In the shade of a low-lying oak tree in the heart of Staten Island’s Park Hill projects, Bangura Kromah sat selling palm oil.
Kromah is one of about 15 elder Liberian women who sell the greasy, deep-red cooking oil—as well as other traditional Liberian provisions—whenever the weather is nice; it’s a way for her to earn a little money and get away from the television set, she said.
“I don’t want to be inside,” the 64-year-old Kromah explained. She lives alone, has never gone to school, and has trouble walking.
Selling food in the makeshift market is also a way for Kromah to connect to her home in Liberia. Before coming to New York City 10 years ago as a refugee from that country’s civil war, she sold fresh produce in one of capital Monrovia’s many markets.
There, she was part of a movement. Market women make up a significant part of Liberia’s economy—an economy where only 15 percent of the population is employed in the formal sector. The women are often a family’s only income-earner. And they are a significant political force. As portrayed in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the market women’s peaceful protests brought an end to Liberia’s civil war, led to dictator Charles Taylor’s resignation, and culminated in the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Both Sirleaf and the leader of the women’s peace movement, Leymah Gbowee, won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
But here in Staten Island, Kromah is struggling to get by.
“If you make $10 per day, you say God, thank you,” she sighed.
Kromah is a sturdy woman—the type of person who could actually be described as big boned—but sat half-slumped next to her table of produce. Her bright red and black dress was covered up by a weary gray fleece, and she kept a red Yankees toque snug on her head.
Like her fellow vendors, she imports palm oil in bulk from Africa and repackages it into Snapple bottles. They charge $5 a bottle. A bag of dried fish costs the same amount.
For Juah, a 60-year-old woman dressed in a bright orange and yellow robe called a lappa, that income was not enough. Last year, she could no longer afford to buy the palm oil. She now sells popsicles of frozen red Kool-Aid mixed with sugar for 25 cents each.
She said that she makes “sometimes $2, sometimes $3” per day.
Juah, who like other women refused to give her full name, also works part-time as a home caretaker. She accordingly makes just enough money to pay for essentials.
“In the mornings, I pay my rent,” she said, referring to the first two weeks of every month. “Over the following two weeks, I buy my rice.”
And she’s budgeting for another purchase: “Now that it gets cold, I have to buy sweaters,” she laughed.
Juah admitted that she does not have a permit to sell her popsicles, but was steadfast in her defense of the other vendors. They all have permits, she said, even though the permits are hidden from the casual shoppers.
Still, legality may not matter: the New York City Health Department, who administers the permits, has not received any complaints about the market. The children who were eagerly waiting for Juah to pull the popsicles out of her small blue cooler certainly had no qualms with her being there.
Older Liberians, meanwhile, enjoy the ambiance of the area they call “under the tree.” They gather there to talk politics and weather, and to trade local gossip.
“It is the tradition back home,” said Bamah Massalay, Kromah’s aunt who sells at the table next to her.
They also come to Sobel Crescent because it is the only place in New York to buy Liberian food.
Selling everything from sweet African beans—black and brown—to hot peppers—ground and whole—to banana chips, onions, dried fish and, of course, palm oil, the market is the center of a little Liberia hidden within a suburban Staten Island.
“We come and buy because it’s our traditional food,” said a woman named Hawah, who was chatting with a vendor dicing up green potato leaves. “We love to eat it.”
Other African markets do exist across New York, notably at the corner of 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, where the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market proudly displays signs that thank former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for orchestrating the market’s construction. The market was set up after Giuliani shut down the informal African market that used to be located on 125th Street. A sign outside the 25-vendor market reads: “Building a better community is our job.”
Outdoor markets in general are also experiencing a surge of popularity, as New Yorkers develop an appetite for local food. Diane Eggert, Executive Director of the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York, estimates that there are more than 120 farmers’ markets in New York City, and says that the number of markets has increased steadily since the first market opened in 1976.
But Kromah and her fellow Liberians prefer to stay under the tree. There, they get a taste of home.