Reviewed by Peter Deekle (Iran 1968-70)
For many Peace Corps Volunteers, their first opportunity to live and work in a foreign culture begins with their service abroad. They often keep a daily journal to help them organize and process their encounters with their host country. Jane F. Bonin, having enjoyed a long academic career and subsequent U.S. government assignment in Washington, D.C. offers a different “first opportunity” with the unique perspective informed by her maturity and a scholar’s capacity for order and reflection.
After several decades as a scholar, parent and spouse Jane Bonin is free of family and financial obligations to accept an administrative post in a country heretofore unknown to her. As Bonin observes in The Color of a Lion’s Eye, “Many of the Peace Corps Volunteers participated, being much closer to the ground than I was.” But her role as a staff administrator in Malawi provided a particular access to her host country. It brought her the advantages and burdens of a recognized “official” in Malawi society.
Furthermore, she was a single white woman, who could experience, unlike her male Peace Corps colleagues, the strength and the challenges of African women who must assume enormous domestic responsibilities from very early in their lives. And, conversely, she describes the “subculture” of “the world of women in beauty salons” for those few (usually non-native) who could indulge in their services.
Within the Peace Corps community was “a unique interpretation of hospitality . . . simply stated: if there was free food, they were going to be there.” This convention posed numerous surprises for Bonin, as host of many local social occasions. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, Bonin gains as much as she gives from the her many months among the Malawi people — “I went to Africa . . . to see if I could do some good in the world — “and each vignette presents new and highly individual instances of her advancing knowledge and appreciation of her new life.
Ever insightful and reflective regarding her life and work in Malawi, Bonin “considered it some kind of cosmic irony that the more I tried to do good in the world, the more I lived like a princess.” Her African domestic staff provided both essential support and companionship, but also the burden for their management and welfare. Like most Westerners, Jane Bonin had to adjust to a different sense of time — “My resistance to the pace of things wore me out . . . I would need to have a serious attitude adjustment.”
Jane F. Bonin’s book reads like an intimate personal journal of entries concerning her life in Malawi. It presents separate vignettes in the author’s advancing awareness of African culture during her service as a Peace Corps program administrator. With a characteristic determination and dedication she sets out to prepare herself for life on her own in a wholly foreign culture, and the reader benefits from her candid insights about white women in traditional African communities. Hers is an account that differs from the Peace Corps Volunteers she, an in-country administrator, must guide and support. And yet she encounters, like all volunteers in the field, a “life on the Peace Corps staff [that] would mean living in a fishbowl . . . [with] the end of any personal solitude.” She was told by Peace Corps Volunteers that “ . . . in Africa there was no privacy. Africans don’t even want it, preferring to be together.”
Bonin’s book is no mere travelogue; rather, it presents a personal and sympathetic record of a “white stranger . . . entering a strange and mysterious realm.” Hers is an honest and captivating story.