dissolved we mixed the oils and the neem juice together in a different bowl and combined the two mixtures.

There was an immediate change in texture and I could feel it quickly becoming sludgey.

“Keep stirring,” Benji said, “And then we add the perfume,” We agreed that a natural colour would be nicer than dyed, but I was quite insistent that there needed to be a scent. I decided on jasmine, one of my all time favourite smells. We poured the sludge into all of the different moulds and then came a lovely job. Benji had to use a knife to scrape away the excess soap so that the tops of the moulds were flat. I think it was the most satisfying thing I’ve ever seen.

And then we were done!

“Thank you so much Benji,” I said, “That was so interesting,” I added with sincerity. I couldn’t wait to try out my own homemade soap.

Now all I had to do was wait.


Update

Here it is!



Itinerary:

22/02/19

  • Scuba dive first thing
    • We visited a big anchor we had seen before and had a lovely dive
    • Swam along next to a fishing net and set a few small fish free
    • Freed a stingray from the net after we accidentally spooked it into one
    • Saw two turtles and got a nice long look at one under a rock
  • Changes to the Ocean’s Alive website
  • Writing new content for the Ocean’s Alive website
  • Snorkel
  • Joss and Andy Carruthers arrived (I’ll be staying with them in Nairobi)
  • Watching Truman Show with Cameron

23/02/19

  • Scuba dive first thing
    • We saw MANTA RAYS it was INSANE I FREAKED OUT under the water and then again above the water
    • Also had two beautiful turtle
  • Snorkel
  • Soap making with Benji
  • Learning how to make compost properly (a lot more interesting than it sounds)
  • A boat trip with the Carruthers and Chris Groom who lives just down the beach
  • Watching the rugby at Vipingo Ridge

24/02/19

  • Scuba dive first thing with Simon
    • We drove over to Vuma cliffs and swam along an amazing drop-off
    • The rock face was sheer for about ten metres with a beautiful shallow reef on top
    • We had a huge hump-head/Napoleon wrasse and a gorgeous honeycomb moray
  • Snorkel
  • Footage sharing with Simon and Des
  • Working on Emergency Action Plans for the project
  • Making a safety presentation for the project
  • Snorkel
  • Boat trip with Dave (from Vipingo Ridge) and Graham (a friend of Des’s)

2 thoughts on “Soaperwoman

  1. Well I think I know what we will all be getting for Christmas and birthdays this year. Who thought you’d ever love chemistry this much.

    Like

  2. Loved reading about this. So glad you are having such a soap-er time… 😬 xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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