Extraordinary life of the café owner who took on the racists

Martha-Renee Kolleh overcame a tragic upbringing in her native Liberia to build a life here. No wonder she had the courage to stand up to prejudice

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Market day in the old West Yorkshire mill town of Ossett and the smell of goat curry is drifting alluringly across the square.

The unlikely aroma is emanating from the direction of Martha-Renee Kolleh's Yeanon Café where she is working flat out in the heat of the tiny kitchen simmering the spicy sauces whilst her two sons wash up and her daughter busses teas, coffees and fried breakfasts to the busy tables. 

If anyone was worried that Ms Kolleh was black they seem to have got over it.

It has been an extraordinary week in the life of the 47-year-old mother of three. A notice she placed on her café door informing potential customers that she was not white and that "anyone allergic to black people" would be better off not coming in became a media and internet sensation.

Since then she has been inundated with messages of support from around the world.

A bunch of flowers sent by an unknown well-wisher adorns the counter whilst regular customers and the simply curious seem to be flocking to check out her unique soul food-fusion menu of hot wings, rice peas and kidney, vast glistening mango cakes and instant coffee.

But far from being the story of incipient small town racism that it appeared at first glance, Ms Kolleh's is one of a strong woman's ambition and determination to succeed against the odds.

"I don't just want to have a café - I want to have cafes. I want to have chain stores. I want to have department stores. I want to build a conglomerate. They think I'm crazy," she laughs.

A look at her website reveals the scale of her corporate vision. "By God's grace and by the support of our customers, I hope to move Renemart forward with integrity, diligence and commitment in a socially and ethically responsible manner," it says.

Ms Kolleh arrived in Britain in 2002 seeking asylum from her native Liberia at the height of the rebellion against its war criminal President Charles Taylor.

Her grandfather - a chief of the Mano tribe in the northern Nimba region who had 40 wives and 95 children - was an important landowner. When the family farms were looted by Taylors' out-of-control child soldiers, Ms Kolleh's brother tried to stop them. He was shot dead.

Arriving in east London, alone with three young children, a business degree from the University of Liberia and very little in the way of money, the former convent schoolgirl has been forced to battle for what she now has.

"I was homesick. I missed everything about Africa. I used to cry every night - I would look out of the window and weep. It has gone now - somewhat. But I still miss my friends. There is only my children and myself here," she says.

She did not want to stay in the capital and when under the then controversial asylum dispersal scheme, she was asked where she wanted to go, she said anywhere. The young family found themselves in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Eldest son James-Earl, 18, who is hoping to study at the London School of Economics before going into banking admits it was not easy.

"I remember when we first came and we were pretty much the only black people. When we walked down the street people used to turn around and look. It was like being in a movie but as a kid you don't take offence," he says.

Ms Kolleh took a series of jobs - working as a volunteer at Wakefield Cathedral, running a market stall - but was forced to give up because of child care problems. In the meantime her two youngest children, Perpetual-Celine, 16, and Joel-Israel, 12, won scholarships to the local fee paying schools.

The eldest of 10 children, she had been taught to cook by her mother and two years ago hit on the idea of the café in nearby Ossett market square. But she struggles to cope on her own even though her customers seem to bear with her loyally.

"I get upset when I am not doing it fast enough," she admits. She hired a white woman to help but could not afford to keep her on, she says.

After she went she noticed that people came in - had a look around and walked out. She feared it might be a sign of racism although local people and the Asian shopkeepers in Ossett, insist that that this is not the case.

Unlike other northern mill towns the far right have failed to achieve any success in the area although a female BNP candidate did come third in a council election in Ossett in 2003.

Meanwhile, the publicity generated by the notice has been useful, she concedes, although that was not the motivation. "I didn't do it with that intention. I was just upset. I just need a break. I am doing everything on my own. I need help to build it up" she says.