By Derek Montague | Huddle Today
HALIFAX-In 2019, Mary Nkrumah opened her signature restaurant, Mary’s African Cuisine, on Barrington Street in the heart of downtown Halifax. It’s a prime location and, as its near-perfect online reviews have shown, a great place to dine.
But Nkrumah’s story begins decades earlier, in Ghana, where she grew up. Her childhood was filled with two things that would be defining features throughout her life: delicious food and empowering female entrepreneurship.
Nkrumah’s grandmother sold kenkey and her mother was a successful baker and produce seller.
“All the children would like to come to my house to play because of the food,” Nkrumah recalls with a long, joyful laugh. “When they come to my house, they can get bread. And we were always making fun stuff together.”
Being a baker in Ghana was no simple task in the early 80s. Between 1979 and 1981, J. J. Rawlings committed two successful coup d’états. His political legacy is complex and sharply divides opinion to this day.
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In the early 80s, Rawlings tried to turn Ghana into a Marxist country (he later went back on this idea), which meant strict rules for bakers.
“We had to wait for someone from the [government] to check the bread before we could sell,” recalls Nkrumah. “Flour was so expensive and wasn’t common. So, it was only bakers who were allowed to have flour.”
If a bag of flour was meant to bake 100 loaves of bread, the inspectors would make sure bakers didn’t go over. They would also enforce rules around pricing.
Nkrumah’s husband, Jonathan Roberts, is a Mount Saint Vincent professor who specializes in West African history. He outlined just how remarkable it was that Nkrumah’s mother, Theresa, succeeded at her craft during a tumultuous time in Ghana’s history.
“There was a leftist revolution and there was also a famine. At that time the country was in a really bad situation,” said Roberts
“But if you were able to prepare food and get the license her mom had, and you were able to get the supplies… you weren’t lucky but you had to show you were good in order to get those licenses.”
This hard work ethic and passion for entrepreneurship were quickly passed onto Nkrumah. As a teenager, she set up a rice stand because she thought it would be fun. In her adult years, she would open her own restaurant in Ghana: Oceanview Garden Restaurant.
Then Roberts, who previously met Nkrumah while he was doing research in Ghana, asked her to move to Canada to be with him. She agreed on one condition.
“If I move to Canada, I want to have my restaurant there.”
When she finally arrived in Nanaimo, B.C., in 2008, Nkrumah had no time to settle in quietly. She was about to take on the new task of motherhood.
“I got denied a lot but finally we got my visa on the fourth try. We moved here and I was heavily pregnant. So, I had the baby (Malcolm) two weeks after I arrived in Nanaimo.”
The couple would later add a daughter, Daisy, to the family.
Roberts and Nkrumah were only in Nanaimo together for a few months before moving to Halifax. This, of course, would be the city where Nkrumah launched Mary’s African Cuisine. But that didn’t happen right away. First, there was a lot of work to be done.
Nkrumah started sending off resumes to gain even more culinary experience. Over the years she worked for Aramark, Cora’s, Italian Market, and a local steakhouse.
In 2012, Mary’s African Cuisine opened as a stand at the Seaport Farmers Market in Halifax. A year later, she founded the soccer-themed Kicks Café in the BMO Soccer Centre.
In 2015, Mary’s African Cuisine was caught up in a controversy at the Seaport Farmers Market that made national headlines. The market was planning on moving six ethnic food stands from the first floor to the second, which didn’t sit well a lot of people. At the time, it even got the attention of anti-racism activists.
“It was basically like walking us out from the market,” said Nkrumah. “When they come and get their produce, it’s only a few people who would come upstairs.”
According to Nkrumah and Roberts, the market backtracked on its plans to move them upstairs. However, they were later asked to sign a $1,500-a-month lease. That was nearly triple of what they used to pay, according to Roberts. The reason for this new lease, according to the couple, was the market was making the spot where Mary’s African Cuisine was located into a “permanent” fixture.
They stuck it out for three more years at the market before buying Baba Ghanouj Café in 2018. A year later it reopened as the highly regarded restaurant with the same name they used at the Seaport.
Nkrumah is now passing along some of her most popular recipes to those who would like to learn how to cook African dishes.
Mary’s African Cuisine on Barrington has now operated for more years during the Covid pandemic than out. Roberts credits his wife’s hard worth ethic (passed down through the generations) and a loyal customer base for the restaurant’s survival.
“We’re nowhere near where we wanted to be. But my wife, she worked herself like crazy just to survive,” he says. “The ones who survive are the ones who sacrifice their lives to keep the place open.”