Wednesday, May 27, 2015

THE COLOR OF A LION'S EYE

Back in the 80's I worked with Jane Bonin, then an English professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, in a project called The Hunger Project and was inspired by her dedication to helping end world hunger. She definitely had a calling to make life better for poor, disenfranchised people throughout the world, so a few years later I wasn't surprised when she retired from her position at the University, packed her belongings, and went off to Washington, D.C. to work on the staff of the Foreign Service Institute in the U.S. State Department. Ultimately, she accepted a position on the Peace Corps staff and was sent to Africa. During the two years she spent in Malawi as an Associate Peace Corps Director and the four years she worked as a Country Director in Niger, she came to love Africa and its people and began recording her experiences about her life there.

During Jane's sojourn, I kept in touch with her but didn't know that she had been writing about her experiences in Africa until she returned and revealed her writings to me during several visits I made to Washington. In 2002, Jane allowed me to read some of the vignettes she had written about Africa, and I recognized that the material was highly publishable. They were reflective of Jane's heightened awareness of her surroundings and her ability to document meaningful experiences. However, she tucked the writing away until this year when she decided to publish these personal, poignant sketches about the people and culture of Malawi, as well as several vignettes about Niger in a book entitled The Color of A Lion's Eye.

Border Press Books will launch the book this month, and readers will be delighted with a wonderful collection of vignettes that I think are reminiscent of the description and characterizations in essays by D. H. Lawrence in Mornings in Mexico and the people and landscapes depicted in Alexander McCall Smith's novels set in Botswana.




Jane prefaces her book with a charming introduction, setting the tone for the vignettes that follow. She writes, "if we were in Africa we would sit on a mat under a tree and tell our stories one to the other. I hope this remembrance will be the next best thing." In the twenty-four vignettes that follow, the reader will be treated to stories that range from an account about Jane's family origins and her kin's desire to serve others to a final essay about her encounter with a lion in Le Jardin Zoologique in Niger, a country among the poorest in Africa.

The essay about Jane's arrival in Malawi as a Programming and Training Officer is this cogent recollection:

"a country burning down...billowing smoke, tongues of flame, and the blackened scorched earth [making] it appear that the whole countryside was on fire...I later learned that Malawians have a practice of burning off the stubble from their fields in preparation for the next planting of corn. The sugarcane farmers do the same thing in Louisiana, but I remember it as a more controlled exercise..."

Detailed descriptions of landscapes, weather, and experiences in an African beauty parlor, highlighted by amusing personal encounters are recorded in a style that reflects Jane's burgeoning worldview. In a visit to Zimbabwe, she treks through a rainforest with waist-high brown grass that reminds her of Hemingway novels and takes the reader into what she describes as the hot and dusty "real" Africa. However, intruders who steal a generator provided by the Peace Corps for her use during power outages remind her that thievery is sometimes part of everyday life in the Third World.

Weston, Jane's cook and house worker, becomes a strong figure in her life in Malawi, and her reminiscences about him are particularly poignant in an essay about six pigeons she adopts and for which Weston builds a pigeon house and becomes the caretaker. Jane writes:

"The pigeons captured the essence of brief periods of repose at day's end. Their soaring flight home every evening meant that I was home too. I had made a home of a rented house, tacky government-issue furniture, a flock of village pigeons, and a servant and his family. The sense of being at home that I felt during those evenings on the khande was an unexpected blessing. I never experienced it again in Africa..."

On one occasion Jane was sent to Le Jardin Zoologique in Niger to determine if a zoo was a "sustainable" project in this part of the world and was asked to touch a lion after it had been shot with a dart gun. Inside the lion's cage, she looked into the animal's eyes where she saw:

"a pure, cold green, the color of the inside of a kiwi. I was seized by the moment and could not take my eyes away. My memory, uninvited, supplied an image—"From Greenland's Icy Mountains," a line I learned as a child from a pompous and condescending Anglican mission hymn I had not thought of in decades...that color, which I can still recall, came to stand for the mystery of Africa and the mystery of my life that had brought me to this beautiful and terrible place..."

This essay is the concluding essay in The Color of A Lion's Eye and leaves the reader with a sense of Jane's earnestness and nostalgic feeling for a country she grew to love.
   
These vignettes give readers a sense of immediacy and reality, are filled with the tastes, smells, sounds, and concrete language of an expert personal narrator and possess an emotional dimension that places it as a tour de force in contemporary travel literature.

We have waited a long time to see these vignettes in print, but the wait has been worth it. Brava, Jane, and don't make us wait so long for the encore!

Available from Amazon or Border Press Books, P.O. Box 3124, Sewanee, TN 37375 (borderpress@gmail.com). The cost for purchasing from Border Press is $15 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling in the U.S.
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