by Carol Higginbotham, Sciences/Chemistry
Long before chemists had any knowledge of atoms or molecules, people were improving their lives by performing chemical reactions on the materials in their environment. Our ancestors did this when they cooked and preserved their food, and when they fermented foods and beverages. They also did this when they learned to convert fats into soap.
We still use soaps that are produced basically the same way as they always have been, just on an industrial scale.
The recipe is basically this: fat + base = soap. The base can either be commercially prepared lye, or the naturally occurring base that exists in the ashes of campfires. Historically the fats came from animal tallow, although plant oils work just fine.
Producing a basic soap involves little more than boiling the ingredients and then removing excess base and water. Producing fine soap, however, is a craft that requires skill and experience. These high quality products are valuable and marketable.
This market for soap is what recently connected me to, of all places, Afghanistan.
Sarah Chayes was working for National Public Radio (NPR) as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan after 9/11. But she was drawn away from war reporting. Sarah witnessed the difficulties faced by ordinary Afghans frustrated by government corruption, an economy dependent on the drug trade, an unreliable infrastructure, and the Taliban. In response she and a group of locals organized a cooperative to make soaps by hand, utilizing area agricultural products such as pomegranates. The effort would provide cooperative members with a way to make a living independent of the drug trade. As a Westerner, Sarah could connect the group to markets in the U.S. and Canada. They set up shop near Kandahar and named the cooperative Arghand after the region.
Arghand had been operating for a while when I heard about them. My curiosity led me to the web, where I read dispatches from Sarah and discovered the types of support they needed. I was a bit surprised to see they were asking for consultation with a chemist. I knew I didn’t know all that much about soap, but I wrote an email to inquire. Sarah herself wrote me back.
The cooperative was having difficulty with the natural dyes that color their product. The soaps were colored with pomegranate, a gorgeous red that unfortunately was fading with time. I guessed that the problems were likely due to oxidation or exposure to ultraviolet light. We found some natural products reported to contain antioxidants, and they added them into their recipe. It seemed to work.
This connection, though transitory, has stayed with me. When I read news stories or see video from Afghanistan I am invariably thinking of the cooperative, and of the regular people there who are struggling to make a living in that harsh situation. I am grateful I had the opportunity to make a contribution, however small. And I am grateful there are people like Sarah who are able to both see what needs to happen and to take up the charge and do it.