Ask Leah Tsiame what she wants to be and she's quick with an answer.
"I'd like to be famous," she says.
She doesn't come off as obnoxious when she says this, or precocious, either. Rather, she exudes the level-headed optimism of someone who has already come a long way in a relatively short time and doesn't see why she can't keep right on going.
Leah is 18 and is getting a quick start on her college education by attending the summer session at LDS Business College in downtown Salt Lake City. Every weekday she commutes to the LDSBC campus from the North Salt Lake home of Mark and Joni Allen, who are providing her with room and board.
But North Salt Lake isn't home. Home is the African country of Lesotho.
Until six weeks ago, America was just a rumor.
Now, Leah is eating at Burger King, enjoying chocolate malts at Sonic, learning American slang, shopping at the mall, wearing stylish madras shorts, high-top tennis shoes and big loop earrings, dreaming of owning her own Harley, carrying a full load of five classes and getting used to being away from her mom for the first time in her life.
"I really miss her," she says. "That part's hard. But otherwise, it's not as hard as I thought."
It's Leah's mom, Tiny Tsiame, who is the reason Leah is here in the first place. For years, Tiny made her home available to Peace Corps volunteers who traveled to Lesotho, a small country located smack in the middle of South Africa but with full autonomy and independence.
One of those volunteers who lodged with the Tsiame family was a young American woman named Jan Wright. Jan and Leah became close and Jan promised she'd do what she could to help Leah come to America when it came time for college.
Enter Jan's brother, Greg Wright, an Institute of Religion teacher at LDSBC. At his sister's urging, Greg found an anonymous donor who provided the funds needed to sponsor a foreign student to the school. Greg also arranged Leah's lodging with the Allens, neighbors of his who live just down the street and, as fate had it, had an adjoining apartment with kitchen just waiting for an aspiring star from Africa.
"If Leah's family hadn't been so generous in the first place," says Greg Wright, "none of this would have ever happened."
The reciprocal generosity isn't lost on Leah, who not only would like to become famous but famous in a way that could do much good.
She has strong opinions, particularly on the state of things in Africa and what kind of help is and isn't needed there. And she isn't bashful about sharing them.
"It's not all poverty and orphans and AIDS," says Leah, who is fluent in both English and Sesotho, her country's native language. "Those are problems, but that's not all Africa is. And donations are good, but what is better is the kind of help that helps people make a living themselves."
"If I can have a TV program myself, I could talk to people and help them," she says, mentioning that she would eventually like to transfer to BYU and major in broadcasting.
I suggest she might be aiming at becoming the Oprah of Lesotho.
Leah smiles and amends that slightly.
"I would like to become the Leah of Lesotho," she says.I would not bet against her.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.