Salisbury Peace Corps volunteer hopes to leave lasting legacy in village

December 27th, 2007 by admin

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By Mark Wineka
Salisbury (NC) Post
12/26/07

To reach the extreme north region of Cameroon, where Salisbury’s Ryan Lesley works as a Peace Corps volunteer, count on almost a five-day trip.

It takes two days of air travel, one day on a train, a 10-hour bus trip, then catching a ride on a market (flatbed) truck for several more hours to his village of Hina.

Lesley, 24, lives daily without running water or electricity and depends on a pit latrine for a bathroom. He takes bucket baths to stay clean, and his meals consist of Hina staples such as fried bean paste and onions, native sauces and grilled meats.

The next nearest Peace Corps member is 52 kilometers away.

For transportation, Lesley relies on his feet, a mountain bike, motorcycle taxis or a market truck. He stays in a two-room, concrete-block house, different from most of the mud huts with thatched roofs that dominate the rest of Hina, a village of about 5,000 people.

For entertainment, Lesley goes to the home of a friend with a generator and joins others in watching Champions League soccer on television.

At night, the friend also shows videotaped movies. Lesley thinks he has seen every Kung Fu movie ever made.

Lesley has adapted to a “solar schedule,” waking at sunrise as the prayer call sounds for the mosque at the end of his street.

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Concentrating on agri-forestry, he has followed three other Peace Corps coordinators before him in serving as an extension agent — a stretch, when you consider his background as a history graduate from Wake Forest University.

But it fits with Lesley, who studied a semester in Nepal; is an experienced summer landscaper, backpacker and Eagle Scout; and has always had an interest in the outdoors and other cultures.

In Cameroon, Lesley has worked with nurserymen in propping up their businesses and helping with orchards, alley cropping and wood lot plantings. He’s all about creating something that will be sustained long after he closes out the Peace Corps program in Hina next year.

Since his arrival in Hina, some 5,000 trees have been planted — a way to fight desertification, or the advancement of the Sahara. He often works with a close friend and nurseryman, Djoulde.

In addition, Lesley’s “very open job description” has him teaching and tutoring English. (Fufulde is the predominant language of the Grand North, and French is favored second.)

Lesley also participated with other Peace Corps volunteers in this northern region in a 125-kilometer bike tour through six villages to raise AIDS awareness.

The tutoring and a separate needs assessment he completed for Hina has led Lesley to create a special Peace Corps project aimed at putting more text books in the high school.

Typically, he says, the students have one book per 100 students. Lesley has written a proposal, which is on the Peace Corps Web site, that is trying to raise $4,251 toward a text book library and scholarships for three girls to continue their high school education.

His goal is to provide the high school with 300 additional textbooks, so there are at least 10 books per class. Each student would pay a small fee to use the textbook library, and those fees would be reinvested to buy more school materials.

In his teaching, Lesley also has discovered that girls are vastly underrepresented in the Hina high school. Of 800 students, only 50 to 60 were girls, Lesley says. For financial reasons or because a girl may have to get married, few women complete high school or even reach that level.

On another front, Lesley is writing a new proposal to build bore wells to provide drinking water for three different communities. About 4,000 people would benefit from the three wells. The communities have to raise about $400, and a non-government organization would provide the rest of the funding.

Lesley also is trying to raise funds for Abdoulaye, a 21-year-old graduate of the high school who has just finished his first semester at university.

“The community is outstanding,” Lesley says of Hina. “They’re so supportive, nice and caring. They accepted me so quickly, and they love the Peace Corps and everything we’re doing.”

It’s not that Lesley hasn’t faced challenges, however.

He lost 30 pounds while trying to cope with the diet changes and sickness. Over the first seven months, he dealt with six staph infections, although he feels fortunate that he hasn’t suffered the intestinal problems often common with other Peace Corps volunteers.

Lesley has done his best to ward against malaria and typhoid fever, which are common in a place where the temperature can reach 140 degrees and the rainy season swells rivers and makes any significant travel almost impossible.

Lesley says the people in Hina have such a different perspective on life than Americans, and that’s not necessarily bad. “Your job isn’t everything,” he says.

And while the people in this Third World region may seem impoverished by U.S. standards, they are generally happy and care deeply for one another, Lesley reports.

“The sense of community is something I’ve learned a lot about,” he adds.

Several months ago, a friend told him to quit wasting his money on food for dinner and eat instead with him and his wife. The wife prepares food much better than he did, Lesley acknowledges.

Lesley, son of Debbie Lesley of Salisbury and Jason Lesley of Georgetown, S.C., recently returned to Salisbury for the first time since leaving for Cameroon some 15 months go. He’ll head back in early January, and will be closing out the Peace Corps commitment to Hina next fall.

Lesley says he realizes that Peace Corps volunteers arrive in far-off places such as Hina and have “visions of grandeur,” believing they are going to be a force for great change.

But the reality is they enter places such as Hina with many challenges — rainy seasons, incredible temperature swings, lack of water, diseases, limited educational resources, meager medical facilities, no electricity and more.

And you learn quickly, Lesley says, that you make progress and create something sustainable in small increments. That’s OK with him, and the new friendships alone are an incredible bonus.

“There’s not many times in your life you can drop everything and take two years to do something like this,” Lesley says.

If you want to contribute to Lesley’s Peace Corps project for the textbook library and high school scholarships for three women, go to www.peacecorps.gov. A link on the left side of the Web page will say “Donate Now.” It will link you to the various volunteer projects. Go to the African link and scroll down to Cameroon, “R. Lesley of NC.” Donations are tax-deductible. The ADK teachers’ sorority in Rowan also has adopted Lesley’s projects.