Pennies on the dollar

What you see in the picture is a young woman gathering up worn Liberian Dollars exchanged for cinnamon buns. The bill in her hand with green print is worth 100 of them, about $0.85 Canadian Dollars–enough for two buns.

These buns in the picture look luminous, bright against the rough wooden table, the worn bills, the dirt underfoot making up the sidewalks and the road. This table was right by the dirt road, which was mud in August. In my memory I also see the low buildings beyond the frame below the star and stripe of the Liberian flag strung up on a rusty pole. Somewhere in this village I suppose there was an oven. Because of the poverty and the grinding zero-sum choices I inferred from the surroundings, an oven strikes me now as an unusual thing to have in this little place.

It has been 3.5 years since I was there, eating a cinnamon bun after taking this picture. In hindsight the scene is quite Liberian to me. If you asked me “show me one representative picture of Liberia,” this one would work. It’s Liberian to me because of its Americana, and how the presence of the buns reminds me of human dignity.


Most African countries we visited had some doughy delight I ate as often as I could. Uganda had its mandazi that left your fingers oily. Tanzania had its rice flour and coconut vitumbua. Angola and Mozambique had their fresh baguettes, perfect with an avocado sliced onto them. Liberia was different because in addition to having its own take on the African-country donut, it had cinnamon buns and baked cookies that reminded me of North America.

What is a cinnamon bun if not American? I’d wanted that question to be rhetorical, but I do my research and it looks like it is a legitimate question (apparently it has Scandinavian origins, but work with me). Given that Liberia was colonized by freed American slaves, it’s easy to come up with a story of cinnamon buns being an import of the American Colonization Society, Mississippi in Africa, or the like

Those stained Liberian Dollars look American. It’s the 4 instances of the bill’s numberal, 1 per corner. It’s the conspicuously pale man, with his hair combed down and shirt buttoned up with a tie. Written overhead is REPUBLIC OF LIBERIA, in something like the Banknote Roman of American Dollars, a currency 156 times as valuable, from a country with over 60 times the people, including up to 500,000 people of the Liberian diaspora. 

Zuleka Duada, author of Ba-Ya Play Cook, is one of these 500,000 Liberian diaspora folks. She wants more people, especially Americans, to learn that Liberia is not some random country in Africa. In her words it’s one with a “stained” history with America. In her interview with Pansa Pansa, Duada opines on the connection between Liberia and America, and shares her personal story, including why she avoids fireworks and gun ranges. I listened to the conversation and admired how Duada talks about both bright spots and dark spots of life in Liberia. Sharing both can be vulnerable and tricky to do in a world where racism and prejudice can lead people to adopt one-dimensional, negative views of a place and people they don’t know. 

To think of the past few hundred years of history in what is now Liberia, it’s just wild to me. The people who were living in what is now Liberia seemed to, from what I can find, largely avoid being enslaved and sent to the Americas. They nonetheless were profoundly impacted by the slave trade in America. These people became the neighbours and subjugates of freed slaves who came (or were sent) to the land. There the Americo-Liberians established the world’s first black republic. It was run as a segregationist state, in that infrastructure and rights were limited for indigenous groups from 1847 until the early to mid 20th century. Hurt people hurt people, who then hurt people–surely a massive oversimplification, but it’s what comes to mind for me. This segregation seems to have sowed the seeds for the Liberian civil wars in the 80s and 90s. It was the cliched images of these wars–the child soldiers toting automatic weapons–that I thought of when I thought of Liberia, that and Ebola. This was back before I had the opportunity to add a bit of nuance to my impression, like memories of delicious baked goods and soft-spoken, hospitable families working on the Firestone plantation and not eating breakfast.

Absurdity and dignity

It was hard to understand how anything gets done in the northeast of Liberia where we found those cinnamon buns, on account of the roads. (The roads are more navigable elsewhere in the country.) Here in the northeast 2 provincial capitals are connected by the one road that we cycled on from Toe Town to Gompa City. This road seemed to be important because it was used by large trucks transporting goods. But in August 2019 this road was a continuous pit of ochre mud that presented a major challenge for all traffic. Let me be concrete: Trucks, motorbikes, bicycles stuck in a standstill of an unknown duration. 

Coming across cinnamon buns seemed frivolous and irrational in this context, especially given how Liberia’s inflation-adjusted GDP per capita sits around $600 USD (source). One might expect more prefunctory or functional foods that are quicker to make or higher in calories. But isn’t that just it, that which makes us humans: the search for pleasure, frivolity, in spite of the grind, because of the grind, to give some meaning to the grind.

I believe it is possible to admire the presence of fresh-baked cinnamon buns along a sad excuse for a highway in Liberia, the absurdity of this juxtaposition. To see the dignity in people’s experience without denying the injustice of their struggles. By “dignity” I mean the actions people take that uphold the belief that they are intrinsically worthy of respect, pleasure, and a flourishing life with many facets, including meaning and joy. 


Sources not cited but that helped me write this post:

The saddest thing in the world is not poverty; it’s loss of dignity (Guardian)

“They’re Poor, But They’re Happy” (Daniel Baylis)

Note: “Pennies on the dollar” is the name Evan gave the photo featured in this post.

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