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Listening to my mother’s voice on the phone last week as she gave me instructions on how to make Cassava leaves (a staple West-African dish) stirred a feeling of being complete within. Recently, I’ve had more moments of feeling whole and this was notably one of those moments. It was the first time I had ever asked her how to cook an African dish with the intension of actually making it myself.  I leaned deeply into her Liberian accented voice with a huge smile and sharply tuned in as she struggled to give step-by-step directions. Although she has been cooking the dish for as long as I can remember, all of her cooking has been done by taste, without time and certainly with out any measurements. “So wait, how long do I keep the cassava in?” I asked trying to pull out a finite time or system. “Just watch and taste, when the cassava leaves dry out, put the palm oil in and then it’s done soon after, ” she explained. “But how long does it take to dry out” I persisted but gave up and accepted I would gradually learn the song of the process just as she did.  I could feel the proud and excitement in her voice and I was proud of myself as well. When I began to cook the dish it felt unreal. There I was in Berlin cooking a West-African dish for the first time 30 years later! I’m happy to report that, with some additional help from my family on Facebook, the dish was a success!

The question arises within, why haven’t I ever taken an interest in learning to cook Liberian Food? This is the food I grew up eating and the food from the country where I was born.  It was my ancestor’s food.  I’ve cooked a long list of traditional foods before.  I’ve cooked American, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, West Indian, Vegan, Italian, Spanish, Central European, Mexican and the list goes on. But it wasn’t until now that I have prepared Liberian food. So why haven’t I cooked Liberian food? Although there isn’t just one answer, after much thought a few conclusions came up and I’ll share one. Survival Mode.

I realized that for the most part of my life I’ve been on a perpetual cycle of survival mode. Which leaves very little room for authenticity.  My parents named me Kweighbaye to put a name to the struggle they were going through. Kweighbaye means a hard year in Gio, my father’s tongue. The year I was born was hard for them. There was personal adversity and then there was the civil war that was on its way. A year after I was born, they had to drop everything and leave their country behind. So, from birth I embodied the energy of struggle and survival and that is the mode I’ve been on for as long as I can remember. As a survivor I learned quickly how to mold myself into where I was, whether it was trying to act tough in East Orange and Newark, or pretending like my life was like everyone else in a super fancy boarding school and college.  Depending on whom I was with and what I felt needed to be done and said to be accepted, that’s what I did and said. So if that meant denying who I was inside than that little character that developed inside to protect me made the choice to do so. 

As I said, survival doesn’t leave room for authenticity and it doesn’t leave room for the feeling of wholeness. When I broke out of survival mode I started the journey back to the center and in doing so I’ve been connecting more with myself and all the pieces of me that were created throughout the years. I know I have a long way to come full-circle, especially since I’ve gone very far away from the center. This type of journey takes time. But, these moments when I get the recipe from my mom show me that I’m on my way. I’m not really sure what happens when one come’s full-circle, but I’m looking forward to finding out. Because moments of feeling just a little more complete are amazing and it is what keeps me going.

Hopefully you too can figure out the route that makes you feel complete and takes you back to yourself. And feel free to share it below!! 

With love,


Authorkweighbaye Kotee