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Soccer and Jollof: How Liberians Rebranded Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving for Liberians is a day on the beach, Brenda Brewer Moore explains to NPR.

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Photo: Rimma Bondarenko (Shutterstock)

200 years ago, the first group of formerly enslaved African Americans resettled in the U.S. Colony of Liberia. While some were eager to begin life anew with greater freedom and independence away from the memory of enslavement, others were unsure about the relocation, as even those with African roots had very little cultural connection with the land or its people. Moreover, most of the settlers had no ancestral tie to Liberia at all. To ease the transition, if only a little, Americo-Liberians, as these settlers and their descendants are known, brought their American traditions with them across the Atlantic. One such tradition was the celebration of Thanksgiving. But these days, it’s no turkey turn up.

Similar to the U.S.,there has been great debate in the country over the years as to whether or not to continue celebrating Thanksgiving. Here in America, the focus has been on debunking the myth surrounding the holiday that is based upon a fraudulent story. We know by now that the pilgrims did anything but come in peace, and the continued celebration of genocide seems even more barbaric. Because of this, some have suggested doing away with the holiday all together, while others have suggested rebranding it as a day of atonement and fasting.

In Liberia, the withdrawal of the celebration has more to do with the fact that it was never their holiday from the beginning. Some decades ago, many Liberians saw Thanksgiving day as a day of religious observation. Previous generations recall spending hours in church in lengthy services held to give thanks to God for everything that came to mind. Brenda Brewer Moore, activist, educator, and snail farmer, grew up under this generation, and has insisted along many others, that for her family, things would be a bit different.

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“Some other families have barbecues and grill at home.” Moore told NPR. I don’t like to cook, so for my family, we see it as a nice holiday to rest and watch movies. I’ve been very deliberate about not doing some of the things my mom insisted that I do, like staying 5 or 6 hours at church. If you get a day off from school and work, rest.”

Hallelujah to that.

Many Liberians consider the holiday a beach day, celebrating with barbecues and full fledged soccer tournaments in the sand. Their favorite holiday meal? Jollof rice – which Moore insists is “no comparison with Ghanaian jollof and Nigerian jollof.” The Liberian version is a much spicier rendition with prawns, chicken, and pork in one dish.

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“With us, if you cook food in Liberia and you cook only one meat, we consider that a poor man’s food.” Moore commented. “Things are hard on you. If you just have one meat, people are going to say this wasn’t nice.”

When asked what Americans should know about Liberia this Thanksgiving, Moore had this to say:

“A little too much of our identity has been attached to the U.S., and some of it hasn’t been realistic. So the U.S. takes its independence in July. We take ours the same month. America takes their Thanksgiving in November and we take our Thanksgiving in November. We do elections at the same time of year America is doing elections. But it rains heavily here, so you have low voter turnout. So we as a people are questioning a lot more now. I think it’s a good thing and I think we should be thankful for that because in the process of questioning, we are able to reflect and hopefully effect change.”