Interview with Jasmine Blanks Jones
Transcribed & Edited by Tiffany J. Pye
Note: I want to give a quick apology for forgetting Jasmine's married name when I mentioned her in the newsletter! It's still so new!
I did an impromptu interview with my cousin back in August about her recent time in Liberia. This interview was done via my laptop camera before I realized what bad quality it is. Being that it was fuzzy and the audio was funky, I decided to transcribe the interview so as not to lose all the great info that was shared. Enjoy!
T: Can you let us know what you do in Liberia?
J: I run a nonprofit called B4 Youth Theatre. It stands for burning barriers, building bridges. We're essentially a theatre company that does social justice work through music, dance, and drama. We were established in 2010, and since then we've had more than 400 young people go through our program.
T: Why Liberia?
J: Liberia has a really interesting history. They experienced a 14 year long civil war, that ended in 2003. It did a lot to demolish the education sector, the art and cultural sector, just about every sector. But the country is resilient, and it's rebuilding day by day. Every time I go, there are improvements. In 2009, the president of Liberia, came to speak at the University of Minnesota, where I was getting my Master's. She spoke about the war and the ramifications on the education sector. I thought there was something I could do. So I went to Liberia for the summer and I started this program model, and it grew.
T: What made you fall in love with Liberia? What makes you keep going back?
J: From the beginning of my time there, I would describe Liberia, as a Black American, as a going home twice. So generally as Black Americans, we have a sense that we're from the continent; we're all from Africa, so if we go back, that's going home. Liberia is special because the history is really unique. There were freed Americans, Black people that had been enslaved prior to the Civil War in the United States. They went to live in Africa, and the place that they settled was Liberia. So there are things within the culture that are very familiar. I know the first time I sat down to eat with a family there, I was looking in the bowl, like "what is this?" And they said "that's a pig's foot". I said "a pig's foot!" What am I, in South Carolina...Virginia...North Carolina...?! I feel like I'm back in the Black American south.
From the food to the superior sense of fashion, to trivial small things that rang with me well. It's the same gestures, the same style of expression. So there were just things that really just rang true with me. Things that resonated with what I understood about my own culture, in small ways and in large ways. Those things drew me in, the people definitely drew me in; very warm and very welcoming. I stay with a family when I'm there. I connected with this family because the first time I went there, there was an issue with the plane while in transit. So the plane got grounded in the Ivory Coast for two days. I didn't have a visa to be in the Ivory Coast, so I had to surrender my passport in order to stay in the hotel. And there was one young woman on the flight who was Liberian, and we got along, and I just followed her around like a little baby bird, and we got to be very good friends. So I stay with her family now when I'm there, and she was actually just in the United States a few weeks ago. She stayed with me and my husband while she was here. So you can really build good relationships with people there.
T: So where do you stay?
J: I stay in Monrovia for the most part, but I spend a lot of my time in Bonga, which is in the center of the country. I've seen a lot of the country over these past 7 years now that I've been going.
T: For people wanting to travel to Liberia, what kinds of things should they do?
J: Well if you're traveling on a US passport, and you have a few extra days to spare, you take Royal Air Maroc because they have a long layover in Casablanca. Because the layover is 15 hours long, they will have a shuttle that will take you to a hotel that's covered (the cost is covered; it's free!), so you'll have a room if you want to relax. There's a beautiful pool, and they give you lunch and dinner. If you have a little money to spend, it's $55 to get a taxi for 3 hours to go to Medina. You can go to the big mosque that's in Casablanca. That's the best way to get there. You have to be traveling on a passport that's acceptable in Morocco. If you're not sure, you definitely check that out.
If you go through Brussels Airlines, there's about a 6 hour layover. Most people can get out of that airport, onto the train, and into the city of Brussels. I have a waffle shop that I always go to, and I always get the same order with strawberries, whipped cream, and chocolate fudge, and I get my cappuccino. Then I go to my favorite chocolate store, and I order my truffles with the champagne in them, and all kinds of goodies! Then I make it back to the airport.
So that's a quick trip; I recommend that highly.
In Liberia, once there, there's a growing tourism industry. There are a lot of things to be seen. There's a lot of hype about Monkey Island. There's Kpatawee, which is an amazing waterfall that I have actually not been to because I went during rainy season with a group. In the rainy season, there's lots of mud, so we got stuck in the mud on the way there. Three men with high boots and helmets had to push us out! Those are two of the big things to do. Providence Island is where the settlers first landed. That's a really neat place as well. There's a lot that you'll find yourself very surprised about. Almost every state on the east coast of the United States had some type of hand in what happened in Liberia. There's a Georgia, a Maryland, and a Virginia in Liberia! There's a lot of history there. They are currently redoing the National Museum that has artifacts from prior to the 1800s, when the American settlers came. They're reopening it within the next few months.
T: So what are some foods that someone would HAVE TO try?
J: My favorite food is casava leaf. I like casava leaf any day, every day, all day. I like it pounded with peanut butter. It sounds really strange; it's not peanut butter like you get out of a jar that's all creamy. It's like the actual peanut, and it just gives it this...I don't even know how to describe it. It also has pepper and the different meats. So the food in general is called by the vegetable. There might be any number of the things with it. What's in it? Who knows! But you can ask for certain things. Everything is over rice or fufu. So if you're not eating a rice dish, you're probably having like fufu with goat soup...my second favorite. Palm butter... with actual palm nut. It's phenomenal. It takes a little longer to prepare because you have to sift out the pulp. There's nothing there that I don't like. You can buy lobster from the water there and have someone make it for you. Same thing with most fish and crabs. Crab and palm butter is phenomenal. I can go on and on about food. Casava bread, rice bread, banana bread. The baked goods are really good, and a lot of the time, they're made in a coal oven.
T: The last thing I'll ask about is shopping. You always come back with clothes.
J: I do! So much so that we do fashion shows, which you've been a model for: Fashions from the Mother Land. So you can find tailors there that charge very reasonable prices. You go into the market and you buy whatever fabric, they're called lapas, and you take it to the tailor. You sit with the tailor and you choose a style together, or you can even take your own design and talk through with them how they will put it together. They measure you, and usually within about a week's time, they can have seven pieces done for you. So that's one of my favorite ways to get clothes. But you can buy a lot of clothes on the street. You can go to streets in Monrovia and see clothes and clothes and clothes. I bought this really adorable dress for my friend's baby that was 300 Liberian dollars, which is all of $3.50 US.
T: Thank you for the information; for taking the time out to tell us what you do, and why you go to Liberia. For any of you guys interested in Liberia, now you have some information!
Belgium - On short layover, take the train to Gare Central. Walk to the Grand Place. Have a waffle at Gaufre de Bruxelles (has flags above the entrance). Afterwards, take Rue de la Reine Koninginne to buy amazing truffles at La Belgique Gourmande. Enjoy photos of historic monuments and of the Grand Place before you head back to the train station to continue your journey. Cost of stopover - approx. $60 depending on what you eat and how many truffles you buy!
Casablanca - If you're flying Royal Air Maroc to Liberia, there's a super long layover in Casablanca, BUT the airline covers a daytime hotel stay with lunch and dinner. So pack your swimsuit and enjoy their fabulous pool. Between meals, splurge on the $55 for three hours in a taxi to see the mosque and do some shopping in Medina. If you're a foodie like me, stop for a snack or for freshly squeezed juice at Restaurant Les Fleurs in Casablanca.
In Liberia, check out www.west-tourism.com for a list of excursions.
For more information on Jasmine's nonprofit, click -> https://www.facebook.com/B4YTLIB/