Red Apple is not just another grocery store - it’s a way of life for Africans in the Washington Metropolitan area. It’s situated at Langley Crossing shopping center in Maryland, an area that is heavily populated by immigrants.
Red Apple is owned by Asians - Chinese immigrants with a mostly minority work force from third world nations of North, Central and South America and Africa. This is a place where Africans, especially Sierra Leoneans, come to shop, hangout and gossip. Here, one can give and take updates on past, present and future events.
One can hardly see inside the store from outside because its dirty windows are papered with posters and flyers of announcements of past and future events. Many, in fact, are several years old. Inside, shoppers, mostly Africans, crisscross its busy aisles, to buy oggirii and kaendaii, to buy maggiiii and peppeiv.
The checkout clerks at the cash registers are all Chinese. Immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and South America make up the rest of the store’s work force - mostly stock clerks and meat cutters. Tall poles are welded onto the store carts to prevent shoppers from taking, riding and abandoning them in the parking lot of a huge apartment complex, a block down the road, nicknamed Little Freetown but known officially as New Hampshire Towers. Its rear balconies are lined with rusted railings caused by years of residents hanging their laundry out to dry. In response, the complex’s management sent a strongly worded letter to its mostly Sierra Leonean residents banning this practice, and continues to send reminders, especially to the "jos camv" residents. In and around the lobbies and parking lots of Little Freetown, the tones and inflections of Kriovi abound.
Claudia Johnson, a long time resident of Little Freetown, stood by the door of the south tower looking for Rugi, her friend who lives in the north tower. Rugi is slender in shape, but when dressed in a burgundy mini skirt she is fond of, her waist and belly look like half a portion of red apple. It was a hot summer day, and Claudia watched her walk on the sun-lit side-walk across the towers.
Claudia was dressed in a docket-and-lapa, an African outfit that is made of a garavii cotton blouse and a wrap-around. She is slightly heavy with over-sized buttocks that attract her to African apparel because they fit her better. Claudia and Rugi used to be dark in complexion, but are much lighter now having bleached their skin. Traces of their former complexion could only be seen on their knuckles, which are resistant to bleaching. Rugi pushed open the door and beckoned Claudia outside.
"Mi sister Kusheh ohviii!" Claudia greeted Rugi in crystal Krio. A Latino woman stared as she walked by the two women. Swoop! Swoop! The red apple like and over-sized buttocks swapped left-and-right and up-and-down up the street to Red Apple to do their weekend grocery shopping.
The most striking thing at Red Apple is the meat counter. A glimpse over the counter reveals cuts of steak and tenderloin perishing, drying out and turning black. That’s because Red Apple patrons - Sierra Leoneans and others from West Africa - buy enormous amounts of ox-tails, portions of cow-gut, cow skin and pig feet. Claudia and Rugi walked straight to the meat counter and stood in line.
"Na you de take da kine nonsense. If na me, ah de go right na di nursing home en cherr eeix.," Rugi encouraged Claudia to deal with her husband, Safia Johnson, a Registered Nurse and also the Nurse-in-Charge at Jerusalem Home, a senior assisted living facility a few miles down the road from Little Freetown. Rugi revealed that Safia Johnson had slept with many of the women who work for Jerusalem Home, but she did not tell her friend that her vehemence stemmed from being dumped by Safia Johnson for a younger, more buxom worker who had just arrived from Sierra Leone.
"Nex! Nex! Nexx !" the Jamaican meat cutter yelled, repeatedly in a deep Jamaican accent, at Rugi who was busy giving a run-down of a previous episode at Jerusalem Home.
"Na complete dog yu de sleep with soxi ," she pounded on Claudia.
"How for do - ah no say na player, but if ah bin don pass mi board so now, ah no go suffer lekeh so boxii " Claudia consoled herself.
Unlike the many female co-workers Safia Johnson fools around with, he had managed to acquire an associate degree in nursing at one of the community colleges around the beltway. Most of his victims are Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs). Because, all these nursing facilities need to function are two or three Registered Nurses to meet states’ certification demands and a pool of CNAs completed the nursing staff. In these circles of nursing home work staff, someone like Safia Johnson is considered ‘a one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.’ He had been kicked out of several nursing homes for causing fights amongst his CNA lovers.
Well, Rugi was not quite satisfied with Claudia’s response. She wanted to see her give Safia Johnson the boot, "Mi sister mek ah tell you waitin you nor no; three days ago somebody see Safia Johnson de kiss da rusty pickin way jus start the wokexiii "
These women are vulnerable to Safia Johnson’s abuse of power at Jerusalem Home because they have two jobs and are always running late in between the jobs. Ironically, Safia Johnson prepares the schedules. They also like to call off whenever there is a party to attend on weekends. Safia Johnson had also stopped seeing the CNA who had seen him with the new girlfriend. But such incident doesn’t go by without the gossiping and mocking now being manifested. She was speaking very loudly, slapping the sides of her buttocks in vogue, throwing her hands in the air, rolling her eyes, occasionally furrowing her brow in disgust that Claudia has been too patient taking "dis nonsensexiv !" But the noise didn’t matter to anyone in Red Apple because everyone here is loud, and the meat cutter only cared about keeping the line moving.
Besides the gossip at Red Apple, it brings to life many memories - The butcher was busy weighing chicken necks for the next customer, but the sights of actual chicken heads on the far side of the counter ready to be sold made Claudia ignore Rugi and giggled. It reminded her of a story Safia Johnson had told her many years ago. Claudia had worked hard between two jobs to sponsor his coming to the United States. When he arrived, he had a hard time finding a job, and Claudia tirelessly took care of all the bills. "Ah! Dis Safia, if ah bin noxv ," she sighed. The chicken heads had ignited old memories and she smiled as she reminisced:
"He went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a fast food chain, to find a job just when he had been in the country for only two months.
He told the manager on the job interview; ‘I am an experienced cook.’
The manager asked him to share his cooking experience with him. Very shy then, but encouraged by the manager’s curiosity, ‘Tell me more, how do you cook a chicken?
He cleared his throat, took a deep breath and started, ‘First, you chase the chicken.’
‘What! Did you just say ‘chase the chicken?’ Hmmm, carry on. tell me more,’ the manager further encouraged him.
‘Yes, and you cut its neck with a knife, usually following some ritual for expiation for the life you are about to take,’ he said, now developing confidence from the manager’s show of curiosity.
The manager pulled his chair closer, held his chin in his hand, looking enthralled. ‘What else?’ He asked.
Now that his confidence had been further bolstered by the thought that the manager was impressed with his experience, he continued; ‘You then boil the chicken in a large pot to soften its feathers before plucking them off-it is easy to pluck chicken feathers after you boil it. Now is the time to cut it up into small pieces to be cooked into a delectable soup in palm-oil or groundnut-oil.’ He concluded.
‘I tell you what Mr. Johnson; you have too much experience for this job. I’ll call you,’ the manager had said and dismissed him."
Approaching the cash registers were Marie, Kumba and Yei-Yei. Their topic was a weekend party occurrence three weeks ago at 25th Place. Like many Sierra Leoneans in the Washington Metropolitan area who come to Red Apple, Claudia, Rugi, Marie, Kumba and Yei-Yei came to the US from Sierra Leone straight to Sierra Leonean households or apartments. From the time they arrived to the time they meet at Red Apple as independent members of the community, they know no place other than Little Freetown, Red Apple and their work places, mostly senior living facilities. Their lives rotate in a triangle as follows; five days of work at nursing homes mostly run by Sierra Leoneans, off days at Red Apple and nights at 25th Place party hall. Very seldom they find themselves outside this triangle for picnics or parties at different locations. But if they do for business reasons, their body language show panic and paranoia. Many came direct to Little Freetown through sponsorship by family members, husbands or wives and friends, including Claudia and Rugi, thereby making it the largest Sierra Leonean community in the area. In fact, before Claudia came, Little Freetown was part of Silver Spring. Several years ago, the counties did redistricting and Little Freetown became Tacoma Park. When Claudia was in Sierra Leone she thought that Silver Spring is the capital city of the United States. Before she arrived, many addresses she saw or addressed letters were Silver Spring, Maryland addresses. It wasn’t surprising to her, one evening, when the CNN Headline News read, "Sierra Leoneans make the largest population of Africans living in Maryland." But Red Apple isn’t just popular among Sierra Leoneans in Maryland. It’s a popular destination for almost all Sierra Leoneans in the Metro area of Maryland, Washington and Virginia.
Marie, Kumba and Yei-Yei were busy discussing a fight that broke out that night between rivals over Safia Johnson. The sight of Claudia in the store had prompted the discussion. Safia Johnson had told Claudia that he was going to New York on a nurses’ conference only to really go on a date at the popular 25th Place with a new girlfriend he had met at work that week. The party was on a Saturday, but Safia had left home on a Friday. He had booked a room at a Days Inn not too far from 25th Place. He had also put on his best party clothes and slapped on some cologne that teased Claudia.
"A no say nor to no meeting yu de goxvi ," Claudia said, but Safia Johnson didn’t pay any attention to her. Instead, he was busy preparing himself to leave as quickly as he could before the argument turned into a fistfight.
"Safia na to yu ah de talk nor make lek yu nor yeri mexvii ," she insisted.
"Yu beteh sidom safful. Yu di talk lek say way de rent time cam na yu de pay amxviii ," he warned her.
"If na da party yu de go, dis tem wi go mittop dexix ," Claudia promised.
But Safia Johnson still did not pay any attention to her. He knew that Claudia would not dare to go to a party without him. It didn’t really matter whether she was aware or not of his plan. The important thing was for him to leave, and whatever happened after, he would deal with later.
"I’m not going to tolerate this any more," she sucked her teeth and slapped the side of her buttocks.
"I am tired with you treating me like I am your child. You want to know everything that I do... and even when I tell you, you don’t believe me," Safia Johnson snapped.
"Why should I, when I am being confronted by many other women on a daily basis?" Claudia rebutted.
"Well, you will find out soon who will pay the rent when I don’t return to you. If you cannot give me the chance to do what I do to pay the bills, someone else would without the drama you create everyday." Safia Johnson threatened.
At this point, Claudia gave in to Safia Johnson’s intimidation. He is the breadwinner of the house and that gave him the upper hand. Claudia’s situation is even worse than the other females in the triangle. She had completed six months CNA training, and had taken the board exam many times but failed. She works ‘living-inxx ‘ for old folks as a domestic servant through out the weekdays only to return home on weekends and that gives Safia Johnson time to do his fooling around with the women in the triangle. Lo and behold, Rugi had told Claudia that Safia Johnson was seeing a new girl he was intending to take to the party. Marie explained the story compounded by uncontainable giggles creating catcalls and laughter in the store:
"She found help among her friends and cousins, Binta, Sarah and Mabinti to catch him in the act. She was provoked into action when Mabinti confirmed what Rugi had also told her about Safia Johnson’s plan for the party.
Once at the party hall, Binta and Sarah went inside to locate Safia Johnson and the girlfriend’s position. The two were dancing to a very popular Jamaican dancehall track. The girlfriend was in a crouching position, rocking her behind on Safia Johnson’s crotch as he held her shoulder blades as if he was massaging her when Claudia, Binta, Sarah and Mabinti bustled in on them. Before they could fully understand what was going on, pieces of the girlfriend’s underwear were having a dance of their own in the sound filled hall clearly visible under neon and florescent lights. She was severely flogged by Claudia and her helpers to the extent that she urinated on herself. By then, Safia Johnson was long gone."
The three of them broke into raucous laughter so distracting that Rugi noticed and used it to further provoke Claudia, "Na yu den pikin den de laf so fulumunkuxxi ."
Rugi’s persistent mocking unnerved Claudia. Both women walked straight to Marie and her friends in an exchange of cursing so severe both parties were asked to leave the store by the county police.
This is a day in the Red Apple, the meeting tangent in a triangle of shopping, hanging-out and gossiping. A place to buy .shakitombway and n’jolabaitaexxii , to buy crane-crane and okraxxiii , to buy Vimto and Fanta, to buy Born Vita and Ovaltin and to buy. What about Guinness Stout and Heinekensxxiv - two blocks down the road is Tick-Tuck liquorxxv store, a place where the clock never ticks.
i Oggiri; an African condiment made of fermented sesame seeds.
ii Kaenda; an African condiment made of fermented seeds of a tropical plant.
iii Maggi; a condiment made of ground meat, salt and onion.
iv Peppe; hot chili peppers used for spice.
v Jos cam; new arrivals from Sierra Leone to the United States.
vi Krio; broken English spoken by all Sierra Leoneans.
vii Gara; locally inked cotton cloth for dressmaking.
viii Mi sister Kusheh oh; greeting in krio, hello my Sister.
ix Na yu de take da kine nonsense. If na me, ah de go right na di nursing home en cherr ee; You are the only one I know who tolerates such nonsense. I would have gone to the nursing home and tear.
x Nex! Nex! Nex; next! Next! Next!.
xi Na complete dog yu de sleep with so; your husband is a dog.
xii How for do - ah no say na player, but if ah bin don pass mi board so now, ah no go suffer lekeh so bo; you know I don’t have a choice for now - I know he his fooling around, but imagine if I had passed my board exam, I wouldn’t have suffered this much.
xiii Mi sister mek ah tell you waitin you nor no; three days ago somebody see Safia Johnson de kiss da rusty pickin way jus start the woke; my sister, let me tell want you don’t know; Three days ago, someone saw Safia Johnson kissing that rustic newly hired girl.
xiv Dis nonsense; this nonsense.
xv Ah! dis Safia, if ah bin no; Ah! This Safia, had I known.
xvi A no say nor to no meeting yu de go; I know that you are not going to any meeting.
xvii Safia na to yu ah de talk nor make lek yu nor yeri mi; Safia, I am talking to you and don’t pretend like you didn’t hear me.
xviii Yu beteh sidom safful. Yu di talk lek say way de rent time cam na yu de payam; you are better off not saying anything. You talk like you are the one who pays the rent when the time comes for payment.
xix If na da party yu de go, dis tem wi go mittop de; if you plan to go to the party, this time around we are going to meet there.
xx Living-in; to live with the people one renders domestic service.
xxi Na yu den pikin den de laf so fulumunku; it’s you those kids are laughing at - fool!
xxii Shakitombway and n’jolabaitae; cassava and potato leaves, vegetables eaten by Sierra Leoneans.
xxiii Crane-crane and okra; vegetables eaten by Sierra Leoneans.
xxiv Guinness Stout and Heinekens; European beers, the choices for Sierra Leoneans.
xxv Tick-Tuck liquor; a liquor store in Maryland owned by the Prince Georges County that sells beer and wine after midnight against county ordinance.
© Copyright by Awareness Times
Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.