LIBERIA: She Can’t See, But She is Baking Breads & Cakes

By Samuel G. Dweh—freelance Development Journalist—+231 (0)886618906/776583266/samuelosophy@yahoo.com/samuelosophy1@gmail.com

She showered praises on former First Lady, Jewel Howard-Taylor (now Vice President of Liberia), for establishing an NGO that took her from the “street” and put her into a baking school….

Madam Christine M. Vanjah  at work on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. In the background: Two of her elder children—Precious and George

This story has four phases: At the Bakery, the only provider of Family’s needs, educational backgrounds, and Beginning of Disability, and Challenges

AT THE BAKERY

Between 11am and 1pm of June 15, 2021, visually impaired Christine Mamey Vanjah—born  on the 14th day of December of 1972—stood behind a wooden table hosting these items: a stack of three 15-liter butter buckets (one with butter; two with flour); 20-liter plastic bucket with various plastic parcels of different baking materials; different shapes and sizes of aluminum baking pans; two large kitchen pans; one tin of baking powder; one made-in-Liberia metallic grating machine (hand-operated); and three transparent plastic bags containing granule sugar, nutmegs, and salt.

Under the table was a white 20-liter gallon with clear water.

She was scrapping one of the nutmegs against the grating machine and the grinded portions of the nutmeg dropping into a kitchen pan containing six cups of flour and half cup of sugar.

Behind her was her bakery: A  wall-less structure made of palm thatch (roof) standing on four sticks (pillars) and old ice-producing cabin (Freezer)—now transformed into a baking device—with compartments to host aluminum pans with the pastry mixtures she was preparing. Charcoals were at the base of the “oven” (Freezer)

The “bakery” was at the side of a three-bedroom house (painted green) she occupies with her three biological children,  one grand daughter, and  two of her relatives’ male children (each below age 13) she has absorbed into her nucleus family. The house is situated three meters off the junction of Mickey Gray community, about five meters off Duport Road in Paynesville City, outside Liberia’s Capital.

“Because of my visual impairment, or blindness, my children assist me with bringing out my baking materials from inside the house, set the mixture table, and set the oven, but I do all the other parts alone,” Madam Vanjah responded to question from this writer.

Two of her three children—Precious Vanjah Dahn, age 25 (married); and George Zinnah (age) 24—were assisting with preparations. The third child, Beverlyn Zinnah, age 22, was away.

During taking of photo for this story, the baker couldn’t remove her Coronavirus (COVID-19) mask and head tie, for full view of her face for readers of the story, on health reasons.

“The rule of pastry production says, a baker should always cover his or her head when preparing foods. For the face mask, you know the World Health Organization hasn’t declared Liberia free of the coronavirus,” the professional woman responded to the journalist’s comment about her “half facial visibility.”

Responding to question about rent for where she lives, Madam Vanjah stated:

“I’m not paying rent for this house, but I’m not a permanent resident. The house is for my biological sister, who came to my rescue after my husband abandoned me with our children in a rented house, due to my disability.”

Every six cups of flours produce thirty pieces of bread, each sold for twenty Liberian dollars (less than USD 0.20), Madam Vanjah said, and educated the journalist about her culinary arithmetic. “To every six cups of flour, I add half cup of butter, two spoonful of powdery form of nugmeg, and half cup of sugar.”

“Many of my customers have been telling me and my sales children that my bread is sweet and too big for the price, twenty dollars, but I can’t increase the price now, due to current economic condition with most people, and my desperate need for money to support my family,” she said.

At a two-day Workshop (16-17 February, 2021) on “work-related issues” of persons with disabilities (venue: Liberia Chamber of Commerce, Capitol Bye-Pass, Monrovia): Madam Christine M. Vanjah promoting one of her culinary productions (rice bread) free to participants (offering it free) Workshop sponsored by Association Friends of Raoul Follereau (AIFO), an Italian humanitarian organization, in partnership with International Labour Organization (ILO), the National Union of Organizations of the Disabled (NUOD), Liberia Labour Congress (LCC), National Commission on Persons with Disabilities (NCD), other partners.

Madam Vanjah told me during the interview at her business center she yearns to impart into other people the culinary knowledge she got prior to her visual impairment.

“I want to open a pastry school to impart into other people what somebody had imparted into me at a pastry school,” Madam Vanjah said to the visiting journalist, and showed a ‘training pamphlet’—six  sheets of white A4 stationery papers stuck together by an office pin. Each of the sheets contained name of a different pastry production and methods of preparation. Some of the names in the Lessons Pamphlet were: Cinemon Roll, Garri Cookie, Coconut Tie and Pie, Cake Bread, Pineapple Up Side Down, Plain Cake, and Corn Bread.

“Each course will run for nine months, and each student who stayed throughout the entire course will be given a free teaching pamphlet,” Madam Vanjah explained.

On her personal production ability, Madam Vanjah bragged: “I can mix and bake two different foods in one hour!”

She said her usual daily production time is once. “But, I can bake two times—in the morning and in the evening—when there’s pressure on me to settle my daily savings, or Susu, obligation with the Susu leader, or when my children are being threatened with expulsion from their schools on school fees problem,” she stated.

The school fees-related obligations are for George Zinnah (in 12th Grade) and Beverlyn Zinnah (11th Grade)—both of Nathan E. Gibson High School, situated along Parker Paint Community Road, which joins with the street (Duport Road) that passes through the community hosting Madam Vanjah’s home.

The eldest child, Precious, graduated from High School and is searching for job in the media—after graduating from the International School of Journalism, in Liberia, in 2017. “I also want to learn writing,” she told this writer, after he introduced himself as president of Liberia Association of Writers (LAW)

THE ONLY PROVIDER OF FAMILY’S NEEDS

Madam Christine Mamey Vanjah became the only provider of her family after her husband, Mr. Zinnah, left in 2020—abruptly “terminating a marriage that had lived through nineteen unbroken years,” the jilted woman, who had resorted to using her father’s surname, said in a plaintive tone.

“Without a man as husband, or boyfriend, I’m the only person providing the needs for myself, my biological children, and other children living with me. The major needs are: foods, school feeds, and medications, and sometime clothes for the children,” she enumerated.

Her regular sales persons are Aaron Dolo (age 12) and Samuel Dahn (age 11)—restricted to selling within the community.

“The senior ones assist in the selling after their school time and during weekends,” the single mother and sole family’s needs provider revealed to the interviewing journalist.

Because of the presence of her children during this writer’s interview with her, questions about Madam Vanjah’s later-turned-sour-marriage were postponed to another day—when the children would be absent. However, she had spilled it out in the previous year (2020) during this writer’s exclusive interview with her at the 2020’s White Cane Safety Day celebration, held in Grand Bassa County. (This journalist covered the celebration on hire by the National Union of Organizations for the Disabled—NUOD—an independent Liberian advocacy and capacity-building organization, led by physically challenged Madam Naomi B. Harris as president)

This writer’s attraction to Madam Vanjah at the White Cane Safety Day celebration was based on her “motivational comments” to the body of PWDs at the indoor segment of the program. She had has said to the disabled people during the questions/comments segment of the celebration’s indoor segment: “We, blind people, should use other parts of our body to get our needs and wants, instead of always begging on the street or complaining to the Government. I’m using my hands to bake various kinds of bread and I know how to make wedding cakes on the knowledge I acquired several years ago.”

After the White Cane Safety Day program, this writer engaged the motivational speaker and a role model of economic self-reliance in the Liberian Disability Community.

“I was in a relationship with a man who is the father of my only child, a female, born in June, 1997. But he left me in the twenty-eighth year of relationship, in January, 2020,” she had revealed.

EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUNDS

Ms. Christine Vanjah’s academic education halted when she was in the 8th grade, caused by her Country’s civil war, she admitted. “This happened in 2005, when the war has intensified. The school is in Marysburg, Arthington, a place many people call ‘Congo people settlement’. I forgot the school’s name now,” she said.

When the war ended, she enrolled into another Elementary school, owned by a Nigerian, in Monrovia, but dropped out weeks later, due to visual problem. “I always used to see the letters on the black board moving like images on a computer’s screen. My blindness was starting,” she said.

When her slightly condition was deteriorating,  Madam Christine Mamey enrolled into an Adult Literacy School, named ALFALIT, established  by a Liberian Clergyman, Rev. Emmanuel J. Giddings, in 2006. She entered in 2008.

“But I dropped out in 2009, after completing Reading Book, a First Semester’s Program, because my visual problem became worse. I couldn’t see anything during this time. But the School assigned a teacher to me at my house, because I used to perform well when I was in the classroom,” she said.

She acquired her pastry knowledge from the Esther Gibson Pastry School of Decoration in 1999—during the Presidency of Mr. Charles McArthur Taylor—and graduated in 2001. During that time the School was in the Capitol Bye-Pass community, in Monrovia. She praised the First Lady during that time, Jewel Howard Taylor (who is now Liberia’s Vice President) , for her pastry education through the First Lady’s personal vocational education program for “street girls” during that time.

“I was living on the street, due to frustration. But some people came my way one day, while I was on the street, and said they working for the First Lady’s NGO offering free vocational education for wayward girls like me, during that time. On what they told me, I decided on acquiring vocational knowledge, education, so that I won’t depend on men for my living,” she confessed. Now, I can produce all kinds of bread—corn bread, short bread, rice bread, cassava bread, and many more. I can also produce cakes for various kinds of parties—birthday, wedding, and more.”

BEGINNING OF DISABILITY

Ms. Christine Mamey Vanjah in front of the venue of the 2021’s World White Cane Day    celebration in Grand Bassa County (Day One: October 14) Photo: Samuel G. Dweh, Journalist at the event.

“My blindness began with my left eye in 1997,” Ms. Christine Mamey Vanjay responded to my first inquiry. “During an early hour of a day in 1997, I felt an itch in my eye and began scratching the spot to ease the itching. But it couldn’t stop. I explained the condition to one elderly neighbor, who gave me a liquid medicine to put into my eye. But the liquid made the itching worse. Few days later, I couldn’t see any object with my left eye.”

On the question about visual impairment of the other eye, Madam Vanjah replied: “This happened in April, 2007. I felt something like a dark cloud fell on my right eyeball one evening, and I couldn’t see anything around me. I was now completely blind; none of my eyes was now functioning.”

CHALLENGES

Madam Vanjah called only three challenges confronting her as a business person and as sole provider of her dependents’ needs.

“I don’t have vehicle to take my breads and cakes around to schools, where more will be sold, and to venues of workshops where I have been asked to supply. I don’t have enough money to expand my business, including opening of my pastry school. And I don’t have enough money to keep my children in school during this national difficult economic period,” she explained her constraints.

On the interviewing journalist’s question about her access to public buildings outside, the visually impaired woman replied: “This is another challenge. But this is not only for me, but also for all other disabled people in Liberia. Most of the public buildings, including those of the Government, are not accessible to disabled people. No level path, or ram, for the blind woman or man, for the person in a wheel chair, or for the person on crutches, to go in or come out. This is an everyday phenomenon in Liberia—a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Every day I pray to God to take my mind off the inaccessibility issue, because thinking about that adds to my daily stress related to my business and how to provide my family’s needs.”

Madam Christine Mamey Vanjah was referring to Article 9 of the UNCRPD that mandates every Signatory, or UN member Country, to ensure construction of level path in every “public building” for persons living with disabilities in that country to move freely into or come out of the building.    

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