Liberian Food for the American Soul

I didn’t always love Mama Liberia. And if you asked me now I would probably deny it. But there are moments I catch myself, appreciating the life I’ve curated here, and it has made the growing pains of this journey all worthwhile. Before I board the plan in exactly two months I thought it be wise of me to share just how Mama Liberia captured a piece of my heart. The list could go on and on but here are a few reasons why I’ll never forget Mama Liberia.

First of all, my students and 4-H youth. Even though most of them don’t understand me half of the time because of my American accent, they always push through and have no trouble making fun of me at any given moment. They have difficulty with critical thinking yet never seize to amaze me with their humor and light nature despite all the things that can go wrong on any given day. They have big dreams for their lives, that of their families, and the place they call home, Liberia. I can’t wait to see how they will change the future of Liberia with all their potential. So, cheers to the Animal Science and Rural Sociology students I taught last semester and the Senior Leadership students whom I am teaching currently. They’ve taught me grace, contentment, and more resilience than I ever thought was possible for me to muster on my own.

Secondly, my Liberian tribe. My Ma Gurly, who always checks on me and makes sure that I’m doing laundry correctly and never forgets to tell me how much she loves me. Let me tell you folks, DOUBLE WASHING matters and even though I don’t have the emotional capacity to do it all the time, when I do, my Ma is always there. Mahari, my Ethiopian neighbor who always checks on me when I am feeling ill and whose dog always barks at me until I give him hotdogs. My Sinyeah children who always greet me with a hug and a loud “Aunty Vanna!”, when they see me. There is Caroline, my counterpart. She always praises me for how much I have adapted to living in Liberia but a lot of it was through her encouragement. She was always there to answer any questions I had, have critical conversations about my experience and take me along for adventures like working with the farmers cooperative she created in her home county, Nimba and visiting her home village. Her family always treats me like a daughter and expects me to act accordingly.

My service wouldn’t be anything without the help and love and friendship and sisterhood and love of all the volunteers I’ve met during my time here. These are the people who encouraged me to keep forward, let me ugly cry on their couches, made me laugh when I was the most fatigued, and hugged me and let me know everything would be okay in the end. Without my Peace Corps friends Maryam, Dr. Cori, Mena, Darrel, Isaac, Justin, past ACF’s Anna and Nathan, and the whole AgriCorps team especially Class 4: Hope, Carrie, Ellen, Megan, Eli, Merle, and Ryan (y’all are the real MVPs), I don’t think I would have made it on my own.

I think one of the things I will miss most is the creativity. I once heard that ‘Innovation comes from necessity’ and I’ve seen nothing but innovation in the everyday tasks that navigate life here in Liberia. Like the car, with little to no engine and gas tanks that are filled in the oddest of ways. The motorbikes sometimes packed with three or four people additional to the driver. The lappa patterns that can be made into almost any design you want (and believe me, I have plenty). The street food that I am absolutely obsessed with like Attieke (shredded, seasoned, and steamed cassava covered in oil, tomatoes, raw onions, cucumber, chicken hotdogs, avocado, fried sweet plantains, and a dollop of pepper sauce). The green scenery everywhere and shopping in the market in the morning for fresh produce and goods.

All of these things make the difficult times in Liberia worth it. If there is anything you should know about my time in Liberia is that it wasn’t at all easy or what I expected and I may not have checked off everything on the quantitative checklist of efficacy, but it was what I needed in the fullest of ways. For these are the things, the people, and the experiences I will miss when I return home.

Sayvanna Sfabian received a bachelors degree in Animal Science from New York State College, Cobleskill and a masters in Agricultural Education from Cornell University. Before becoming an AgriCorps Fellow, Sayvanna spent several summers working on her family’s farm in the Dominican Republic.