Cocoa Farmers Who’ve Never Tasted Chocolate: Ivory Coast’s Anti-Malarial Chocolate.

Jean Claude spreading already fermented coco out to dry.
Jean Claude spreading already fermented cocoa out to dry. Photo taken in 1998

Most cocoa farmers grow cocoa having no idea what it is used for.

Abradinou, 100km in the Rian Forest  South of Abengourou, Ivory Coast. Photo taken in 1996. Timolé had three wives and dozens of children.
Abradinou, 100km in the Rain Forest South of Abengourou, Ivory Coast. Photo taken in 1996. Timolé had three wives and dozens of children.

Also, many cocoa farmers have never had chocolate before, and certainly not any baked good containing cocoa power.

This story is digging deep, way back when my life in West Africa first began, in Ivory Coast, the worlds largest producer of cocoa beans.  “Cacao” as it is called in french in Côte d’Ivoire

This video I posted below (Watch as cocoa farmers eat chocolate for the first time. This is an amazing video) sparked some long since buried memories. Had almost all but forgotten about these weekly occurrences, because I though nothing about the chocolate exchanges at the time. So let me share my personal story of a similar nature, only repeated many hundreds of times with cocoa farmers, or inhabitants in cocoa producing villages where I served.

All the villages in the Agni Region of Abengourou were predominantly cocoa and coffee farmers. Every family had a plantation of cocoa trees of varying size.

beans
Jean Clause with perfectly dried Coffee Beans ready for sale

Every village courtyard has suspended bamboo drying racks covered with weaved mats to dry the beans in harvest season. Cocoa or coffee is spread out in the sun to dry. Coffee was easier to dry, a less sticky smelly mess. However, the sticky fermented cocoa beans were constantly stirred around by hand to dry in the sun on the mats. You would get the sticky, tacky, fermenting remains all over your hands. I was told by Jean Claude that the fermentation process is very important to the flavor of the beans. After shelling out the cocoa beans, they leave them in a pile under banana leaves to ferment for a few days, before moving the beans to the drying racks. The fermenting bean smell is in every village; a combination of a sweet, a sour, and a fermenting smell that always lingered in the air, long after the harvest was past. The odor was a permanent stamp on the villages in the region. I can almost smell it as I type.

Cocoa is one of those, at first, mildly repugnant  foreign “Africa Odors” that a new comer can’t identify, but is soon figure it out as the first coco harvest comes in. You can never forget that unique smell once you have been immersed in it.

Some of my coco growing friends. A happy reunion in 2009. Man I miss these guys.
Some of my coco growing friends. A happy reunion in 2009. Man I miss these guys.

Though these Ivorian farmers grew cocoa, most have no idea what the foreigners do with it.

My work took me to the bush villages on several day trips each week, and then overnight trips almost every weekend. So on my weekly overnight trips into the rural villages I always packed in my village supply box a village staple; besides the mosquito net, a chocolate bar or two.  The chocolate I could find was not very good quality in those early days (Remember who they are marking to), but better than nothing for a sugar accustomed Westerner. Selection grew over the years.

Over the five years of roaming in the villages, many of my cocoa farmer friends had a chance to taste chocolate for the first time ever at my hands.

My son Ted with me on a return trip to Ivory Coast in 2009. His first time back in Ivory coast since his childhood. Coffee drying.
My son Ted with me on a return trip to Ivory Coast in 2009. His first time back in Ivory coast since his childhood. Coffee drying.

In the evenings, while we were all sitting around chatting, I would haul out one of my chocolate bars, snap off a good chunk for myself and then pass the rest around. There was always someone in the group who would ask “What is it?”, not having a clue what chocolate was. I would tell them that the cocoa bean is ground up, milk and sugar is added to make chocolate. This is why people buy your cocoa. There eyes would widen with the taste. The other now knowing locals joked that the chocolate bars were Andy’s, “Comprimé Anti- Paludisme”,  Andy’s Anti-Malaria Tablet”

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