Light glitters from reflective strands hanging in the restaurant window, sparkling off an enormous plate of grilled chicken and achieke, a couscous-like dish made from ground cassava. Next to the chicken is a bowl of peanut soup, piled with meats and accompanied by a sticky ball of mashed cassava known as fufu.
"Seventy percent of my ingredients come from Africa," says Fanta Fofana, the owner of Le Mandingue restaurant in Philadelphia. She is youthful-looking in her early 40s, with arched eyebrows penciled on her forehead. She walks with an almost imperceptible limp.
Fofana ships in cassava, peanut butter, palm oil, plantains, greens, specialty spices, and more from across the Atlantic. The meat comes from local farms. Six days a week, her restaurant serves heaping piles of rice, cassava leaves, fish, and other delicacies to a mostly African clientele.
Fofana is one of an estimated 15,000 Liberians living in the Philadelphia area, most of whom fled their native country during 14 years of brutal civil war that raged from 1989 until 2003. The bulk of the population is concentrated in far Southwest Philadelphia in a neighborhood sometimes called "Little Monrovia," with a commercial corridor on Woodland Avenue dotted with storefront churches and African grocery stores. Many of the buildings on the street are run-down or vacant, but Le Mandingue stands out with colorful neon lighting beckoning visitors in the night.
Customers come and go throughout the evening, picking up takeout or eating in. A group of men lingers by the cash register, discussing in accented English the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Al Jazeera plays on televisions mounted around the dining room, reporting on Obama's immigration address.
The restaurant serves as a comforting beacon for people who have left their home behind, sometimes for good. "African food is very special," Fofana says. "We miss our food." Her journey is one of the most extraordinary of all.
Fofana is a member of the Mandingo tribe, descendants of an ancient Malian empire with a diaspora spread across West Africa and the Americas. She grew up in Sanniquellie, the capital of Nimba County in Northeast Liberia, set in a tropical rain forest and known for rice and rubber production. As a teenager, she worked with her mother in a restaurant, learning cooking and business skills.
Everything changed in December 1989 when the war broke out and rebel leader Charles Taylor entered Nimba County from across the border in Cote D'Ivoire.
"We tried to flee but we couldn't go nowhere," says Fofana, who was 17 at the time. "They came to kill the men and take the women." The rebels murdered her father and her brothers. She and her mother were taken prisoner, and for over a year the soldiers held her captive, forcing her into servitude. She was beaten after several failed attempts at escape, but never gave up hope. One day, when the rebels were off fighting, she and some others walked away through the jungle and eventually made it across the border to Guinea. "Our feet were swollen, I had cuts on my feet, and I had just one suit of clothes," she remembers.
She met her husband in Guinea, and after several years was able to get a visa to come to the United States in 1996. The couple settled in Philadelphia and Fofana started taking classes to become a nurse.
She had a job caring for developmentally disabled adults and was building a new life when she suffered a debilitating car accident. "Sometimes you escape one thing and it's another thing," she says.
Following 12 hours in the operating room, her left leg was amputated. "My entire body was swollen," Fofana says. "I kept feeling pain in my left leg, then I reached down and, Oh my God, my leg is gone."
Her friends told her it was time to give up and go back to Africa, but she refused. "When things happen, when it's a bad situation, make the best of it," she says. "If you sit there and get sorry for yourself you will only get more and more depressed."
She was fitted for a prosthetic, and then learned to walk and drive a car again. With her savings plus disability money from the accident, she decided to open a restaurant to showcase the Liberian meals she had learned to make as a child. After securing a former dollar store and renovating the inside, her plans were scuttled by some politically powerful neighbors who didn't want a restaurant in the building. "Every penny that I had, I spent," she says.
Nearly broke, she and her husband found another empty store with cheaper rent, and she took a loan from her brother to meet the startup costs. In 2005, Le Mandingue served its first meal. "The first day I open, everybody ate free," she says. "The next day, I'm in business."
After three weeks, she had so many customers that she couldn't handle all the cooking, so she started hiring more Liberians to work in the kitchen. She's hired many more West African immigrants in the past decade, providing a crucial leg-up for people trying to make a new start. "Some people don't even have family members to help them," she says, lamenting that those with no source of income could resort to thievery or prostitution.
Now Le Mandingue is a resource for immigrants looking for familiar food in a strange land. "The food is like home-made food," Fofana says. She points out that to buy all the ingredients separately to make true Liberian-style food in America would cost at least $50; each dish has small amounts of many different meats and spices, so it's not practical to make for a single meal at home. Instead, people can come out to the restaurant, meet with the community and spend $10 for a taste of their native land.
Today she and her husband own the restaurant building, their own house and have five children. "I may not be able to jump high up in the air," she says, "but I make sure nothing slows me down."