October 26th, 2009 by bobebill

Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a soldier in the U.S. Army, Specialist Thomas Nyenty, who had traveled from Norfolk, Va., to Silver Spring, Md., to attend a town hall meeting with U.S. Ambassador Janet Garvey. He raised a visa question, but what attracted my attention was when he mentioned that he was preparing to ship out with his unit for a tour-of-duty in Iraq. Although I knew that more than 40,000 non-citizens were serving in the military these days, he was the first Cameroonian-born serviceman that I had met. The intriguing part of his life story is the role that Peace Corps Volunteers played in his life while he was a student in Cameroon, and I thought that his story was one to share.


In His Own Words

I call myself a Peace Corps product because the US Peace Corps influenced my destiny.

The volunteers they are called, but they have influenced lives all over the globe from teaching in schools to trade, craftsmanship, agriculture, fisheries and you name the rest. And how did my destiny roll with the Peace Corps?

It all started in the small town of Menji in Fontem in the South West of Cameroon when I was in Form four in secondary school (1988). My Chemistry Instructor (and Peace Corps Volunteer) Joseph Nicholas Becker from Des Moines, Iowa, knew me not only as a good student in class but also through my cousin Israel Nembo who, living with Mr Becker, had graduated and left Fontem, and Becker called me to see him after class.

That after class meeting was a request Becker was putting through, asking me if I would love to live with him since Israel had left. I told him I will go for weekend to ask my father.
I went to my village, Besali, and told my father “Father, my teacher, the Whiteman wants me to live with him. Should I go live with him?” My father said,”sure, but you may need to pay him rents.” My father gave me cfa3500frs, about $7.00 at that time. When I went back to Fontem, I went to see Becker on Monday where I told him my father said yes, I could live with him. He immediately showed me my room at the boys’ quarters as we called it. He gave me the keys and told me to move in whenever I wanted. I gave him the cfa3500frs for rents as my father had indicated. Becker asked me to keep it. I wrote a letter to my father that “My patron, the Whiteman asked me to keep the money”. My father wrote back, if he asked you to keep it, then keep it and give him at the end of the month. I moved in and at the end of the month, I took the money back to him, “Patron, sir, here is the money you asked me to keep.”

He asked me again to keep it. So I kept it and again informed my father. My father asked me to continue keeping it and that he may take it at the end of the second month. By the end of the second month, I took it back to him and said “Sir, here is the money you asked me to keep”. Becker asked me to sit down. He then explained to me that in the United States, when somebody asks you to keep something, they mean you should keep it for yourself and own it. Then I asked, so how about my rents? He said, “No, you do not pay rents. You already know how to help cook the peanut/cabbage soup that Israel used to cook, and you help with laundry. In return, I will feed you and you live here.” I told him, “thank you sir.” Then I wrote and informed my father all that had happened and my father was also happy.

I lived with Joseph Becker until his term ended at the end of 1988. He handed me to Robert E Reichardt from Boulder Colorado. Life was very happy with Reichardt and his kind treatment. I got to know his family and fell in love with the Beatles, which I had started liking while with Joe Becker. It was different because one of Reichardt’s family members was also a fan of the Beatles and had actually visited their birthplace in Liverpool. We always exchanged mails on how we miss “our John”. Then I graduated Secondary school, scoring 9 out of the 10 O’level subjects that I had attempted. Reichardt helped locate Eric Tomlinson of Wum and Brian Murphy in Mbengwi, and I decided to go to then GHS Mbengwi, where I lived with Brian Murphy from Omaha, Nebraska in 1990 before his term ended. Brian Murphy’s colleague was Shelby Hatch from St Louis, Missouri who asked me to move in with her.

That year, 1991, was not the best year in Cameroon with ghost towns, strikes, and political upheavals. I did not pass the A/levels. I then moved to GHS Wum in 1992 and there met Robert G Maki (Bob Maki) from Madison, Wisconsin. He was my HS chemistry teacher, and as I was always liked, asked me to move and live with him. Two weeks later, he had an accident on the muddy roads between Wum and Bamenda. He told me it was his worst experience. Gasoline spilled on his foot, and decolorized his skin. He told me Cameroon was not the best place for him to heal and that he is a stronger person now that he did not die. But what will happen if there is next time? He decided to short-live his term and return to the United States. When he left, he sent me several informative recorded tapes for me and my classmates, but he also mentioned on one tape that “if you can drive on Cameroonian roads, you can drive anywhere in the world.”

An Agro forester, Stefan Dylan Cherry from New York came in and replaced Bob Maki. I lived with Stefan for the rest of the year to graduate making all 4 A/level subjects attempted to my name. I moved to the University of Yaoundé and then to Buea, where I settled to continue the rest of my destiny. The plant that I was had eventually grown up, nourished from the seed that the Peace Corps volunteers had nursed. After a BSc in Biochemistry, I gained a scholarship from the UN to train at the World Maritime University in Malmo,-Sweden. I achieved an MSc in Maritime Education and Training (Marine Engineering specialization), and during my training, I had visited the Merchant Marine Academy in Long Island, New York.

I finally came to the United States for an extended stay when returned Peace Corps Volunteer Shelby Hatch, now a professor at North Western University in Chicago, invited me by the end of 2001.

And how did the Peace Corps nurse me as a seed into what I am today, a United States service member)?

Since secondary school, I told the present Dr Robert E Reichardt that I would love to serve in the military. He told me that he is from Colorado where there is an Air Force academy. He told me it is a good thing because his dad was a service member. This influence extended into my high school graduation year when Stefan Cherry recommended me to the Air Force Academy in Colorado. They sent me a letter, which I took to the U.S. embassy in 1992 and competed for a place into the Air Force academy, administered by the then-defense attaché Major Martin G Russo. I was not accepted into the academy but the dream lived on. On July 25, 2008, I found myself in Ft Knox, Kentucky to begin the journey I had dreamt since 1988.

Today, I am stationed in Ft Story, Virginia Beach, Va., assigned to the 11th Transportation Battalion. I am now a U.S. citizen, and I look forward to doing greater things in the military and my life. Destiny can be delayed but not changed. It is not about a country at war nor the risks and difficulties of military men. It is about living a dream. And as Bob Maki motivated me in one of his audiotapes, saying, “I know you would be a successful military man in the United States because a military man’s job in America is your daily life in Cameroon.”

Well…not too true, but not too wrong. Much thanks to the Peace Corps for making my dreams a reality. Long live the Peace Corps as it continues to change lives. The work of many Peace Corps Volunteers changed my life, and the legacy lives on. I am changing many other lives in Africa, contributing to educate many kids, offering books in schools, motivate students with prizes for academic excellence, and I plan to initiate an NGO to help fight illiteracy, poverty and develop personal skill crafts that would make people self reliant.

God bless the Peace Corps and God bless America.
(He can be reached at thomas.nyenty@us.army.mil )


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