Palm butter is a staple Liberian dish. Liberians mainly from southeast, they say, will have no problem eating rice with palm butter all year round. [Oops, stereotype.] Sometimes when the palm nuts from which palm butter is prepared are rotten, Kru, Grebo or Krahn mothers have a way of adding some things to take away or neutralize the smell of the rotten palm nuts. One of such scent neutralizing material is a fire coal or charcoal. The fire coal itself is not edible. It is often thrown away when the palm butter is prepared and ready to be consumed. Someone who is perhaps not familiar with such culture might have assumed, seeing the black fire coal in a cooked palm butter, that it was being substituted for meat and therefore meant to be eaten. I am of the opinion that the belief that Krahn people eat fire coal may have originated from here.
It is also common for Krahn as well as Grebo and maybe Kru people to to use fire coal to brush their teeth during the morning hours. I have seen that happen early in the morning as men, women and children circle the fire hearth, the charcoal is used to brush the outside of the teeth. After the back and forth hand motion is repeated several time making the mouth as black as charcoal, the mouth is rinsed with clean water and the mouth feeling fresh and sparkling clean.
I have experienced the first two so decided to speak with some of my Krahn friends for confirmation. One confirmed and told me another story which he also thought might have given rise to the stereotype. He said there is certain soup that is prepared mainly because of its medicinal value. While the soup is being cooked, charcoal is added so as to darken the color. He was not sure which illness such dark soup was meant to treat but growing up in Konobo, Grand Gedeh County, he has seen that such being prepared and therefore believes the stereotype that Krahn people eat charcoal might have come from there as well.
Krahn People did not Eat Fire Coal
By Bai M Gbala, Sr.
A little bit of history from way back, during my high school days (1960s) of the Lab High at the University of Liberia will provide the perspective. Indeed, the argument (to denigrate, defame and socially-ostracize) is not only against the Krahn people, but also all, so-called and labeled “country people”. It was proper at the time to “belong”, to be “quee” (civilized) by adoption, name-change to you know what.
In our high school class, predominantly the sons and daughters of the-then high & mighty, were the late Pete Kpan (a Kru), the late Gus Marwieh (a Sapo-Krahn, who later became Bishop, the Reverend Dr.) and Bai Gbala, a Krahn. We were the “big three, country boys”, often the subject of fun-making stories, the laughing and ridiculed stock of these sons and daughters. For example, of intense ridicule were the unfamiliar, strange and funny names of Kpan, Marwieh and Gbala. But we kept our sights high; for, we led the class of 1960 in debates, student politics of class and senate presidents, and in academic terms.
Now, the fire coal or charcoal issue; no, Krahn people did not, do not “eat fire coal”. However, they used charcoal, a jet black, soft, powdery residue, processed from the wood of a tree known and called “dolowey” in Krahn. This jet black, soft, powdery substance is used to color “soup” made from Okra. Picked, boiled and mashed, the resulting Okra soup was or is purely white, looks like or reminds the Krahn people of snat, the white excretion from the human nose; so, this jet black, soft, powdery and clean substance was used to color or darken the Okra soup. The “quee,” or “civilized” used, continue to use today, tomato paste to color white, pepper soup, remember?
In fact, this was the Krahn system of food-coloring and flavoring; the coloring/flavoring agents are not edible, food items in and of themselves. Look around you today; you will find soft drinks, ice cream, booze and all types of fast-food items that thrive on coloring and flavoring. This was what the Krahn people did some 75 to 100 years ago!! They did not “eat fire coal.” END
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