San Pedro, a port city on the Ivory Coast, boasts the fastest growing economy in Africa due to its large production and exportation of charcoal and wood. When freelance documentary and fine art photographer Joana Choumali was in San Pedro on a photography assignment, she was able to witness the production of these exports. Her shocking realization was that while the men took on the job of selling wood, the women worked in the charcoal fields.
This was not always the case. At first, this work was exclusively for men, but in 1998 a widowed woman named Makandjé began working in the charcoal fields. She began by assisting the men but soon started her own charcoal oven. By doing so, she was able to financially support her family by herself, and since then has inspired hundreds to follow her example. Makandjé is now the President of the Women Coal Producers Association of Parc du Pont.
Although these women are empowered by the ability to financially support themselves and their families, the reality is, working in the charcoal fields is work for the poor. Most of the women are widows or have no other qualifications, and therefore, no other choice but to do this work. Most girls don’t go to school and instead start working with their mothers and other relatives at very young ages, some only eight years old.
“All the decisions are made together. I was inspired by the solidarity and unity between the women. They support each other. They have a joint financial arrangement where they contribute equally to save money. I was inspired by the strength, the resilience, and the dignity they have,” said Choumali.
The work is extremely damaging and physically demanding. Charcoal is made by building an oven out of wood and sawdust left from carpenters and wood manufacturers. The women build the ovens by hand, which can take an entire day, and each is made for only one use. It takes around a week for a 15-foot-high oven of wood to turn into charcoal. After the charcoal is made, it is removed from the oven by hand.
This entire process is extremely dangerous, especially since the women lack proper materials to protect themselves. Sawdust irritates the eyes and skin, and the constant inhalation of dust and smoke is detrimental for the lungs. The women need masks, work shoes, and gloves, but these materials are too expensive for each woman to obtain, so what they have is shared amongst a large group.
“After trying to work with them for a day, I got sick,” said Choumali. “I couldn’t do it for more than two hours. Everything is done by hand.”
Choumali has been documenting these women for three years, and now her project is done. Entitled, “Sissi Barra (The Work of Smoke),” the photography series illustrates and examines the economic exploitation of these poor women. Choumali hopes that the publication of her work will help bring awareness to the plight of these women and encourage non-governmental organizations to help them. She also wants to give the women an opportunity to share their stories.
Choumali will soon revisit the Ivory Coast with the Poplin Project, which will donate 33 percent of their profits to the charcoal workers. Their goals aim to provide these women with drinking water systems, safe recreation rooms for the children, and to help the young girls get an education.
Sign Up For Our Newsletter