Standing behind a tall sales counter, Kwaku Addy heartily greets each customer who strolls into his cramped shop. "What's up, chief?" he asks in his undulating West African accent. And to a young man lugging out a 50-pound sack of rice, he offers, "Thank you. Hope we gonna see you down here again real soon!"
By down here, Addy means the African Food Market, which sits in a dilapidated Brooklyn Park strip mall next to a barbershop, an Asian restaurant, and the Gold Key liquor store. The mall is something of a hot spot, however, located as it is at the heart of the suburb's most diverse area, the crossroads of Brookdale Drive and Zane Avenue. Over the past decade, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center have become home to the largest Liberian and West African community in the state.
A nice slice of that population frequents Addy's pan-African shop, whether for cassava leaves or conversation. Addy himself migrated to the United States from Liberia more than 20 years ago and in the mid-'90s relocated his shop from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. Today, the store serves as combination food market, information center, and gathering place.
"People sometimes meet old friends here from Africa that they didn't even know were in Minnesota," he says, pulling down a handful of international calling cards for a customer. "They come to ask advice about business and other matters. We talk about what is going on back home: Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, all over."
Stepping into the market, even before Addy can fire off a greeting, customers encounter the strong, acrid odor of dried fish. The smell comes from two big plastic tubs sitting in the middle of the floor that contain brown, desiccated mackerel, tilapia, and other seafood. The atmosphere is not that different from the insides of larger ethnic markets in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sacks and boxes of rice are piled high just inside the doorway. A butcher in back displays a case full of freshly cut goat and other meats.
There's also a freezer full of such frozen goods as okra, cut pigs' feet, snails, jute leaves, hot peppers, red snapper, and hard chicken.
What is "hard chicken," you ask? Addy explains that the term is used by many West Africans to describe free-range farm chickens, in contrast to softer processing plant poultry. With a clean-shaven head and a perfectly trimmed mustache, Addy wears a casual silk shirt open at the collar, revealing a gold chain and pendant. He seems completely at ease, except when wrangling over the phone with the occasional tardy distributor: "Why didn't you send me the blue crab yesterday?!"
Across from Addy at the counter, a middle-aged woman in a head wrap fills out a Western Union money wire form. A young man eyes a stack of Nigerian movies and then reaches into a small bucket near the register for a kola nut. The woman, who is from Ghana, sighs as she lifts her pen. "Ah, I am tired of sending money all of the time. Somebody should send me money for a change," she says with a chuckle. "Hah, that is gonna be da day!"
A few days later, on a Friday afternoon, the African Food Market bustles with the pre-weekend rush. Inside the shop, customers are packed in, crowding the aisle that offers fufu--a staple West African food that can be made from pounded yam, plantains, or cassava.
In the parking lot, small groups of friends huddle beside cars, enjoying idle conversation and 75-degree bliss. J. Gibson Keykpo arrives in his SUV, entire family in tow. "We are going to have fufu and soup tonight," he says. Just then, up pulls Mustapha Kamara in a red Nissan 350X, stereo booming dancehall music.
Originally from Sierra Leone, Kamara now lives in Champlin and works, like many West Africans and Liberians, providing health services to the elderly. By night, he is known as DJ Pattern, playing African music at house parties and weddings. He often visits Addy's shop. "People who are here are just family," he says with an unlit Marlboro stuck in the corner of his mouth. He adds that the tension and fighting between some West African nations, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, has not significantly affected relations in Minnesota. In part, that's thanks to places like Addy's, which Kamara calls "the bridge that brings in all Africans."