FOR Umaru Sule, it was an emotionally charged moment: He had just returned home to Cameroon, in West Africa, after several years in the United States. At the sight of his father among the crowd gathered to meet him, he fought back tears.
Apart from Sule (pronounced SUH-lay) and one of his brothers, both of whom had been away from the village at the time, the elder man was the only member of the large Sule family to survive the devastating eruption under Lake Nyos in 1986 that spewed suffocating gas for half a mile: There was little physical devastation, no shattered landscape, just the evidence of death all around.
"Words cannot say how I felt," says Sule of the horror of his discovery. "I would not want even my worst enemy to experience this thing."
Sule found his father unconscious but alive, and carried him on his back for a mile to the nearest road where help would arrive.
The images of that tragedy were fresh in Sule's mind on the morning of his return, years later, from America. He wanted to rush up and embrace his father. But Sule held back, knowing that such displays of affection were not part of Fulani tribal tradition. Instead, he shook his father's hand warmly and noted the pleasure in his father's face.
Even the handshake was a break with custom, but breaking time-honored custom was not new to Sule. As a youngster, he had defied family and tribal authority to pursue a Western-style education. It was an act of remarkable courage that paid off handsomely for the tribe in the aftermath of the tragedy that made headlines around the world.
Sule's tribe were semi-nomadic cattle herders, traveling with their cattle around the Lake Nyos region as the seasons and the grazing dictated. The Fulani firmly believed that knowledge beyond the needs of cattle herding was unnecessary, even harmful to the tribe. Formal education was forbidden. Even to debate the issue was taboo.
Despite this, Sule felt a persistent need to pursue outside education. But when he broached the subject, his father reacted with horror. He refused even to contemplate the idea. So Sule, then 11 years old, ran away to school. He enrolled in the elementary school in the nearby town of Wum run by Presbyterian missionaries.
Noting all the ways he has been able to help his tribe because of his education, Sule, a devout Muslim, explains his desire for education this way: "It had to be inspiration from God."
By disobeying his family, Sule became an orphan, in effect. He received no help or even acknowledgment from his family. In many ways, it was a desperate situation, but never once, Sule says, did he lose sight of his goal.
Help came in the form of a boy named Peter, who had come to Wum in search of work. Little better off than Sule, Peter - who came from a different tribe - did have a room and a spare bed that he allowed Sule to use. Peter also received food from his family once a week. As Sule recalls, "When he cooked, he asked me to ration, so I ate once every 24 hours. It was difficult in the beginning, the hunger, but as the years went by I got used to it."
Sule returned to the tribal region from time to time, only to be shunned by his family, though not necessarily by his friends. Even so, he would be taunted for going to school. His tribe saw no need of it - until after the eruption.
It was around 10 p.m. on Aug. 21, 1986; most people had turned in for the night. Carbon dioxide gas, long trapped in the bottom layers of the deep lake, was brought to the surface by a relatively small-scale eruption of an ancient volcanic vent on the lake floor. The gas cloud, heavier than air, spread a suffocating blanket over the countryside. More than 1,700 Fulanis died, along with 14,000 of their cattle.
Scientists and aid workers flocked to the area, only to run into a wall of suspicion on the part of the dazed Fulanis who had survived. Searching for an interpreter, the aid workers found Sule, now 23 years old, who had mastered both French and English at school.
But Sule was much more than an interpreter: Despite his break with tribal traditions, he was still a Fulani, someone who understood the tribe; someone whom they could trust.
So Sule became the Fulanis' bridge to the outside world, showing tribespeople how they would benefit from outside help. Aid came in many forms, from direct donations, have programs that taught the nomads how to grow crops, even how to rotate and improve grazing for their cattle. New cows produce seven times more milk than their old cattle. The Fulani have settled in a more permanent village.
Heifer Project International (HPI) was largely responsible for improving the Fulani cattle. The American-based group works to improve the world's food supply by introducing quality livestock - "everything from bees to bulls," says a spokesman - to qualified peasant farmers around the world. HPI is still working with the Fulani, long after other aid organizations have left.
It was HPI that brought Sule to America as an intern at its Overlook Farm near Rutland, Mass., three years ago. Most recently, Sule was accepted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he is studying animal science. After he completes his degree, he plans to return home and help his tribe.
Last summer, when he returned home on a short visit before entering college, he was gratified to note that all the tribe's children were enrolled in a new elementary school. After he had warmly greeted his father in the first moments after his arrival, he received the appreciation and accolades of other tribe members.
He enjoyed those moments, he says - not for himself, but for the pride he saw in his father's eyes. Later, when he and his father were alone together, the elder Sule turned to his son and said: "You made the right decision by going to school. What you have done is a good thing and it continues to help our people. Go ahead, with our blessings."
They were the words Sule had wanted to hear more than anything, he says. And for the first time since he was a small boy, Sule cried.