Handerson Bennah stood behind crock pots full of warm palm butter, fish gravy and potato greens watching for potential customers to pass by at the Umoja Festival. As soon as someone would stop to gaze at the menu or peek inside the large containers of food, the Liberian native would offer a sample. He knows there’s a lot of competition between his authentic offerings and the typical festival favorites, but he’s looking to draw support for an unfamiliar food and a worldly cause.
“A Taste of Liberia” is part of a fundraising effort for a nonprofit called BEST— Bennah Empowering through Strategic Training. The proceeds from Umoja festival sales will go toward improvements to the Henry B. Bennah Kingsville Public School in Liberia, which used to be Bennah’s home.
“During the 14-year civil war, my parents were forced out of their home by the rebels and came to the United States and the rebels ruined their house,” he said. “They destroyed everything and left it in ruins, but we had it renovated and we converted it into a school to provide an elementary education for these children.”
Since 2007, the Kingsville Public School, located about 23 miles east of the capitol, Monrovia, has been serving about 300 children ages 7-12 in a mid-sized home. While Bennah’s cousin Josephine Francis runs the school, he and his family are in the states trying to generate monetary support for the small facility.
“It’s an unselfish deed,” Bennah said. “I believe that we as humans exist to do things for others. It’s the highest calling anyone can have.”
This is the first year the Bennahs have offered their native cuisine at the Umoja Festival, called soups. These dishes aren’t anything like the American-style chicken noodle or vegetable soup.
“Traditionally, in Liberia, everything served with a food is soup, but it’s really more like a stew.”
The mackerel fish and the heart of palm simmered all day to produce a mixture that pours perfectly over rice. Though Liberian foods are typically packed with an array of spices, Bennah said they used a little less to tempt the taste buds of their American customers.
“I try to convince them to put a little in a bowl,” he said. “It smells good, it tastes good and I hope they tell others.”
Today they will offer a different menu of jolly rice, fufu and goat soup, plus staples like fried plantains and karla, a fried dough that resembles a hushpuppy and can be eaten with sugary and spicy foods. The drink of choice is ginger beer, a non-alcoholic drink that tastes like lemonade.
Since Bennah has retired from Northeast State Community College, where he taught political science, he has turned his focus toward BEST. His biggest aspirations for the nonprofit is to raise enough money to build a new, larger school building and to establish vocational training for those whose educations was disrupted during the civil war.
“We are here to assist the underprivileged,” he said. “No one here will ever see their faces or know their names, but they are also human and they have needs that every human has. One of those basic needs is education so we are striving to provide the best for those children.”
Bennah will be back at his tent on East Market Street again today to temp Umoja attendees with his homemade foods. He and other family members will be raising money and sharing their culture, one plate at a time.
For more information on BEST and how to volunteer or donate, call Bennah at 833-3188.