Meet Goundo Behanzin: From Ivory Coast to Berkshire-based business owner
The former accountant knew he could make it work in America
Accents in the Berkshires | S01 Episode 2: To listen to the podcast, click here.
Goundo Behanzin doesn’t want to name the bank that turned down his business loan application. He laughs about it now, proud of his Berkshire International Market on Pittsfield’s North Street.
But some resentment lingers when he concludes about the bank: “They were wrong. I am an accountant teacher, but they couldn’t see it.”
Behanzin, 56, taught accounting in Abidjan, the largest city in French-speaking Ivory Coast, for nine years. Abidjan is to West Africa what New York is to the world, Behanzin explains: Both cities are a mix of cultures, crowded, a magnet for people from all over.
“I am actually from two countries,” Behanzin says. “My father was from Benin. He met my mother in Ivory Coast, that’s where I was born. Then we moved to Benin where I went to my first schools.”
Back in Ivory Coast for high school and accountant teachers college, Behanzin began to dream about getting his CPA degree in English. He still remembers the exact date of his arrival in New York: “9/11/1994.”
“I thought it would be easy to get my studies done. I had heard that when you come to the USA, you can get things done very quickly. But then, after six months, I faced the realities of the field.”
His CPA-study never materialized. He had to work, sometimes juggling three jobs at once. He was a courier in Manhattan. He worked at an Au Bon Pain café-bakery, first as a cleaner, then a cashier, then a supervisor. He learned how to install and fix TVs. And he was expected to send home “lots of money.”
“That prevented me from doing what I really wanted to do because you have to take care of your family back home,” Behanzin says.
“Here, feel,” he says, offering up the rough, calloused palm of his hand. “I never worked with my hands in Ivory Coast. It was easier there. I learned that here in America if you really want to move up, you have to fight.”
'COULD MAKE IT WORK'
In 2002, Behanzin met his wife Josephine Ampah. Also from Ivory Coast, she already lived in the Berkshires. They decided to make it their home, and their children Virgile and Doris graduated from Pittsfield High. Goundo and Josephine also became leading members of the African Catholic church at St. Mark on West Street.
Behanzin worked in human services for Hillcrest and Berkshire County Arc. When the bank refused him the loan, he drew on his retirement accounts there to finance the opening of his store, Berkshire International Market, next to the Froio Senior Center and its Capitol theater marquee.
“That was in 2009 and I am still here. I knew I could make it work.”
Behanzin stocks foods and other products from all over the world: Africa, Central America, the Caribbean islands, Morocco. He sells some medicinal herbs: Baobab leaf powder and dried bitter leaves which he insists are “very good against fever and stomach aches.”
“In 22 years in this country, I have been to a regular doctor maybe 10 times.”
His store sees a daily stream of other immigrants remitting funds to their own families abroad. As any small shop owner, he has had to contend with crime. In 2013, his store got burglarized six times in six months.
“Everything was on video. The police tried but determined that there was no way they could put their hands on those people. So then I invested $7,000 in a metal door in the back and unbreakable glass in the front.”
TEARS OF HAPPINESS
A few years ago, Goundo Behanzin became an American citizen. The ceremony was held in front of Norman Rockwell’s iconic Four Freedoms paintings at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
“When the ceremony started, I had tears in my eyes. I hadn’t expected that. ... But I was so happy that day, because to me I could really live freely now in this country like anybody else.”
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.