Red Apple

(A Sierre Leonean hangout near the nation’s capital)
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, a heavily immigrants populated area. 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 oggiri[1] and kaenda[2], to buy maggi[3] and peppe.[4]

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 cam”[5] residents. In and around the lobbies and parking lots of Little Freetown, the tones and inflections of Krio[6] 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 sidewalk across the towers. Claudia was dressed in a locket-and-lapa, an African outfit that is made of a gara[7] cotton blouse and a wrap-around. She is slightly heavy with over-sized buttocks and she thinks African apparel fits 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 oh!”[8] Claudia greeted Rugi in crystal Krio as a Latino woman walked by and stared at the two women. Swoop! Swoop! The over-sized buttocks swapped left-and-right and up-and-down 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 ee…,”[9] Rugi encouraged Claudia to dump 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 knew, and told Claudia, that Safia Johnson was sleeping with many of the fresh Sierra Leone female arrivals that work at Jerusalem Home. “Nex! Nex! Nexx!” the meat cutter yelled, repeatedly in a deep Jamaican accent, at Rugi who was busy giving a run-down of last night’s episode at Jerusalem Home.

“Na complete dog yu de sleep with so,”[10] 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 bo,”[11] Claudia consoled herself.

Unlike the many female co-workers Safia Johnson fools around with, he had managed to acquire an associates degree in nursing at one of the community colleges around the beltway. Most of his love victims are Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs). He had been kicked out of several nursing homes for causing fights amongst his CNA lovers.

Well, Rugi was not 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 woke.”[12]

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 nonsense!” 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.

The butcher was busy weighing chicken necks for the next customer, but the sights of actual chicken heads on the far side ready to be sold made Claudia ignore Rugi and giggle. 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 no.”[13] The chicken necks 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?’ Hmmmmm, carry on…tell me more,’ the manager further encouraged him.

‘Yes, and you cut its throat 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.’

‘I tell you what Mr. Johnson, you have too much experience for this job. I’ll call you,’ the manager said and dismissed him.”

Sierra Leoneans who live in Little Freetown have much in common. From the time they arrive in the US 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 work locations, mostly senior living facilities. From the airport, they come straight to Sierra Leonean households or apartments, and 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 venture outside this triangle for picnics or parties at different locations. And if they have to for business reasons, their body language shows panic and paranoia. Many come direct to Little Freetown USA through sponsorship by family members, husbands or wives and friends, thereby making it the largest Sierra Leonean community in the area. In fact, statistics indicate, “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.

At the cash register, Marie, Kumba and Eye-eye started to gossip about a fight that broke out at 25th Place between rivals over Safia Johnson. The sight of Claudia in the store prompted their discussion.

Safia Johnson had told Claudia he was going to New York on a nurses’ conference only to really go on a date at the 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 cologne that teased Claudia.

“A no say nor to no meeting yu de go,”[14] 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 me,”[15] she insisted.

“Yu beteh sidom safful. Yu di talk lek say way de rent time cam na yu de payam,”[16] he warned her.

“If na da party yu de go, dis tem wi go mittop de,”[17] Claudia promised.

But Safia Johnson still didn’t pay any attention to her, knowing that she couldn’t go to any party without him. It didn’t really matter whether she was aware of his plan or not. 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 continued.

“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 said.

“Why should I, when I am being confronted by many other women on a daily basis?”

“Well, you will know who will pay the rent when I don’t come back here,” Safia Johnson threatened.

At this point, Claudia gave in to Safia Johnson’s intimidation. He was the breadwinner of the house and that gave him the upper hand. Claudia had completed six months of CNA training, and had taken the board exam many times but failed. She worked ‘living-in’ for old folks as a domestic servant for the weekdays only to return home on weekends.

At the cash register, when the three girls broke into raucous laughter Rugi noticed and used it to further provoke Claudia, “Na yu den pikin den de laf so fulumunku.”[18]

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, – shopping, hanging-out and gossiping. A place to buy shakitombway and n’jolabaitae[19], to buy crane-crane and okra[20], to buy Vimto and Fanta, to buy Born Vita and Ovaltin .What about Guinness Stout and Heinekens[21]? Two blocks down the road is Tick-Tuck liquor store[22], a place where the clock never ticks.



1. Oggiri: an African condiment made of fermented sesame seeds.
2. Kaenda: an African condiment made of fermented seeds of a tropical plant.
3. Maggi: a condiment made of ground meat, salt and onion.
4. Peppe: hot chili peppers used for spice.
5. Jos cam: new arrivals from Sierra Leone to the United States.
6. Krio: broken English spoken by all Sierra Leoneans.
7. Gara: locally inked cotton cloth for dress making.
8. Mi sister Kusheh oh: greeting in krio, hello my Sister.
9. 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…
10. Na complete dog yu de sleep with so: Your husband is a dog.
11. 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 is fooling around, but imagine if I had passed my board exam, I wouldn’t have suffered this much.
12. 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.
13. Ah! dis Safia, if ah bin no: Ah! This Safia, had I known.
14. A no say nor to no meeting yu de go: I know that you are not going to any meeting.
15. 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.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. Na yu den pikin den de laf so fulumunku: It’s you those kids are laughing at – fool!
19. Shakitombway and n’jolabaitae: cassava and potato leaves, vegetables eaten by Sierra Leoneans.
20. Crane-crane and okra: vegetables eaten by Sierra Leoneans.
21. Guinness Stout and Heinekens: European beers, the choices for Sierra Leoneans.
22. Tick-Tuck liquor store: a liquor store in Maryland owned by the Prince Georges County that sells beer and wine after midnight against county ordinance.

February 16th, 2004 by