When people are living in hell, make them laugh. That's the rationale that led Eric Nzeribe to start a humor magazine called FunTimes, in 1992, during the height of the Liberian Civil War.
He was 26 and living in the capital of Monrovia. Villages were being wiped out. Soldiers — some of them children — were raping and murdering civilians. The news of the day provided a steady stream of unthinkable horrors.
So Nzeribe promised that even in those dark hours, his magazine of satire, comics, and cartoons would make his readers laugh — guaranteed or money back.
"I felt that eventually the war would stop and good times would come, so we wanted to bring some cheer, take people away from the suffering and the bad news," said Nzeribe, who is now 53 and lives in Southwest Philadelphia. "It was just something to make you feel good."
These days, he publishes FunTimes bimonthly from a house on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia. The magazine has taken on a different purpose: to offer resources and guidance for African immigrants, provide a platform for Caribbean, African and African American voices, and connect those sometimes divided communities. The magazine, which gets about 30,000 readers per edition, is celebrating its 10th year in America.
"He finds these wonderful businesses and people in the African and African American community and puts them on the page in ways we're not highlighted by the regular media," said Bumi Fernandez, organizer of the annual Odunde Festival, which celebrates African culture. "In this time when we need good news, positive news, just like it says, it's FunTimes, and it connects all the good things happening in our community."
Despite the magazine's popularity in the community — he prints 5,000 copies a month — and Nzeribe's numerous accolades from local politicians and organizations, he dismisses any suggestion of success. His labor of love is far from a booming enterprise. In fact, with few subscribers and advertisers, he's not even breaking even most months. He filed for bankruptcy in 2015. The case is ongoing and in the meantime, he's worried about being able to stay in the building that houses the magazine in West Philadelphia.
"I believe in this, but whether I'll be alive when the dream is realized is a different conversation," Nzeribe said. He started publishing the magazine out of his house; if he has to go back to that model, he says, so be it.
Nzeribe had no plans to come to Philadelphia when rebels fire-bombed the magazine's office in Monrovia in 1996. He later received political asylum to come to the United States. He flew to New York with a few hundred dollars and the phone number of a friend. When he dialed that number, it was disconnected. A kind stranger at the airport connected him to a Liberian family in West Philadelphia.
"I stayed with them my first day in America," Nzeribe said. "It was the first day of pressing 'restart.'"
He took a job as a counselor at the juvenile justice center. Then, in 2008, he mentioned FunTimes in conversation with neighbors. A woman lit up — she remembered it from when she was living in Liberia, and her family had sent her copies after she moved to Philadelphia. Seeing that the magazine had a following, Nzeribe restarted the publication.
It's filled with columns from professors and experts in African studies, culture, immigration and education, and profiles of business owners and influential community leaders.
His readers today aren't facing a war but come to the magazine with all sorts of personal battles. A Howard University student from Delaware was connected to Nzeribe after he learned he did not qualify for federal tuition assistance because he'd emigrated from Nigeria when he was young. The magazine may feature him in a forthcoming issue.
When the magazine started in the States, it was largely focused on the African and Caribbean immigrant communities. Now Nzeribe is trying to bridge a divide he sees between Africans and African Americans living in the region.
Nzeribe says there's a reluctance between the groups to get to know one another. Maybe if they're reading the same magazine, they'll find that starting point.