Koffi Kouakou is the first member of his family to read and write. The first to ride in a plane. The first to leave Cote d'Ivoire. The first to leave Africa. The first to drive a taxi.
Forty years old, he looks 20 years younger. He speaks English with a French accent. He laughs easily and often. "All my life I've heard that I'm lucky. Cote d'Ivoire gained independence from France in 1960. In 1966, the government opened the first school that there'd ever been in Zere, my village, where there are only about 200 people. It was an elementary school and the cutoff age was six. I was seven. My uncle very much wanted me to go to school, and so he took me to a judge who decided how old I was. The judge looked at me and said, 'I think this boy is six years old.' And so I was able to go to school. Everyone said I was lucky. That's how I became the first member of my family to read and write."
Zere is in southern Cote d'Ivoire, a few miles from the border with Ghana. Kouakou says that most people in Zere raise coffee or cocoa. They tend goats and sheep, cows, a few chickens. Depending on the season, their staple food is either rice, yams, or manioc. Jungle and forest surround the village. There are elephants, antelope, lions.
"Growing up, the most wonderful thing was the jungle. That's where we went to play. We hunted. We chased animals. We explored. There was always something to do. In the forest, you could see the sky through the trees. But in the jungle, you couldn't. The trees were so high. So even when the sun was very hot, it was cooler in the jungle. We spent all day long there, playing."
Kouakou belongs to the Koulango-speaking people, a subgroup of the Aboron, a large tribe that extends from southern Cote d'Ivoire into Ghana. "The border between the two countries is artificial, a creation of the colonial powers. You have Aboron speakers on both sides of the border. Sort of like here, where you have Mexicans living in America and Mexicans in Mexico. They speak the same language and share some of the same culture. Ghana was an English colony, and for me, that turned out to be a good thing.
"When I was a boy I was playing soccer and I injured my shoulder, and so I was taken to a hospital in Ghana, which was just a few kilometers away. The student doctors there liked me. They thought it was interesting to talk with an Aboron from Cote d'Ivoire. Because Ghana was an English colony, they also spoke English. They started teaching me English. I had a lot of opportunity to practice. It was there in Ghana that I really started to be interested in English. When I got home, I began reading all the English books I could find. I was lucky to go to Ghana.
"What happened is that when I went to high school, there were three American men there from the Peace Corps. And there was one named Steve. On the first day of English class, Steve told a story about a poor man who decides to hang himself. He climbs up in a tree and throws down his clothes to the ground, and just when he's about to hang himself in the tree, a man runs up and takes his clothes. The man who was going to hang himself thinks, 'Well, there are people in the world more poor than I am. Maybe I shouldn't hang myself.' What happened is that I didn't get to hear all the story because the headmaster at the school called me to his office. By the time I got back to Steve's class, he was giving an exercise. Steve said, 'I want you to write in your own words the story that I just told you.' After I came back from Ghana, I read many books in English, and in one of them was this story about the man who was going to hang himself. I already knew the story. So I wrote down everything I remembered, and Steve thought I was a brilliant student. He thought what I wrote all came from my imagination. I became his best student. And because of that, when he left Cote d'Ivoire, he invited me to come and visit his family in Washington state. So, again, I was very lucky."
As Kouakou talks, he drives slowly down El Cajon Boulevard. We pass the Arab markets, the Vietnamese markets, the Somali markets, the Chinese herbalists, the Mexican birria restaurants.
"So many people," Kouakou says, waving his hand out the window. "From all over the world. Can you believe it?" He is taking me to African/Caribbean Food Market, at 4811 El Cajon Boulevard, a touchstone for local sub-Saharan Africans.
"I went to visit Steve's family in Washington. They paid for everything. They lived in a small village named Kelso. Before I got there, everyone knew I was coming. They even told the people at the newspaper. So they interviewed me. I was in the Kelso newspaper. There was a college there, and they wanted me to stay and study. But I thought, 'No, I better go back to Africa and finish my high school.' I got to see America for the first time."
We pull up in front of African/Caribbean Food Market. Inside, the owner, Grace Bempong, from Ghana, greets us. She hands me a business card. "We've been here two years," she says. Behind her hangs a hand-lettered sign: "We now have fresh cola nuts!"
The cola nuts, smooth, pink, pebble-like, sit in Ziploc bags in an African basket on the counter. "You wash them off, you chew them," Grace explains. "They keep you awake. They have caffeine in them. In Africa students chew them so they can study. It's what they use in America to make Coca-Cola."
Packages of manioc flour, other unusual flours, and dried herbs I'd never heard of line the shelves of Grace's tidy shop. "We get Nigerians, Ivoirians, Ghanaians. They come from as far away as Escondido, Poway, Mira Mesa," she says.
She and Kouakou exchange pleasantries. It's late in the afternoon. Kouakou says he needs coffee. He takes me to the Starbucks in Kensington. Walking through the front door, he inhales deeply. "Mmmmmh! Good coffee! Can you smell it? Good coffee!"
When he sips his cup, without cream or sugar, he sighs. He relaxes.
"My father," he says, "died when I was very young. I come from a matriarchal society, so your mother's family, her brothers, your uncles, are often more important than your own father. I was raised by two uncles. It's that way in Africa. Our families are very large. You're never alone.
"When I came back to Zere from Washington, I found out my grandfather, my mother's father, had died. He fought in the war of independence with the president of Cote d'Ivoire. The president came to his funeral. And so I told the president, 'My grandfather has taken care of me all my life. If you want to help me, you should give me some money for my education.' He did. He gave me $10,000.
"I went to school in Paris for a while. My uncle wanted me to study there so I could become a pharmacist, which is a very important job in rural Africa. But I was in Paris only two years, and I saw that it was impossible to get a job there. Impossible for a French person. Even more impossible for an African. And so I came to visit Los Angeles with some French friends, and we drove down to San Diego. We went to Horton Plaza. It was the most amazing thing: I met a guy there who I went to high school with in Cote d'Ivoire. He was in San Diego. And I took that as a sign. It was so unusual. So impossible. I decided to stay.
"A week or so later, this guy takes me to look for a job at the Jack in the Box on Rosecrans, and to my surprise, they hired me immediately. I worked there for a while, and my friend was driving a cab. One day he showed me his pay stub. He was making in a single day what it took me a week to make at Jack in the Box. That was it. I decided I should drive a taxi.
"I started doing that, and I started studying computer science at City College. I got a degree there, but I want to go on and get my master's. But driving a cab, it's impossible to finish anything.
"I started driving for Yellow Cab. I figured out pretty fast, 'Why should I have to pay someone else to lease his cab?' It was ridiculous. You work hard all day long, and you don't make very much money. So I saved my money and saved my money, and I finally bought my own medallion. I don't want to say how much it cost. It was a lot of money. I bought it from an Iranian guy.
"I was married for about two years to an American girl, a white girl. But that didn't work out. We're divorced now. It's difficult to understand these things. As an African you think that you're going to have a lot in common with black Americans. You don't. They really don't like us. So, in 1998, I went back to my village and I met there this girl I knew in high school. We always kept in touch. We sort of lost touch while I was married. But when I was there in my village I saw her again and we had a nice time. And I brought her here to live with me. You have to make a new life.
"I'm building a house in Africa. I save my money. I send it back. I'm also supporting -- I don't know -- I guess about ten people. My uncle, the one who made sure I went to school, he's 80. He can't do much. I have the rest of my family there. You have to understand, in Africa, the family is very tight. You really can't leave it. So that is why I'm building a home there. I want to go back.
"I've been back three times. When I go back, I like to go out in the jungle. You know, the village isn't the same. All my old friends are grown up, and we're supposed to do grown-up things. They say, 'Why do you want to go to the jungle?' I go because that's what I miss about Africa. I go and spend the whole day wandering around.
"You don't forget those things. It's something very special. That's why I want to go back someday. In the village, they all think I'm a big man, a big success. I live in America. They all think I'm rich. They want to come to America. And I tell them, 'You know, in many ways you're better off here. Some people make it in America. Some people don't. And if you get sick, and you don't have your family, you die in the street.' Because I have seen it here. People who have no family, and they die on the street. My uncle is 80 and his health isn't good. Here, you put old people in homes where they die alone. My uncle has his family. In Africa we may be very poor, but it's very unusual to die old and alone."