About five months ago, I decided to take a leap of faith and relocate to the sweet sweet land of liberty, Liberia, West Africa. This opportunity and experience has been years in the making for me, and if it wasn’t one excuse it was another. So, I decided to embark on this journey because for me I’ve always been a Liberian far away from home.
Although a Brooklyn girl through and through, my heritage in the motherland has never been taken for granted in my upbringing. There’s no doubt I was raised in an African household in the middle of New York City—the neighbors on our floor and below and above us can verify—everything is possible in NYC. At the age of four, the civil war in Liberia had begun and though far away, I remember being young enough to be perplexed and old enough to be afraid of what would ensue in our homeland in the years to come. I remember visiting family friends and the kids being ceremoniously ushered into a cousin’s bedroom to play while the adults sat in awe watching raw video footage from back home. I recall vaguely trying to sneak in to the living room during what I now know was video of a president’s brutal torture. I remember tearful renderings of friends & family members who had somehow escaped, speaking of things in this wonderland I couldn’t imagine. These stories coupled with my mom’s recollection of King Burger “y’all think y’all the only one with Fast Food options?”, or shopping on Waterside before going to visit her mother in the “countryside”. I’ve even had dreams riddled with anecdotes of her time on LU (University of Liberia) campus in Monrovia, fashioning in my mind what it might be like for the “country girl” that made it to college in the city. Alas, we didn’t live far from JFK (the NYC airport not to be confused with the Monrovia hospital who has taken on the moniker “Just For Killing”) and often our home became a first stop introduction to the USA for many. I had frequent interactions with the “Liberian way” and traveling to Staten Island on a Saturday was the best thing since sliced bread. My Aunty would be waiting for us with sticks of meat and kala set aside with pepper for us to enjoy. By the age of 11, I had come to love Liberian staple dishes as equally as I had become accustomed to my father’s Ghanaian kenke and shito. “This girl can eat!” my mom would exclaim. After Ghana, I could now eat pepper! Not just the dollop of ketchup I was given in it’s stead to accompany my dokun! I was becoming more and more African despite my mom’s lament about “American children” whenever we acted up. I challenged myself to clean chicken like my mom and soon I would help steam things, and cut onions and other vegetables as prep for the wonderful dishes she would come home to complete. Shito however would never compare to the Liberian pepper sauce that my mom made tantalizingly savory and deadly hot. It tasted so good you wanted more even when your lips were burning off of your face. It was at the age of 11 or 12 also where I embarked on 2 weeks at a summer day came to “Strengthen our Liberian Identities”. I met a young boy there 4 years my junior, I would never forget his name, it was Charles Taylor.
Now, years later as an adult I’ve finally made it home. I know it because all the strangers I’ve met have said it. “Welcome Home!” they say, when I share with them that I’m from here. Many assume it before I open my mouth and dispel the whispered theories. My “seres” is thick and I haven’t had to speak Liberian “colloqua” as often as I’ve had to in the past 5 months. A simple hello no longer works when I enter a space, “Y’all hello!” with a relaxed Liberian drawl covers the crowd. I’ve conversed in my mother’s language with a knowing familiarity of words and phrases I’ve heard her shout into the phone for years as if her words were literally traveling through waves across the Atlantic. I’m a Liberian in Liberia! A Vai girl with a Fante father who can and will eat 5 to a bowl with strangers because that’s the African way. I know because I’ve done it and feel as if I’m slow treading through all of my earliest memories in life. I’m catapulted to our one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush and eating with my mom and sister from the same bowl, asking for the pieces of meat from the Cassava Leaves or Palm Butter, eating rice every day and relishing in the occasional pizza or McDonald’s as a rare treat. Now, in Liberia I have forgotten that I’ve given up rice for quinoa, meat for a largely pescatarian diet…How can I refuse the foods and scents I’ve been familiar with since birth?
My homecoming is not without any hesitations or misgivings. I know that the war has “changed people”. I keep hearing that from everyone near and far. I’d argue that it’s changed people both here in Liberia and those lost in the diaspora as a result. I hear that I may be a target, whether it’s with pricing or just general malaise. That my very being “of the Diaspora” but not having been in the years’ long civil struggle would garner animosity. Colorful tales and hypotheses have been painted for me in hopes that I may avoid bad intentions. I think of some of my white colleagues that don’t have to worry about similar obstacles. If anything, their white guilt is baptized as charitable benevolence and many here are just in awe of the milky skin tones and “slippery” hair. Indeed, perhaps they are targets too in different ways. The city is crawling with NGOs.
I belong here, yet am keenly aware of ways I must tread carefully. For now, I am amongst my people and I’m loving it. The generosity of strangers, the funny parables Liberians will sneak into everyday discourse. “The mattress will solve it!” as we pass a fighting couple on the road for instance. Or the blunt statements about how “dry” (read: skinny) I’m looking after spending time away from Monrovia. I particularly love telling people how much I know about Liberia and yet how much I still have to learn. It’s history, it’s politics, it’s beautiful and intelligent people, it’s languages, it’s customs. I’m eager to learn so much more. I tell them too of how long I have been awaiting this journey home. “The Love of Liberty, Unites Us Here”. I’m looking forward to working alongside my Liberian brothers and sisters to help rebuild this our beautiful country.