VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
A taste of Africa
May 16, 2012 by The IRC
|Ghanaian immigrant Olivia Laryea demonstrates cooking techniques to a student. Photo: Natalia Robert|
By Sarah Bright
Olivia Laryea fell in love with cooking at an early age. “In Ghana, everyone cooked in our house, everyone had a turn,” Laryea recalls. “We tried to outdo each other. I wanted to do better than my older sister!”
Years later, and many thousands of miles away, Laryea still has her eye on the competition. Now a successful caterer in San Diego, Laryea, 52, serves up hearty West African favorites—spicy meat kabobs, black-eyed peas, fried plantains and much more—at farmers markets and private
events. But turning her passion into a profession wasn’t easy.
Laryea immigrated to the United States in 1991 to escape political turmoil in Ghana. She was working as a caregiver when she heard about the STAR Center, a partnership between the International Rescue Committee and Women’s Empowerment International, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization that provides business loans and services to poor women in the U.S. and around the world. The center offers business loans to help women start or strengthen a small business, and technical assistance in areas including licensing and business planning. Since 2006, the center has helped 100 women to start or expand businesses in San Diego and provided entrepreneurial training to nearly 300 others.
After Laryea approached the STAR Center for support in setting up a catering business, the staff, including IRC microenterprise experts, helped her develop a professional logo, a website, advertising and even a menu, and connected her with sales opportunities in the community. “They taught me how to be successful,” Laryea says. “I’m finally doing what I love to do.”
Now Laryea is returning the favor. When the STAR Center invited her to teach an African cooking class to help raise funds for the center and earn some extra income, she readily accepted. At a sold-out class in late January, 16 students gathered in a demonstration kitchen to watch Laryea prepare Ghanaian tamales and jollof rice (a one-pot dish thought to be the inspiration for Cajun jambalaya).
“I always have a blast when I teach the class,”says Laryea. “In Ghana, we didn’t have time for cutting boards. So I slice onions and tomatoes on my fingers. The students, they can’t believe it!” As much cultural exchange as cooking lesson, the classes are another way for Laryea to strengthen her ties with the community, build business contacts and move a step closer to her ultimate goal: owning a small restaurant.
Do you like to cook? Find out how you can turn a dinner with family and friends into a fundraiser for the IRC. Visit DIY.rescue.org
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