2006-04-20 / Front Page

Millstone resident sends greetings from Africa

Peace Corps marks 45 years of service around the globe
BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP Staff Writer

BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP
Staff Writer

Above, having recently shaved her head because of the heat, Millstone Township resident Lindsay Bonanno, who earned the nickname Jeneba from African villagers, hugs Jeneba Fitini, a village baby named after the Peace Corps volunteer. At left, some of the children gather in the village of Tegue Coro in Mali, Africa.
Above, having recently shaved her head because of the heat, Millstone Township resident Lindsay Bonanno, who earned the nickname Jeneba from African villagers, hugs Jeneba Fitini, a village baby named after the Peace Corps volunteer. At left, some of the children gather in the village of Tegue Coro in Mali, Africa. 'Dooni dooni," Lindsay Bonanno is making the world a better place to live in every day.Bonanno is a graduate of Allentown High School and Rutgers University in New Brunswick. A student who opted for a double major, she has a bachelor's degree in communications and history.

The 23-year-old Millstone Township resident is currently serving with the Peace Corps in Tegue Coro, Africa.

"No one speaks English where I live, and a few speak French, which I am picking up bit by bit," Bonanno said.

" 'Dooni dooni' in Bambara means 'little by little,' she said, "and I say that quite frequently day by day."

Bonanno started her two-year term of service with the Peace Corps on Sept. 30. She will remain in Africa until December 2007.

The Peace Corps is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. In commemoration of the founding of the Peace Corps, Bonanno decided to convey some of the knowledge and insights she has gained from her overseas experience.

Because the village she's living in has no electricity, Bonanno has to travel 15 miles by bicycle from her village to a place called Kangaba to charge her cellular phone and use e-mail. She took the time to relate her experiences in the Peace Corps through e-mails to the Examiner.

"The fundamental principle of the Peace Corps is to help with community development," Bonanno said.

President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961. According to the organization's Web site, Kennedy envisioned that volunteers would become members of foreign communities and show people of different nations that Americans are committed to cultural exchange, to the advancement of people everywhere and to freedom for all.

Since its inception, more than 182,000 Peace Corps volunteers have created a legacy of service at home and abroad in 138 countries around the world.

Bonanno said sometimes her mission abroad is difficult. Most of her trials arise from basic communication, according to Bonanno.

She said she lives with a population of people that is almost 100 percent illiterate so she cannot rely on visual language presentations such as posters to communicate with her fellow villagers. Instead, she must communicate verbally.

To prepare herself for having to relate to people and a culture so unlike her own, Bonanno studied French and the local language of Malinke, which is a variation of Bambara, the primary native tongue of Mali.

After she successfully graduated from an initial training period in the capital of Mali called Bamako, the Peace Corps sent Bonanno to the village of Tegue Coro.

In a village of approximately 800, Bonanno is the only Caucasian and the only English-speaking person.

"Since most of the people in my village have never seen a Caucasian person before, I can have children stare at me for hours at a time," she said.

She is living in a time zone that is five hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time (EST) zone. Like the village natives, Bonanno lives in a mud hut. The village exists in close proximity to the Niger River, she said.

"I am located in a small village south of the capital city," Bonanno said. "My village is relatively tiny and malnutrition is a very serious problem with everyone, but especially among women and children."

She is currently working with a local health center to promote maternal and child nutrition.

"I assist a midwife from my village, and we are visited every few weeks by a doctor at a health center in another village, about 4 kilometers away," Bonanno said.

When Bonanno first arrived in the village in December, she said the villagers bombarded her with requests and invitations.

"It is considered a privilege for them to have me over to their house for tea or a meal," Bonanno said. "I am treated like a celebrity, which definitely has its ups and downs."

To elaborate, Bonanno said, "Privacy is definitely a luxury that I have become accustomed to living without."

Bonanno also had to adjust to other cultural differences. For example, she said prices are not fixed so she has to bargain for most of what she buys in the market and for taxi and other public transport rides.

"Most people see that I am a westerner and assume that I have a vast sum of money that I am willing to dispense to whomever asks," Bonanno said. "I try to explain that I am a volunteer and get a living allowance that covers what is comparable to the living expenses in my village, but it is not usually understood. So, I have to be really careful not to get taken advantage of."

She said most Malians see America "as this heaven."

"Men are constantly asking to marry me so I can take them to America, and on a number of occasions I have had women try to sell their children to me so I can take them back to America," Bonanno said.

These propositions took some getting used to, Bonanno said, but she is now able to handle such situations better.

"I now have the language skills to explain that I am not leaving Mali immediately, and that I enjoy living here," she said.

Bonanno has learned to quickly acclimate to cultural differences, as she has had the opportunity to travel a great deal. In the summer of 2000, she and her mother, Debbie, participated in a church program during which they went to Bosnia to provide recreational camps to youth.

The Bonanno family is active in its church, the Hope Lutheran Church in Freehold.

"She had a very good experience [in Bosnia]," her father, John, said about his daughter.

Bonanno also lived in England for six months during a study-abroad program. While in England, she had the opportunity to travel around Europe.

"She's our world traveler," her father said. "She's very outgoing and easily makes friends."

Remembering when he heard the news that his daughter had serious intentions of joining the Peace Corps, Bonanno's father said he was "very apprehensive."

"The news didn't sit well at first," he said. "There is a fear when your child tells you she's going to a country you don't know much about."

Although his wife, Debbie, said she was initially "very concerned" with her daughter's decision, she said the Peace Corps did an excellent job of convincing her otherwise.

"The Peace Corps has been around for 45 years," she said.

"The Peace Corps has been in Mali for 35 years," Mr. Bonanno added.

When seeing their daughter off to Africa, Mrs. Bonanno said her family relied on the Peace Corps experience.

"The Peace Corps wouldn't send young people into areas of unrest," she said.

Through e-mails and phone calls, their daughter relates that she is "overall upbeat, optimistic and enthusiastic" about her service in the Peace Corps.

"She's never had thoughts of not continuing," Mrs. Bonanno said. "She's going to finish what she started no matter what."

Overall, Bonanno said she finds herself "pretty well-adjusted."

"The people here are wonderful," she said. "I have never in my life met such a culture as accommodating and hospitable as the Malian culture is."

"People will drop whatever they are doing to assist me in any way," she said, "whether it is getting a mouse out of my house, offering me a chair or giving me the little food that they have to make sure I do not go hungry."

Although the people in her village only have "the absolute bare necessities," Bonanno said "they would still give you whatever they possibly could."

Mr. Bonanno said he is proud of his daughter.

"We are completely in awe of her, what she's doing and all that she had to go through to get there," he said.

Mrs. Bonanno said she knows the people in her daughter's village appreciate her, as they gave Lindsay the African name Jeneba.

"It was quite a thrill," Mrs. Bonanno said, "when one of the women in the village gave birth and then gave the baby the name Jeneba Fitini [after Lindsay], which means 'little Jeneba.' "

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