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An American girl cooking in a Liberian kitchen!

I have been cooking palm butter for the better part of the morning with Ma Oretha. You start with palm nuts, and after a tremendous amount of squeezing the nuts against a strainer over and over, we are left with a bowl the size of a tire filled with the stuff.

Emily Kirwan with a baby (Photo: Kirwan)

“Take time, so you don’t get burn”, says Ma Oretha, Dining Hall Manager at African Bible College University, inspecting my strokes as I stir a soupy orange liquid with a consistency like watery peanut butter.

I do burn myself, and she shuffles me over to the sink to run cool water on my hand, then rubs salt on the injured fingers. “That’s my medicine”, she tells me with a grin.

We are cooking for ABCU’s lunch, and today, Wednesday is Palm Butter Day. Each day, Ma Oretha has hundreds of mouths to feed at this small, yet mighty Christian University, tucked away in the rainforest of Yekepa, Liberia.

There are at least eight women scurrying around the indoor/outdoor kitchen. Some gut fish, some cook rice, and others clean 200+ bowls. The women are almost all very slight in size, but have unbelievably toned arms from hours of lifting water and stirring pounds of rice.

All of them think it’s pretty hilarious that I’m here, and most of them watch me, and then laugh when I catch their eye, smiling. But I’m almost always too busy to detect their curious stares.

Ma Oretha taking some time off for a picture (Photo: Kirwan)

Ma Oretha keeps assigning me tasks, and anytime anyone tries to help me, Ma Oretha bellows at them, “she come here to learn, don’t do it for her!”

Ma Oretha is a tough lady. In addition to the kitchen, she runs the university’s restoration garden and beehives. She sells honey to professors and guests at the university. She convinced Hannah and I that we ought to purchase 1.5 liters of honey rather than a few ounces, because “it’s a bargain price”, even though I’m quite sure it will take a solid 10 years to finish off the container.

Though a pushy sales lady, she’s mostly kind—just so long as you don’t attempt to take advantage of her. I was eating my flavorful palm butter with onions, fish and rice a few hours later with a group of students when Ma Oretha stormed out into the cafeteria in a fit of rage. She shrieked at the students for a good 20 or 30 seconds, far too heated for my American-English ears to comprehend.

Emily Kirwan hiking in yekepa! (Photo: Kirwan)

When she retreated to her kitchen, I asked my table what had so infuriated the tiny woman. “Students have been taking spoons,” answered my neighbor. “She threatened to take the spoons away again”. Apparently, last semester students had to bring their own spoons after Ma Oretha orchestrated a spoon-ban in the cafeteria by locking up the remaining spoons.

Although it is highly doubtful that I will consume 1.5 liters of honey before I leave in December (or in my life, for that matter), I admire this tiny, determined woman, who has figured out how to be strong during both the civil war in her country and the war in her cafeteria.

This story was originally written by Emily Kirwan
Emily graduated from Baylor University in August 2012 with a double major in Nonprofit Marketing and International Business. She is currently volunteering with Amani ya Juu, an organization which uses business to help women in Africa lift themselves out of poverty by creating beautiful accessories and clothing to be sold in the US. This story was originally posted on her blog Emily Kirwan's Adventuring.

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