Since childhood Kofi wanted to see the United States. His ultimate arrival would be preceded by the murder of his brother and followed by both a love of his new country and a deep frustration over the prejudice he found…in the most unlikely of places.
Here is a bit of his story.
How was your brother murdered?
He owned a diamond business in Sierra Leone. He was poisoned in 1989. He had a lot of money. Someone wanted his diamond fields.
What happened when you tried to save his wife and children?
The diamond in Sierra Leone had caused a war to break out. After my brother was buried I had to go back to Sierra Leone to get his wife and children. While I was there, there was fighting and my sister in law and her two sons ran into a church to escape it. The militia threw a bomb in the church and they all died instantly.
How were you able to escape?
I ran into the bush but I was caught and arrested. They made me stand in a line where I was going to have my hand or arm amputated. I was the fourth person in line. I was able to run from the line but in trying to escape my leg was tangled in something and I fell. People were being killed all around me as I laid there on the ground in a pool of blood. I laid there still for more than six hours. I knew if I moved, they would have found me and shot me.
Once the only thing I heard was birds and reptiles, I got up and started walking. I did not know where I was going. I was just walked. I walked towards Liberia’s border for one week. At the end of the week, I saw an old lady and she signaled for me to follow her. She could not speak English, but she spoke to me through signs. I followed her to a remote village. She gave me water and food. I was so hungry. I tried to wash myself but all of my clothes were stuck to me because of all of the dried blood. She walked me to the border of Liberia and I took a boat back to Ghana.
How did you even begin to cope with this tragedy?
After that I had a contemptuous view towards the whole world. I couldn’t do anything. I am a people person but I felt that my life was cheated. I felt cheated. It took me 10 years before I had the courage to be social again
Do you consider the movie Blood Diamond an accurate depiction of what was going on in Sierra Leone?
That movie is real. It painted a very real picture of what was happening in Sierra Leone in the late 80s and the early 90s. I understand that movie quite well. They show places I have been. I see people in that movie that I really truly know. It breaks my heart.
When you see someone wearing a big diamond, what do you think?
Sometimes you see people in the United States that are poor, they do not have good manners, the words out of their mouths are appalling and you look at their finger and they have big rings — that does not make sense to me. They could use that money for education. Greed is making the world fall apart.
Do diamonds represent violence to you?
Yes, they do. They represent evil to me.
How is Sierra Leone now?
The war is over. People that have fled the country are trying to come back. They are trying to rebuild the country.
Did your brother’s death help drive your decision to move to the United States? (NL)
I had always wanted to come to the United States. I wanted to further my education and to take that knowledge back to Ghana. My brother’s death made me very frustrated with African governments. I thought there was something else to be achieved. His death energized me to leave.
How was the United States different from what you expected?
I arrived in the United States in November 2001. Television had corrupted my mind. The stereotype about the United States that I saw on TV was not what I experienced once I got here. Everybody that watches TV in third world countries thinks Americans are essentially millionaires. They think that Americans are free from want.
How long did it take you to figure out that what you see on TV is not how the United States truly is?
When I started getting bills and I could not pay them. I was evicted from two apartments. I couldn’t get any money to put my stuff in storage. The economy started to have a pinch on me. When I started getting bills and calls from collection agencies I thought, “This is not the America I thought it was.”
Did you not get bills in Africa?
In Africa you get bills but our system is different. In the United States people call you and harass you, you get evicted. In Africa the same thing can happen, but it is a much slower, less aggressive process.
What was your first impression of the United States?
I landed in New York with $20 in my pocket. When I went through customs I told them I was going to Tennessee. Only God knows why I said Tennessee. The customs woman asked me if I had money and I said yes but I did not tell her how much I had. She asked me to stand outside. I was being detained and they wanted to deport me. But another immigration officer came to relieve the woman that was questioning me. He asked me what I was doing outside. I told him I was waiting for my baggage because the original woman told me to leave.
How did you end up in Detroit?
After I got my bag I called for a taxi and told him to take me to Tennessee. He laughed and took me to the Greyhound bus station. There I was told that the bus to Tennessee had already left but there was a bus to Detroit.
What was it like standing in that line, waiting for the bus, after decades of dreaming of being in the United States, knowing that you had finally arrived?
People around me were laughing at me and making faces at me, but I did not pay attention to them. I felt that I was in America and therefore I was ok. When I went to buy a ticket a woman in the line asked me where I was from. When I told her, she gave me a $100 bill. I used that money to buy a bus ticket to Detroit. When the bus finally took off I took a deep breath. I felt liked I had landed at a place that I had really, really longed for. It was beautiful.
How did you make money?
I got a job at a gas station in Pontiac, Michigan near where the bus dropped me off. Later I got a job as a supervisor in the garden center at Kmart. I sold a lot of Christmas trees there. When Kmart shut down I got a job at the Jewish Community Center, worked at a home with the elderly and then started my own cleaning business.
Do you consider the United States the land of opportunity? (LRJ*)
Yes very much so. It is a blessed land. It is a land for one to see. There is no place like America. There are tons and tons of opportunities here. It is a place that has knowledge. It is a special land.
What would you say was the biggest disappointment about coming to the United States?
Sometimes the prejudice and the lack of understanding about Africa are disappointing. Some people ask me why all of my friends are white. They ask me why I can relate better to the white community than the black community. I look at them and I do not even have an answer.
Do white Americans ask you that question or do black Americans ask you that question?
Black Americans ask me that question. I see that the black man in America is more prejudice than the white man. The average African American is more prejudice towards native Africans than white people. The average African relates better to white Americans than black Americans. When people ask me about prejudice, most of the time they do not like the answer that I give.
That seems very contrary to what I would have expected.
Black Americans want to know why I am so easily accepted in the white community. I tell them that I am a cultured person and I relate to everybody. I tell them that they are the one with the problem. African Americans tend to not mentally emancipate themselves from a slavery mind. Slavery passed long ago. I see a lot of African Americans that do not want to take opportunities available to them in this country.
Regardless of the economy, there are a lot of opportunities here. There are schools and colleges here. Some people prefer doing drugs than going to school. They prefer having babies when they are babies themselves.
You are saying this true of the African American community?
Yes. It is predominantly true. They do not want to take chances.
What are your thoughts on how we go about remedying the problem of prejudice in the United States?
Prejudice is about phobia. Education is so vital. When people are educated, prejudice tends to diminish.
What would you say is one of the biggest differences between Africans and Americans?
Africans have joy and that is the mystery of Africa. In America where many things are ok, the people instead of having joy have intermittent happiness. The average African has joy. You can see people in Africa that are very hungry but they still have joy. In the Western world, where people have many things people are frequently upset about things.
When I look in the dumpsters here I see TV’s and laptops. In Africa we would repair them. We have good technicians. The average poor person in the United States can throw a mattress away. In Africa you buy a mattress and you sleep on it almost your entire your life. In the western world there is so much abundance. People do not value what they have. If you have scarcity of goods you are forced to learn how to take care of your things. Your culture becomes about maintaining your things.
What did you place value on when you were in Ghana and Africa and did that change once you came to the United States? (TK)
I valued the idea of seeing humanity develop. I wanted to see people freed from mental slavery. I wanted to bring awareness to the United States about Africa and I still very much value and will work towards this.
What do you miss most about home?
I miss my mother’s face. I miss the noise. I miss the voices of the children.
If you have any additional questions for Kofi, please enter them in the comments field below.
*Indicates the initials of the individual that wanted me to ask Kofi this question.