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Toupta Boguena is so shy, soft-spoken and self-effacing that surely she would never:

* Stand up to corrupt police to rescue an abused girl.

* Stare down gun-toting guerrillas trying to steal the car she uses to aid rural villages.

* Risk her life to help the hungry, the homeless and the helpless.

But that's what the 40-year-old scholar has done since returning to Chad in 2003, armed with a Brigham Young University doctorate and a dream - inspired by her father - to help her African nation escape decades of poverty, strife, disease and death.

"She's almost like the Mother Teresa of Chad," says American Fork resident LuAnn Kendrick, one of Boguena's many Utah admirers. "Every time I call, she's . . . paying for a funeral, taking someone to the hospital and paying the bill, or donating toys to children at Christmas."

Boguena didn't have to return to her homeland. She could have stayed in the States, safe and secure with a nice salary. But to help Chad move forward, she knew she had to go back.

"I don't want to run away from it," says Boguena, in Utah until Feb. 8 to rally support for her nonprofit charity. "I'm no better than anyone living [in Chad]. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to learn and make informed decisions in life that was not offered to others. I can't turn my back on them."

So she plowed ahead, knowing that life in Chad is never easy.

Back in the early 1980s, a ruinous civil war ruined her family's fortunes. Noida Boguena, her college-educated father and a renowned agronomist, had just retired from government service, and her mother, Yvonne, was teaching school when rival factions began mass killings, forcing the family to hole up in a home near near the southern city of Doba.

When the family finally ventured out, Toupta Boguena recalls seeing pigs feeding on corpses, many of them friends and neighbors. She was 14.

"It was a horrible sight. After that, I didn't talk much and became very withdrawn."

Boguena's parents sent their daughter and three of her siblings to Congo, where they settled in a refugee camp and finished school. Boguena wouldn't see her parents for 3 1/2 years.

Back in Chad, a new leader started executing former government officials. Boguena's parents scurried from place to place, staying one step ahead of the death squads. Eventually, they separated and her father hid in the bush for months until a general amnesty took hold.

When Boguena returned and found her dad, he was ailing from high blood pressure and other untreated ailments. Working for the electric company in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, by that time, Boguena paid for her father's medical treatment and later reunited with her mother and other siblings in the southern city of Sarh.

"They were so thin I hardly recognized them," Boguena recalls. "They ate practically anything to survive."

'Make sure you come home': Boguena scrimped to support her family and dreamed of a higher education. In 1985, she landed a U.N. scholarship to go to college in the United States. Before leaving, she and her dad had one last talk.

"You go to America," Boguena remembers him saying. "But make sure you come home" to help.

Her father lapsed into a coma the next morning and died. Boguena watched workers pile dirt on his coffin as she and her mother boarded a truck for the trip back to the capital.

Boguena learned English at the University of Arizona, where she earned a bachelor's in agriculture in 1991 and a master's in agronomy and plant genetics in 1994. After converting to the LDS Church, she went to BYU in Provo, where she did research for the Forest Service and got her doctorate in botany in August 2003.

She now teaches plant science at the University of N'Djamena and works part time as a translator. In her spare time, she and volunteers cram into her battered Toyota and head for the countryside, where they are laboring to make eight villages near the Lagone River self-sufficient.

Boguena also lends a hand, and even cash, to those in need, sometimes going toe to toe with uncaring officials and risking her life in the process. Upon learning police had jailed a girl for running away from her sexually abusive uncle, for instance, Boguena intervened. Threatened with arrest, she worked with higher-ups to secure the girl's release and paid doctors to examine her.

Boguena then gave the police gas money to go and arrest the uncle. When a judge ordered the abuser jailed, she drove him to the lockup accompanied by two cops.

In December, en route to see about installing a water well in the village of Sara Kabe, Boguena encountered four Kalashnikov-carrying rebels blocking the road and demanding the keys to her Toyota. Her sister, Rose, and brothers, David and D'jelda, bailed out, but Boguena said the car, with 200,000 miles on it, was needed for humanitarian work and refused to hand it over.

When the bandits jumped in and tried to drive off, Boguena grabbed the door and held on.

"They dragged me forward and I tried to pull the car back," she says. "One of them said, 'Stop. Let her have the car.' So we got back in and drove away before they changed their mind."

Charity begins at home: LuAnn Kendrick's husband, Wayne, an electrical engineer for ExxonMobil in southern Chad who assists Boguena's charity, worries about her safety.

"I've seen her in action," he says. "She doesn't back down from anybody."

Boguena's compound in the capital is home to more than 20 people, including her 5-year-old son, Amir, her mom and many others. She also is rearing Neloum, an 8-year-old girl abandoned by her family and recently provided shelter to a minister and his wife flooded out of their home.

On another occasion, Boguena rushed a stabbing victim to the hospital only to learn the doctors lacked surgical tools. So she raced to one of the city's only open pharmacies, bought the supplies and then covered the young man's hospital bill.

Not that Boguena likes to talk about such feats. She doesn't dwell on negatives or challenges. Fact is, she now is in Utah bearing positive news. She says the Organization for Community Supported Sustainable Agriculture in Chad, which she and Utahns founded in 2003, is making a difference in eight dirt-poor villages.

Thanks to sizable donations - largely from Utahns - Boguena and her small cadre of volunteers have passed out clothes along with medical, farming and other supplies. Wells have been drilled in two villages, which now boast clean water and healthy children free of hepatitis, typhoid and other water-borne diseases.

Boguena has set up a computer-training center and passed out kits to 600 students in the villages' lone school. She also has loaned $1,500 - much of it her own money - to 86 women, teaching them how to sell their products at market and set money aside for savings.

Two incubators for premature babies have been donated to a hospital. Birthing kits have been distributed to a clinic in the capital. And Boguena plans to set up another clinic, plant a 5,000-acre community garden and dig wells in the remaining six villages.

LuAnn Kendrick and RoseAnn Gunther - two of about 100 volunteers, most of them in Utah, who have helped with the relief efforts - know much more needs to be done.

"I'll get down on my knees and scrub floors if that's what it takes," Gunther vows.

For her part, Boguena is determined to help her homeland and keep that long-ago promise to her father.

" I hope I will make him happy."

More about Chad

Population: 9.8 million

Size: About three times the size of California.

Capital: N'Djamena.

Climate: Desert in north, semi-tropical in south.

Poverty: Rated by National Geographic Life in 2005 as world's fourth poorest nation.

Average life expectancy: 47 years.

Literacy rate: 47.5 percent can read and write French or Arabic.

Religions: Muslim, 51 percent; Christian, 35 percent; animist, 7 percent; other, 7 percent.

Languages: French and Arabic (official) and more than 120 others.

Infant mortality rate: Nearly one in 10 births.

Childbirth: 1,500 women die per 100,000 births

Water: 26 percent have access to potable water.

Sources: National Geographic Life,, United Nations

How to help

The Hope Alliance is accepting contributions for Toupta Boguena's nonprofit charity. Donors should write "The Chad Project" on their checks and mail them to: 2681 E. Parleys Way, Suite 100 , Salt Lake City, UT 84109. For more information, call LuAnn Kendrick at 801-763-1484.

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