Peace Corps taught Ryan Lesley importance of community

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories the Post is publishing to mark National Peace Corps Week, Feb. 23-March 2. The writer, Ryan Lesley, served as an agro-forestry extension agent September 2006 to December 2008, working toward sustainable agriculture, HIV/AIDS awareness programs, drinking water programs and helping to improve the education of high school students in Cameroon, West/Central Africa.
By Ryan Lesley
For the Salisbury Post
Coming back from Cameroon felt as though I was leaving my home to return to my home. I left the United States after graduating from Wake Forest, bound for an obscure West/Central African country that I did not know the least bit about; I could hardly place it on the map. I expected to change and to grow as a person, I wanted to help people and I wanted to see the world. Peace Corps brought all of that and so much more to me. I now have family that stretches across the globe.
After two years in Cameroon, as an agro-forestry volunteer, I developed a sense of family and togetherness that is often not found anywhere else in society. Often Cameroonians would go beyond the extra mile to help each other, whether it was a flat tire on the side of the road, planting crops, fixing a car or uniting against corrupt police officers. Cameroon taught me that we, as a human race, are family and we need to take care of each other.
Traveling in Cameroon was never an easy task by any means. A bus ride of 250 miles often took eight or more hours, easily.
Combined with overcrowded buses, unbearable heat and very little water were the ever-present and persistent police check points.
Under the guise of checking Westerners’ travel documents, they tried to extort a bribe from us; we refused to support their corruption every time.
In one particular episode, I was pulled off of my bus while en route to Yaounde, the capital city. My identity card had expired, but my visa was still valid. The officer claimed not to understand what a visa was so he insisted on telling me that this was a very serious matter and something needed to be done.The loss of my French-speaking ability was in direct proportion to my rising anger.
Everyone on my bus was concerned for me, turning their heads and watching my discussion with the police officers. After a few minutes, a fellow volunteer with whom I was traveling was convinced by the other members on the bus to disembark and help me with the police officers. She calmly explained our situation and negotiated our way back onto the bus.
After reboarding the bus, we were the center of attention. Everyone wanted to know what had transpired, leaving no detail untold. The first question asked was whether or not we had paid to get back on the bus. My friend promptly responded, resoundingly, that we do not support corruption. The entire bus cheered our defiance.
We had originally boarded as complete strangers, but only 10 minutes into the trip we were united as a family and community.They wanted to look out for us, and ensuring our safety was one of their objectives. It was an aspect of Cameroonian society that never left me.
My village often went beyond something so simple as asking questions; they knew where I was and what I was doing most of my two years. They looked after me as though I was their son.
Often in America, we are unwilling to help a stranger on the side of the road, regardless of whether we can actually provide the assistance that he or she needs. We pass by and avert our eyes. In Cameroon, this was not the norm by any means. This sense of community togetherness is a life lesson that will not be going away.
Ryan Lesley, a graduate of Salisbury High School, is living in Salisbury and looking for a nonprofit job in the New York area.