AMERICAN FORK It took Toupta Boguena one year to find her family after she returned to Chad from a refugee camp in the Congo. She was 19 years old, tired of fleeing a civil war that killed lives and dreams, and tired of trying to survive. She had long thought her father was dead before finding him by accident in the center of town. But finding him was just a beginning to beating more impossible odds.
"As a child, I dreamed of going far in school, but that dream was shattered at one point," Boguena said as she described the foundation of her passions to gain a higher education. From an early age she struggled against the social norm that discouraged women from attending school and decided to follow in her father's footsteps. He was her idol, a man who was educated in France, who returned to his own country to plant what he had learned.
Today, as one of the very few women from Chad who have earned advanced college degrees, she stands at the head of her own university classroom, teaching agronomy and biology to other Chadians.
She teaches for the love of her students and at a considerable sacrifice she still has not received a salary for her year's work so far.
Boguena earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Arizona, supported by a full-ride scholarship made available to only five Chadians by a U.N. committee. Though competition for the scholarship was tough, Boguena applied anyway, pitting her high school diploma against university degrees. Her success has since propelled her to be an example to other females in her country.
"I worked at it," Boguena said. "And through me they will know it can be done. . . . In farm areas in my country, women do most of the field work, but you don't see a woman standing there telling them how it should be done."
According to U.N. statistics from 2000, Chadian women typically receive less than four years of formal education. Higher education is highly discouraged and almost unheard of. But Boguena was driven by a strong desire to help her country despite the odds against her.
Through connections Boguena made with the LDS Church in Arizona, she came in contact with faculty from Brigham Young University and earned a doctoral degree in agriculture from BYU in August 2003. And though her focus was on making a difference in her homeland, her doctoral study focused on finding a solution to a local Utah problem cheatgrass.
The widespread weed is a well-known pain to local ecologists, acting as potential kindling for a fire any time the dry season approaches. The pesky plant lines a majority of hillsides and mountains with an excess of flammable material, and Boguena's research helped examine the conditions in which cheatgrass naturally deteriorates.
"She did a very, very nice piece of research," said Susan Meyer, a Utah Forest Service ecologist who worked closely with Boguena during her project. "Once she got here, she hit the ground running and really did some nice research."
Boguena recently visited the cheatgrass garden she worked on at BYU as a side venture during a trip to the United States. She came to catch up with old friends and work on her own project, a nonprofit organization she began that targets improving agriculture in Chad on a grass-roots level. The Organization for Community Supported Sustainable Agriculture in Chad focuses on empowering local farmers, who are mostly women, to improve their own communities by working together and using funds raised from community gardens.
"They have a lot of ambition," Boguena said. "They dream of being able to have their own hospital, their own school or their own clinic. They dream of something better."
And though turmoil continues to fester throughout Chad, threatening another civil war, Boguena has no intention of leaving her homeland anytime soon. She intends to do as her father did; infuse her knowledge into the ground around her. She said her work is cut out for her, and she is ready for the challenge.