Board the number 11 bus at Kennedy Plaza, ride it south down Broad Street, and you’ll get a sense of the kinds of people that have made Providence their home over the past two decades: block after block, bright Spanish signs mark Dominican, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican, and El Salvadorian restaurants. But if you keep going, over the border and into Cranston, you’ll eventually see a small sign attached to a telephone pole with “ELEAS” printed on it in big red letters. Nestled under a small yellow awning at the end of a wide, windowless, concrete building is Elea’s Restaurant, where Elea Beaie has been cooking Liberian food since 1996.
Liberia, a West African country about the size of Tennessee, wasn’t colonized until 1822. What makes Liberia different from any other country in Africa—or any other country in the world, really—is the fact that its first foreign settlers were freed American slaves. The settlement was the brainchild of the American Colonization Society—an organization working to “repatriate” African-American slaves to Africa. That first colony of former slaves was built on a 36-mile-long and 3-mile-wide strip of land that the ACP purchased—most say forcefully—from a group of local tribes. In 1824, the colony was named Liberia, after the Latin word for liberty, and the capital was named Monrovia, after President James Monroe.
As the colony flourished, more and more American states started shipping freed slaves back across the Atlantic. In 1847, the Americo-Liberians voted in favor of independence. Not surprisingly, Americo-Liberian culture was deeply rooted in the antebellum American South, and a stark split formed between the Americo-Liberian colonizers and the Africans who had been there all along. In a bizarre version of the conditions they’d left behind, Americo-Liberians acted as the master-class over local tribes they forced into slavery. For over a hundred years, Liberia was ruled by a small number of families whose ancestors had been on that first ship back to Africa in 1822. In Africa, Liberia was known as “Petite America.” Then, in 1980, an African named Samuel Doe murdered the President in a military coup. From 1980 until 2003, Liberia was in a state of virtually continuous violence, resulting in over 200,000 Liberian deaths. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country, many of them to America, and many of those to Rhode Island.
With an estimated 15,000 Liberian residents, Rhode Island has the highest percentage of Liberians of any state in the country. Though Liberians only make up 0.4 percent of Providence’s population, Providence maintains one of the three largest Liberian immigrant communities in America. Given the relative size of the community, it’s even more impressive that Elea’s was the first Liberian restaurant in Rhode Island—and, for a long time, the only one.
Elea’s is big and open, with light yellow walls, white tile floors, and a few circular tables spread out around the room. When I first walked in, there were four people at tables and no one at the register. Though everyone sat alone, they all seemed to be eating together. When I asked if Elea was around, they stared at me for a moment and then shouted her name. After a minute, Elea emerged in an apron from a doorway behind the register. We introduced ourselves, she softly asked my friend and me what we wanted to eat. We said we’d eat anything, and she disappeared through the doorway again.
Elea’s is covered in flyers and posters promoting local Liberian events and businesses. “Liberian Fastest Rising Star: in concert for one night only at Jovan’s, South Portland Avenue,” reads one poster by the bathroom, the text framed by headshots of the contestants. A few homemade flyers pinned to a corkboard advertise “Januetoh Enterprise,” a company specializing in wedding cakes, Liberian donuts, and African crafts for “weddings, baby showers, birthdays, baptisms, etc.” A glass case by the register displays DVDs and videos for sale.
Everyone at Elea’s seemed to know each other. At one table sat Esther W., her hair set in a ‘60s style flip, a see-through plastic bib over her chest as she spooned palm butter out of a big bowl (palm butter, the national food of Liberia, is a creamy green sauce made out of palm fruit). Esther and Elea were schoolgirls together in Monrovia in the ‘70s. Back then, Monrovia was a thriving city. “We had everything America had,” Elea told me later. “We had all the movies. We listen to Elvis Presley, James Brown, all of them.” Later, Elea and Esther studied economics together at the Univeristy of Liberia.
At another table sat Nya Taryor, a self-professed “practical theologian” who has studied at seminaries across America since he left Liberia in the ‘80s. Mr. Taryor is a Liberation Theologist. He was also the chaplain and a professor of African-American studies at Hamilton College. When I asked him how he ended up in Providence, he laughed loudly and said, “You don’t wanna know.” Soon, Mr. Taryor was giving me a brief history of Liberation Theology and a list of book recommendations.
Ten minutes later, Elea emerged from the kitchen with two red plastic trays. Each carried a big plate piled high with steaming food: crispy fried chicken, collard greens, creamy palm butter poured over tender chunks of beef and greasy, delicious jollof rice (a mess of rice, meat, and vegetables). On the side, she brought us containers of fiery pepper sauce and big oily hunks of rice bread—a dense sweet cake made of rice and mashed bananas.
Liberian food combines traditional West African cuisine with the American influence of its 19th-century settlers. Elea’s daily specials are written out in crooked white letters on a big black board on the wall. Some of the specials on the board—potato salad and okra—are as American as fried chicken and greens. Others, like oxtail stew and plantains, are a little more exotic. Some, like kittily torborgee and fufu, I hadn’t even heard of before (fufu, I later found out, is a fermented cassava dumpling and a staple of the Liberian diet).
Our food was great—in a spicy, crispy, heavy, saucy kind of way. Elea sat with us through the whole meal. Whenever we complimented her cooking, she laughed and said “Really?” with what seemed like real surprise. We talked about business, about Liberia, about America—and about being Liberian in America.
Elea came to Providence in 1984. For a long time, she owned a produce store. People used to ask her how to make things. One day, after her friend at the barbershop told her to try cooking, she made a few different things and sold them at her store. People loved it, so she made more. One thing lead to another, and finally Elea decided to open a restaurant. She says she never thought she’d own a restaurant, let alone her own business. She likes that about America. “If you work hard in America,” she said, “you can make it.” When Esther heard Elea saying that, she shouted across the room, “The American dream!”
Elea, Nya, and Esther all admit that they plan on going home someday. They miss Africa. But when Elea visited Liberia in 1997, it was a completely different place than the one she’d grown up in. “They’d broken into everything, burned big buildings, killed people,” she said. “They killed my relatives. They killed my brother, killed my sister-in-law, killed some of my nephews. They killed so many people.”
Elea, Nya, and Esther are all confident that things are on the way up. “Liberia is good now,” Nya said. “Good for business. We’re the first in Africa to have a female president! That’s her,” he said pointing at a framed picture on the wall. There in the picture, standing next to the President, was Elea. She met the President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, when she visited Providence in 2006. Thousands of Liberians gathered in Kennedy Plaza to sing, chant, play drums, and watch the President give a speech. “Each and every one of you has a role,” the President said. “Each and every one of you has a contribution to make to help Liberia achieve a vision that includes peace, reconciliation, and national credibility.”
Providence’s Liberian population may be small, but for Liberians, it’s expansive and important. It has churches, community associations, and dozens of events a year—balls, benefits, talent shows, even a Miss Liberia Rhode Island competition—but things like that aren’t always so accessible. But eating good food at a restaurant is easy. It’s the best way to see a slice of life not generally on display.
GRACE DUNHAM B’14 licked the rice bread and fried chicken grease off her fingers.