Returning to the "Land of Opportunity"
It was during a recent civil affairs mission through Djibouti, Africa, that U.S. Army Reserve Corporal Kwami Koto was able to truly articulate his connection to this continent and its people.
"You see those kids playing soccer, barefoot," the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa Civil Affairs team 4902 information manager said to his team chief as their vehicle passed by children running around on a dirt field. "That used to be me."
Koto, a resident of Denton, Texas, was born in the Republic of Togo, located in West Africa. In the wake of a military coup d'etat and cultural turmoil nearly 10 years ago, he and his wife fled their homeland as political refugees to seek asylum in the U.S.
"Human rights in Togo were being systematically violated," he said. "As a journalist, I started writing about it - denouncing the military regime's abuses."
Koto and his family began to receive threats against their lives. He weighed his options carefully: stay in Togo and likely be killed while reporting on the unfolding situation, or flee to America.
"I chose the latter."
After coming to the United States, Koto went to work as a program manager for a marketing company. He attended graduate school in his free time, earning his master's degree in journalism in the spring of 2005. Four years ago Koto decided to demonstrate his pride for his adoptive country; he became a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve.
"It is a pride not only for myself, but for my family - my parents and my entire hometown back in Togo," he said. "They are all proud to have a son who serves in the most prestigious, and by far the best, Army in the world."
The U.S. Army Reserve decided Koto was best suited to build relationships with villages and government leaders throughout the Horn of Africa. To him, the journey has been an astonishing one.
"Thirty-five years ago I was playing here as a kid - kicking an orange because we couldn't afford a soccer ball," he said as a proud smile grew on his face. "Now I wear the uniform of a U.S. Army soldier. I never could have imagined it years ago. It's indescribable, the feeling I get when I travel to African villages and help bring about change."
As an Army civil affairs soldier, Koto said returning to Africa has been a life-changing event for him.
"I had seen Americans before, when I was in Togo," he said. "I learned English from a Peace Corps teacher. I never forgot those lessons or the interactions I had with the Americans. I make sure to treat the people I meet now the way I want them to remember me." Army civil affairs is responsible for assessing and engaging local leaders at both the village and government level. They build relationships with the people through a spirit of cooperation facilitated by African leaders.
U.S. Army Reserve Captain Justin Lev, CJTF-HOA CAT 4902 chief, said having Koto on the team in Africa has been invaluable.
"From day one, he's been working with us on understanding the African people," said Lev. "The reason we are able to work so well with them is because of Koto."
Lev said Koto brings a unique perspective to their mission, and expresses his perspective on Africa's potential.
"The African people are very resilient to live the way they live. They are happy with what they have," said Koto. "However, I constantly wrestle with the way some of the African people accept their situation without trying to improve it. Every living thing has to grow and evolve. Africa, after 50 years of independence, is ready to move to the next stage of its development."
Koto said African development must first begin with its people. An infrastructure cannot be built if the citizens are living in squalor. He said the first step is to build long-term, positive relationships with the people of Africa. Whether meeting with a village elder, partnering with locals to construct buildings or playing soccer with the children of Djibouti, Koto explained he would love for people in the United States. to see Africa the way he sees it.
"This is a land of opportunity," he said. "Africa presents people with both an opportunity to help and an opportunity to learn. Just like all the opportunities we have in the United States - the ones here should not be taken for granted."
Lev said working in civil affairs with Koto and seeing those opportunities presented on a daily basis, has changed the way he views the world.
"When we travel to these villages, we see real examples of people living in extreme poverty," he said. "All of the standards we have in the United States don't apply here, but the people are happy. It really shows that happiness is achievable no matter what you have or where you are."
With another smile, Koto acknowledged what his commander had said. As an American, who earned his citizenship in February 2009, he has strong and passionate feelings for both his home and adopted countries.
"I love Africa," he said. "I love it in the same way I love the United States - with my whole heart."