GAROUA, Cameroon (U.S. Army News Service) -- About a decade ago, Soule Malame left a dearth of opportunity in his home country of Togo in search of a better life in America.
Today, he's paying it forward to another West African nation, as part of a U.S. Army mission to strengthen Cameroon's military and its people in defeating Boko Haram and other violent extremists.
A first lieutenant with Task Force Toccoa, a 101st Airborne Division-led unit based just south of the frontlines of Boko Haram in northern Cameroon, Malame uses his cultural identity to be a key part of the mission.
"Being an African, I always dreamed to serve in Africa," the 35-year-old officer said. "For me, it was like my prayer was answered."
As a native French speaker, he translates for U.S. Soldiers when they're out interacting with Cameroonian military and civil leaders, or with locals during civil affairs operations. He also gives the Americans a better understanding of Cameroon, whose culture is similar to that of Togo.
Malame has even joined Army medics on their weekly visits to a local clinic, where they help treat Cameroonians. Due to the language barrier and the health consequences involved, the Soldiers lean on Malame to bridge the communication gap.
"They don't get their message across," he said of the patients, "so I meet them one-on-one and translate anything they want to [say] to our medics."
With a smile, the friendly and soft spoken officer expressed pride that he gets to use his lifelong skills beyond his assigned role as the task force's S-1 officer. If he had deployed to Eastern Europe or another part of the world, he said, his cultural background would have been insignificant.
"I would just be wearing a uniform," he said of being deployed elsewhere. "Here, I have an impact on the team."
Since Malame and other Soldiers wear plainclothes when traveling outside the base due to security measures, many locals assume he's just a hired interpreter. But when they find out he's an African who became a U.S. Army officer, they tend to open up more, according to Maj. Max Ferguson, in charge of the task force.
"It adds credibility to our sincerity when we want to work with our host nation partners," Ferguson said of Malame's background. "They end up engaging with us more because they see we respect and value them."
Being a fellow officer, Malame is also a trusted source who can inform Ferguson and others of the region's cultural norms and how Cameroonians respond to certain situations.
"It's nice to be able to talk to someone who's both an infantryman, like me, but also an African who understands the culture and can advise me," the major said.
COMING TO AMERICA
Frustrated by the lack of jobs in Togo, Malame applied for and was granted a diversity immigrant visa and moved to the United States in late 2005. The prospects in his new home country impressed him so much that he felt he had to give something back. So, six months later, he signed up to be an enlisted Soldier in the Army.
"I decided to join the Army because … the United States has done a lot for me," he said. "As a young kid in Togo, I didn't see that much opportunity growing up."
At first, his decision to enter the Army didn't go over well with his friends and family, who were worried since missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were more dangerous at the time.
"The only support I had was from my dad back in Togo, who was very, very happy to see me join the military," he said. "He was the backbone; the guy who helped me … gain the confidence to join."
His father quashed the dangers of going to war, which he said wasn't necessarily a death sentence, according to Malame.
"We are human beings and we can die anywhere," Malame recalled. "Going to war doesn't mean you're going to die. I can go there and come back safely."
Less than two years later, he was sent to Afghanistan where he served under the 101st Airborne Division for the first time. His military service also expedited his U.S. citizenship, which he earned while downrange.
When he redeployed, he married a woman from Togo and they had two children -- a boy and girl, now aged 5 and 7, respectively. They currently live at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
On top of that, Malame took advantage of the Army's tuition assistance to earn a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He then participated in a ROTC program and was commissioned in 2014.
"Being where I am now, I am grateful," he said of his accomplishments over the past decade. "Without the help of God, I would not be here."
JUST LIKE HOME
When Malame first stepped off the plane for his mission in Cameroon, it was instantly familiar, he said.
While the weather in Garoua is hotter than in Togo, he said there are many other parallels. From the way of life and culture to buildings and food, he said, both countries have a lot in common.
"Even if Cameroon is not my country, I feel like [I'm] home," he said.
Perhaps his favorite thing to do is speak his mother tongue. Besides French, he also knows six other ethnic languages from Togo. But the linguist admits he still struggles with English.
"When I speak English sometimes I get nervous. Is my message going across?" he said. "But when I start speaking French I feel like I'm speaking the language I'm supposed to speak."
When in his element, Cameroonian soldiers will ask him how they can be in the U.S. Army like him. He tells them to sign up for a visa and, if accepted, get a green card in the U.S. and go to a recruiter. "They don't see that very often," he said. "An African guy in the American army [who is also] an officer."
He has already inspired at least 11 of his African friends living in the U.S. to sign up. "People were saying that this guy made it," he said of his friends. "I feel like [I'm having] an impact on something, which is a goal for me."
In Cameroon, he hopes to have an influential role in countering Boko Haram, which has murdered, kidnapped, and displaced thousands of people in the far north region of the country.
As a Muslim himself, he takes the extremist group's ruthless view of Islam personally, he said. He has even reached out to the local mosque and set up meetings with the Iman and Army leaders in an attempt to reach out to disadvantaged youth before they fall into the recruiting pool for the group.
"When they have nothing to do, it's easy for some extremists to come and convince them" with cash, motorcycles or a potential wife, Malame said.
By improving the region's quality of life and education as well as donations, such as school supplies, Malame believes Soldiers can do more against Boko Haram than if they were placed in a combat situation.
"That's the better war," he said. "That's the best we can do instead of bringing weapons and trying to fight them."
While terrorism isn't a huge concern in Togo at the present time, Malame said, he still feels strongly that the U.S. Army's efforts in Cameroon could prevent those types of groups from spreading further into West Africa.
"If they could keep me here for my entire career, I would stay," he said of the mission. "I would not hesitate.