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."