On weekdays, he’s an aerospace engineer.
On weekends, he’s whipping up gourmet salads for loyal customers at the La Jolla farmer’s market.
The only thing currently standing upright in his Little Italy apartment, currently under remodeling, is a wall filled from one end to the other with handprints. Different sizes, different colors, all belonging to someone who came for a short visit and left hours later with smile lines and full bellies.
Kofi Ando was born in Ghana’s central region, home to the Asant tribe (pronounced, “Ashanti.”) His name, proclaimed no less than a month after he was born, means “child born on Friday.”
Names in his tribe are meant to be obvious. You should be able to see into someone’s life just by introducing yourself to each other. If a woman has previously miscarried, you’ll know when you meet her living child.
Though he’s been in America for a few decades now, Kofi has a heart as open as an eagle’s wingspan, and by the time you’re through with a conversation with him, you’ll feel as if you’ve just told your entire life story, and that it weighs on your name. It is an empowering feeling.
Most everyone realizes it once they’ve travelled outside of the United States for a good amount of time, come back, and draw comparisons: America promotes individuality. America is about personal space, about drawing that line, forming that bubble. It’s what many immigrants struggle with when they make the life shift.
“America is lonely. There is a huge gap between everybody. But Africans, our strength is community. We thrive together,” Kofi said. “I would die today if I woke up and couldn’t interact with people.”
Twenty-three years after first stepping foot on American soil, Kofi has now formed what he calls his “own” culture – everything he loves about America, and everything he loves about Ghana, all in one. But it was a process.
Kofi was actually raised with his mother’s best friend until he was 17 years old. His parents were already in America months after he was born.
“They took off, which isn’t uncommon for African parents,” he recalls. “And then one day, 17 years later, I was told that I was going to meet my ‘real’ family in Boston.”
The first thing he noticed when he landed were the tall buildings. And then was starstruck at the sight of a stretch limousine parked outside the airport. He was absorbing everything, only slightly taking notice of the group of people peering curiously at him as if they knew him – the only people of color in the entire airport.
“Occasionally, I’d make eye contact with this black family standing there, the only one in the airport,” he said with a laugh. “And then, my cousin, who was supposed to be my guide, finally came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing? Those are your parents.’ And that was that.” How was he supposed to know? He had never seen a picture of them – sent to America to find his birth family without a clue on who exactly to look for.
Since Kofi had the physique of a 12-year-old (not a rare occurrence in his bloodline – his mother, 72, was mistaken for his sister not too long ago on a visit to San Diego) he followed his father’s advice to start his American education at the eighth grade level.
He went through high school, learned English and then went on to Boston University to pursue a degree in both English and math, a foresight into his adult future: Kofi would always have a foot in both doors.
The English degree was to save for the day he could pursue his dream of being a writer and film director. The math degree was to secure the safer path, and to follow his fascination with airplanes. The result of this fascination was obtaining a masters degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Cambodia.
Kofi recalls his left and right side brains working in unison. While working on planes, building their control panels and such, he was also writing feverishly.
On a 14-hour train ride from Michigan to New York, Kofi met two milestones.
- He wrote, composed and completed his first play, “The Color of Black.”
- He realized that for the first time since arriving, he was thinking in English.
Fast forward to 2005.
Kofi moved to San Diego, still working as an aerospace engineer, but continued to make time for his artistic passion. With friends he would play the congos at clubs around San Diego and then, when the gig was over at 2 a.m., invite the bouncers over for dinner.
“We’d be like, ‘Hey, you guys hungry?’ and they’d say, ‘Yup.’ And I’d say, ‘Come on over, let’s eat.’ That’s my culture. To me, eating dinner, talking, for three hours, at least,” Kofi laughs. “It was crazy, just crazy.”
Cooking to Kofi was like having a connection to his home village. Eating together was what glued a relationship together.
“If you know someone and you haven’t shared a meal with them, you don’t know them,” Kofi stated.
“If you know someone and you haven’t shared a meal with them, you don’t know them.”Kofi Ando
You are always to offer food to anyone who passes through. Throughout highschool and college, Kofi’s mother would exemplify this specialty for hospitality when he’d bring his American friends over to the house.
“Once my friends met my mother, it was over. They’d always want to come over,” Kofi laughs. His mom would shower his hungry college friends with her unbeatable cooking and treat them as nothing less than royalty. “She would bust the China for them, and I’d say, ‘Ma, these people eat on paper plates! Why all the effort?!”
The late-night trips to Kofi’s apartment, where he’d whip up a feast with anything he had in the fridge for an ever-growing amount of people, was where the idea for his restaurant began. His house guests would urge him to start selling his delicious salad creations and make a profit from them.
Thirteen years later, Word of Mouth, Kofi’s passion project, is a staple at farmers markets around San Diego. As of now, Kofi is accomplished in his career, and ready for his next big goal: to open his own restaurant.
“It will be small, so the tables are close together, and you’re sitting elbow-to-elbow, and you can’t help but talk to one another,” he visualizes. “You don’t come just to be seen. You come to be together.”
Walking with Kofi downtown means stopping every few steps to greet someone he’s met along the way. By the warmth that exudes from every person, you can imagine just how many people have been touched by his delicious food throughout the years, or how many beings he’s sat down with and talked to for hours.
Kofi’s restaurant gleams as a vision of what it means to be an immigrant from a village in Ghana.
His identity can’t be pinned – he holds dear to himself the qualities of his upbringing that make him feel the love of his country, and he ties them to the skills and ideas he’s learned in America to become a person all his own. He defies stereotypes everywhere he goes – in his tribe, cooking is not considered a job for men – “But I wanna do it!” Kofi exclaims.
He’s had his fair share of difficulties in this country but believes that it’s the freedom of being an individual that makes it a country worth living in.
“Here, you can make a living for yourself, and be free in that way. In Ghana, you can be be poor, but still feel free.”
Kofi also believes that one does not to be rich and famous to feel accomplished. He believes that here, his dreams are coming true – they have been, inch by inch, for years.
“It’s the fact that if you’re making an effort toward your dream, you are accomplishing it,” he says.
Kofi has accomplished some incredible things in his life. He always seems to be looking forward – though reflecting fondly on the past. A being that is always learning, and embracing life.
Our interview, originally for a school project of mine, went upwards of four hours long. I’m sure if he had his way, every person he said “hi” to on the street would be able to stop and talk to him for at least half an hour. He doesn’t pay much attention to the ticking time, or the idea of getting older – he joked with me, saying he never actually knew his birthday until he came to America and people started paying attention to age. His reason?
“People talk themselves out of things because of age,” he said.
Sometimes, people feel pressure because they feel they haven’t accomplished the right amount for the age they are at. Kofi urges everyone to take things at their own pace. “Every day, when you wake up, just do something small – it’s the fact that you’re making an effort that counts.”
Until Kofi opens his restaurant, you can catch him on Sundays at the La Jolla Farmer’s Market under his tent, Word of Mouth Kitchen, whipping up the best salads you’ll ever have. Sometimes, he gets together with his buddies and still plays the congo and performs songs.
Check out Word of Mouth Kitchen’s website!
*This story has been edited from a previously published version for a school project. The first edition is on www.chesimoana.com.