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  • Writer's pictureGeorgie Davis

Rice-A Reason to Fight, Part 1 of 2

1979, Monrovia, Liberia


Rice was serious business. Serious as national security, some might say. I didn’t understand the gravity of its effect until one fateful day in April—the day that would be the beginning of the end for our beloved country.

Large sacks of rice, branded with foreign logos, were stacked high in just about every shop in town. The locally grown 'country rice,’ sold in smaller sacks, was not as popular with customers and took longer to prepare. It’s coarse, uneven texture looked like the kernels had been hacked off with a dull knife.

Country rice required sifting to weed out hulls, dust, and the jet-black pebbles hiding among the grains. The task looked easy for the local women who crouched on the ground, flicking their wrists against their rice fanners. I loved to watch as the wind from their breath sprinkled the chaff into the air.

I tried my hand at fanning rice. Sweat trickled down my forehead as I squatted on the front porch, my wrists pressed firmly against the flattened basket. Despite countless attempts to separate the unwanted debris, the good grains always ended up falling at my feet instead of staying in the fanner where they belonged.

A meal without rice was not a meal at all.

Whether imported or locally grown—a meal without rice was not a meal at all. A Liberian man could snack on juicy mangoes, freshly cracked coconuts, or boiled cassava throughout the day. But if rice hadn’t made it into his belly, he would declare, "I haven't eaten today."

Daddy often encountered soldiers on foot when he traveled on dusty roads between villages. Their once-dark green uniforms faded, and their faces were drawn from exhaustion. Villagers showed their gratitude to soldiers entering their town by providing food and supplies. The provisions were always the same—a squawking chicken, a dollar bill, and six cups of rice.

At home one cloudy March morning, Mommy served breakfast from her usual spot behind the counter. Thunder rumbled. The promise of rain and the smell of warm, melted butter put everyone in a cheerful mood. Our spoons clinked on bowls of steaming oatmeal while we sat at the kitchen bar. I sprinkled in a generous amount of sugar. And milk. The imported powdered kind.

Daddy reached for his little notepad, the one he always kept in his front pocket. He flipped through the pages filled with scribbles and crossed-out entries, landed in the middle, and read his to-do list out loud. I imagined he wanted to get a head start on answering Mommy’s morning questions.

Mommy pushed a glass of chocolate milk in front of Sharminna. “Henry, how are you going to get all that done today?”

After dipping a corner in his warm tea, Daddy took a bite of toast. “I don’t know, Doris, and I’ve also got to make a trip into town.”

“Add rice to your list,” Mommy said. “We’re about to out."

She could stretch fifty pounds over an entire month.

Rice remained a staple food for us, even after Rosy and Becky left for nursing school. Mommy continued to buy fifty-pound bags at a time, which she stretched over an entire month as long as we didn't have too many visitors dropping in at the precise moment of our afternoon meal. In the world of societal norms, the simple phrase "Come, let's eat" held great significance.

Daddy leaned across the counter, turned on the radio, and hummed along with the national anthem—the blaring introduction to the morning news.

I joined Bertie in singing the lyrics: "All hail, Liberia, hail. All hail… This glorious land of liberty shall long be ours…”

After the anthem, Daddy turned up the volume and scooted back onto his seat, an index finger pressed to his lips. “The news is on. Everyone quiet.”

I was content to stay silent. At thirteen, my mind was occupied with adolescent musings, and the background chatter seemed unimportant in comparison. However, within minutes, my concentration was interrupted by a sudden movement from Daddy.

I glanced from my breakfast bowl to see him push his half-eaten cereal across the counter. He stood abruptly and slammed his open palm against his forehead, a gesture I knew all too well—a sure sign he’d made a mistake. Normally, he pounded his head three times while muttering to himself, "Stupid, stupid, stupid.” But this time, he hadn’t fumbled.

I took a guess. Something on the news upset him. Why hadn't I been listening?

I shifted in my seat and glanced across the counter, where he paced the kitchen floor. The skin around his eyes tightened into deep creases.

Daddy lowered his head, took a deep breath then blew it out. “If the government goes through with this, there will be trouble... Liberians are serious about their ‘rice business,’ and they’re not going to roll over on their mats this time."

"Empty belly can't stand."

The tension in the room began to rise. Bertie scooted her chair back with a screech against the linoleum-tiled floor. Her face showed signs of empathy.

“Daddy, you know what they say, right?

“Who are ‘they'?’”

“Liberians—They always say this when they haven't eaten rice.”

“What do Liberians say?”

“They say, ‘Empty belly can't stand.’”

Daddy’s frown turned into a grin. He chuckled. “Isn’t that the truth, my dear. And bellies will be empty if the government persists with this nonsense. We can afford the upcharge, but our Liberian friends will be hard-pressed and hungry."

The Country People struggled to make ends meet with an average income of eighty dollars a month. The price of a 100-pound bag of rice, which fed a family for a month, had already risen to twenty-two dollars. The government planned to increase the price to thirty dollars a bag.

The Agriculture Minister argued higher rice prices would motivate local farmers to plant more 'Country rice,’ which would reduce the people’s reliance on imported grains. However, Liberian citizens found it difficult to understand how increasing the cost of their main food staple would make the country more self-sufficient. Besides, many of the indigenous rice farms were owned by Americo-Liberians who held high government positions. Increased profits would ultimately find their way into their pockets.

As Daddy predicted, the Country people pushed back.

Weeks after the announcement, the opposition political group known as the Progressive Alliance of Liberia organized a peaceful rally to express their discontent with the proposed price hike.

Bertie and I paid little attention.

Liberia was our safe haven. For more than a century, the country had been one of only two African nations to remain independent during Europe's "scramble for Africa."

On April 14th, citizens took their grievances to the streets. History would later document this day as the 1979 “Rice Riots.” What had been planned as a peaceful demonstration quickly turned explosive. Details will be forever remembered by those who witnessed it.

The thud of footsteps and voices grew louder as the crowd swelled...

More than two thousand marched on Monrovia’s streets that Saturday morning, waving plaques and chanting. Police officers stationed along the route prepared to keep order while the rhythmic thud of footsteps and voices rang louder. The crowd swelled to more than ten thousand when Grona boys joined the frenzied atmosphere.

President Tolbert sent armed soldiers and tanks to squash the rally, but the protesters persisted. Their voices grew stronger in the face of water hoses and tear gas. Police shot bullets into the air when a group of students broke from the crowd. They marched toward the Executive Mansion, and when a fight broke out at the mansion gate, police opened fire.

Citizens fell.

Hours later, when the commotion subsided, more than forty demonstrators lay dead, with hundreds more wounded.

These “first shots” between the Americo-Liberian government officials and the Country People set the stage for civil unrest that lasted more than twenty years. The end result would forever change the trajectory of Liberia’s history.

Still, Bertie and I paid little attention.

Part 2 can be found HERE

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Guest
Mar 24
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Felt as if I were there..you are very talented to be able to elicit that response from those reading!

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Guest
Mar 23
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very Interesting. Loved the historical part of the story. Well written.

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Guest
Mar 23
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Rice is life.

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