Summer 2009: Emory Abroad

Smith portrait

Ryan Smith 95C

Courtesy Ryan Smith

A Man of Two Worlds

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By Franchesca Winters 10C

Until January, Ryan Smith 95C hadn’t set foot on American soil for nearly five years. He hasn’t had daily access to electricity, running water, or the Internet for more than a decade. Smith, who joined the Peace Corps in the summer of 1998, now lives in Perere, a traditional African village.

“Coming back has been strange, because in almost eleven years, I’ve only been back three times,” Smith said during a recent visit to Atlanta.

Smith spent three years working with local environmental groups after graduating from Emory College with a degree in human and natural ecology. Then, without telling his family or friends, he rode his bicycle into downtown Atlanta and underwent the Peace Corps’ rigorous application process.

Fluent in French, Smith was sent to the Republic of Benin, a small, poverty-stricken Francophone country on Africa’s western coast. “These people live like they’ve been living for the last several hundred years just because nothing else has arrived to take its place,” Smith says.

Smith enlisted a young villager to tutor him in the local Baatonum. He founded an environmentally focused youth club and secured a small grant from the Peace Corps when his students expressed interest in starting a tree nursery. During the club’s first year, Smith and his students planted nearly three thousand trees and the project gained the interest of both Perere’s chief and the region’s king, who suggested that Smith establish a nature reserve.“They set aside a little piece of land, and then we had a party and went out and planted the trees,” Smith says. “There was traditional music, dance, food. It was a big success.”

Smith didn’t leave Benin when his two-year commitment ended. Instead, he chose to remain in Perere at the request of his Beninese friends and host family, expecting to stay no more than another year or two. He continued his work with the reserve and also assumed responsibility for ten children who had been orphaned by the death of a member of Smith’s host family in 1998.

Smith now serves as executive director of the reserve’s Regional Council and of the reserve itself, the Antisua Community Forest, which has grown to include nearly fifteen thousand acres. Although he has wholeheartedly embraced his life in Africa, Smith remains unsure where the next few years will take him. “I feel every bit at home in that village now, but I miss my life here too,” he says. “My big challenge in life will be to find out how to have both at once.”

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