The food in Liberia
One of the most interesting parts of my assignment to do a Biodiversity and Forest Assessment for USAID in Liberia was meeting villagers living close to the forests and the glimpses of the harsh realities of their lives.
When it comes to food, they have little. In some Liberian counties that I passed through, the staple food item is cassava, dried in chunks in the sun and then pounded into dough. Called fufu, it was served with a thin dipping sauce with a bit of meat.
Other communities relied more heavily on natural oil palm fruits, a cluster of red berries with a hard kernel inside. With some processing, these palm oil nuts became a “butter” – very oily, but it serves as a sauce to put on rice.
On one long day, we left a small town at 6 a.m. without finding anything for breakfast, and had run out of the nuts and biscuits I was carrying. By 2 p.m. we were starving. We stopped at a village where my colleague Richard knew a woman who would cook something for us. This was in the oil-palm food territory. I was served a greasy sauce of palm nuts with canned herring in it and a big plate of rice. I ate some rice. Period.
Some of the more “well-off” people have a few chickens or goats that are mostly feral, just roaming about the dwellings and roads and only sacrificed on rare occasions.
Different communities had different taboos, and some would not eat chicken at all, for whatever reason.
In inland Liberia, away from the coast, there are not many rivers to fish in, and fish, except for the imported canned varieties, was not readily available. Beef meat was available in cities for purchase, but this was well beyond the means of people living on maybe 50 cents a day.
So, what do they eat for protein? Bushmeat. Bushmeat in Liberia is anything that someone can kill for dinner. In can include the chimpanzees that still roam the more pristine areas of the forest. Luckily in Muslim areas of the country, mostly in the coastal northwest, the people have taboos against eating chimpanzees. And, in at least one area I visited, the communities have their own ideas about chimps. “They are one of us,” these people believe, and they are left alone.
In another community, as the story goes, the first settlers there found the chimps to be helpful. The chimps purportedly tossed down clumps of oil palm berries for the people to use. And in another story, a hunter got lost in the forest and a group of chimps led him back to the river. They don’t eat chimps here either.
But really, anything else is fair game. Deep in the forest, further than I was able to go, the people kill and eat endangered pygmy hippos, forest elephants, and protected species of duikers (small forest antelopes). Along the coast they eat dugongs (a relative of the manatee) and sea turtles. Conservation of endangered species is nothing that remote populations have heard of and nothing they could follow anyway. People need to eat.
In the forested areas I traversed in Grand Gedah County, on the border with the Ivory Coast, I saw lots of evidence of bushmeat hunting for subsistence. Most of what people were carrying along the road was legal: some monkeys, some duiker species, but some was not. We encountered two women carrying a live pangolin (endangered worldwide) with a friend carrying greens. The 20 Liberian dollars we gave them to take their photo (worth about 25 cents) would be enough for them to buy a couple of onions and maybe some hot peppers. They were set for a good dinner at last. I can’t fault them for this. Instead, I admire their fortitude. Large scale hunting for pangolins to fulfill the markets for medicinal products in Asia is another matter entirely. Here the people just want to eat.
That night, we stayed at the Cash Guest House in the border town of Zwedru. It was the “best hotel” in town but spartan, with a bar in front of it doing a lively business in beer and prostitutes. There was no other place to eat in town, so we ate what they offered – “flesh soup.” This turned out to be a watery red broth with chunks of mystery meat, flesh of some sort. I gamely tried to bite a piece of it and it was too tough to chew. My guess, after seeing what was being carried on the road: monkey. I ate rice.
At least there is one good thing about my experience with Liberian bush food. My pants are looser now. There’s always a silver lining to a difficult assignment!