By Sean KimmonsMay 2, 2017
GAROUA, Cameroon (Army News Service) -- Growing up in Cameroon, Leonce Laure was always fascinated by American culture. Whenever a Hollywood movie was on TV, her eyes would be glued to the screen. She loved American music, clinging to the lyrics of Michael Jackson and his song "Speechless" about being lost for words because of love.
But the 19-year-old student wasn't speechless when it came to talking about America when an Army civil affairs team met her and other Cameroonians April 24 at the American Corner in Garoua.
About a year and a half ago, Laure began to visit the cultural center to refine her English skills and learn about the country she has always admired. Every week, the French-speaker practices conversing with U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to Task Force Toccoa, a 101st Airborne Division-led unit located at a nearby air base.
"From the first day I started coming here, I have benefited from the programs," she said of the center. "It has given me the opportunity to learn about the culture they teach here and, secondly, it helps me overcome my difficulties in learning English."
Founded in 2000, the U.S. State Department runs more than 300 of these centers to spread American culture to distant lands around the world. Inside them, they offer English lessons, information on studying abroad, and chances to interact with Americans.
One such program at the Garoua center is Discover America, where Soldiers give a crash course on their hometown or state.
During a recent event, Staff Sgt. Brandon Collins, a member of the 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion's Team 8321, spoke about his home state of Ohio. From large cities to farmland, mountains and tourist attractions, he said, the state offered so much that the Cameroonians were stunned.
"Most of them were able to point it out on a map," the 28-year-old said, "but they were surprised to see how diverse Ohio was."
But when the inquisitive Cameroonians questioned Collins about Ohio's government leadership, he was stumped. In Cameroon, he said, many people take their knowledge of local government seriously.
"That's actually a big thing in Cameroon," he said. "I wasn't ready for them to be interested in the actual government aspect, so I thought that was pretty cool."
The American Corner in Garoua also doubles as an internet café and library with an array of reading material, from novels to U.S. history books written by American authors. A cooler stocked with Coca-Cola and Sprite also offers a little taste of the U.S.
"It makes them feel [they are] really in America without traveling," said Harouna Ahmadou, the center's director.
Ahmadou has worked at the center since it first opened in 2006. Impressed by the professionalism of the U.S. Soldiers, he asked them to be a part of it when they arrived at Garoua in 2015 to support Cameroon in its fight against Boko Haram.
"Their presence draws more people in our American Corner," Ahmadou said. "We're very proud of having them. They're always there when we schedule a program and they're very engaged during [it]."
The cultural exchanges also benefit the Soldiers when they visit. "When you share your culture, we learn from each other," Ahmadou said.
The civil affairs team often tries to get Soldiers to travel to the American Corner so they can talk with the Cameroonians and experience their way of life, according to its team leader, Capt. Daniel Kohlmetz.
"If the task force Soldiers didn't have that opportunity to go out and interact with the civilian population, all they would know is what the view is from the guard tower or walking from their tent to the [tactical operations center]," said Kohlmetz, 44, of Carol Stream, Illinois.
While the center is a State Department initiative, no U.S. Embassy personnel are stationed in Garoua. The embassy must rely on Kohlmetz and his team for assistance. "The embassy doesn't come up here as often as [us]," the captain said. "We live here. This is our home in Cameroon."
And the team's work hasn't gone unnoticed by embassy staff in Yaounde, the country's capital city.
"They are there every day providing that friendship, that hand of cooperation and the Cameroonian people can directly interact with them," said Matthew D. Smith, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon.
Soldiers in their late teens and early 20s who visit the American Corner are also great at representing America's goodwill, he said, since many of them can relate to the young Cameroonians there.
"We live in a very interconnected world, and we share aspirations, challenges, and we share opportunities," Smith said. "The fact that these young men and women have come to Cameroon to engage in these efforts has been of the greatest impact."
(Follow Sean Kimmons on Twitter: @KimmonsARNEWS)