Fannie Gibson grew up as a ‘war child’ in Liberia during the Civil War in the 80’s, so when she had the chance to immigrate to the United States for a better life, it was a great opportunity. But it wasn’t always her dream to open a West African restaurant—she was focused on adapting to the culture shock and new environment.
After years of missing her native cuisine, she began cooking, posting photos of her dishes, and gained over 35,000 followers on Instagram. Her friends and followers gave her the confidence boost she needed to take the leap and open Fannie’s African Cuisine, in Kansas City, Missouri, with her husband, Kelechi Eme.
What was it like being uprooted from your home in Liberia and immigrating to Kansas City?
Fannie: It was strange because the images you see of America are great. Everybody wants to come here and when you’re back home, you think, ‘the life is so easy in America. You don’t have to work so hard to get whatever you want.’
People just think money is on a tree. But it was a life changing experience because it’s not what it is. You have to work for everything that you want. It was difficult in adapting. People couldn’t really understand my accent. But as time goes by, you learn to adapt and to fit in.
How did you decide to open your West African restaurant, Fannie’s?
Fannie: I was that friend that was always cooking–every holiday, every Christmas. People would come over and say, ‘oh my god, the food is so good, you should open a restaurant.’ And since I’ve been in Kansas City, I have never been to a West African restaurant. There’s East African, there’s Jamaican, there’s Caribbean, but there’s not West African. So I started cooking and posting on my Facebook and Instagram and people started seeing my passion for it. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, people think I can do this, so I need to start working on it.’
I started looking for locations, and I had absolutely no money. I had nothing, I was just looking, trying to find a place, because I had faith, I have the passion, I have the drive.
And then I found our location, and my landlord was a godsend. I had absolutely no credit; I had nothing, and he worked with me. I was working two jobs, and I paid rent for two and a half years during the renovation. And my landlord was very patient with me and helped me out a lot.
For people who may be trying West African food for the first time, what dishes do you recommend on your menu?
Fannie: I recommend the jollof rice. People know rice, and they can relate to it. Every party or holiday, we always have jollof rice. It’s simple, and it’s delicious.
I would also recommend the fufu. I love fufu because it’s different and it’s new to Kansas City. There are three different kinds of fufu: cassava, yam, and plantain fufu. It’s similar to a mashed potato, but it’s sticky and full and heavy. It’s a traditional meal that a lot of West African countries eat, and they actually use their hands to eat it and dip it in a soup.
And of course, the peanut butter soup. It’s actually called Groundnut Soup, but I just changed the name so people could relate to it. If I say ‘peanut butter soup’ to Africans, they’re like ‘why do you call it peanut butter soup? It’s Groundnut soup.’ It’s just basically peanut butter and I add fresh tomato, onions, bell peppers, habanero, and some seasonings.
What do you miss the most about living in West Africa?
Kelechi: I miss my friends, my family, my mom and dad, my sisters. And I miss ‘togetherness.’ Here, you don’t know who your neighbor is.
In the mornings in West Africa, we always say to our neighbors, ‘Good morning, hope you slept well. How is your day going so far? Have you eaten?’ You basically never miss being together with your neighbors; you always have friends coming to check on you.
If you could bring a piece of your culture to Kansas City, what would you want people to experience?
Kelechi: I would love people to have that love for each other. Togetherness is something you can’t really overemphasize because no one knows what each individual is going through. To come along and say, ‘how was your day?’ can actually change the mindset of that person for the whole entire day. It’s something I really want to bring into Kansas City.
People come here to the restaurant, and they leave here happy–that’s the experience we want to give them. They’re all smiles at the end of the day.
Fannie’s West African Cuisine
Address: 4105 Troost Ave, Kansas City, MO 64110