For Kenyan émigré, Minnesota has become home, but his heart and energy remain focused 8,000 miles away.

  • Updated: June 16, 2011 - 5:19 PM
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Timon Bondo emigrated from a hardscrabble Kenyan village to Minnesota nearly 50 years ago. While he�s made a home in Minnesota, his focus remains 8,000 away back in Africa.

Photo: Curt Brown, Star Tribune

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In the early 1960s, Timon Bondo found himself 8,000 miles -- and two letters -- away from home. The Kenyan émigré had enrolled at the University of Minnesota and was living for the summer with a host family in Kenyon, Minn.

"They wanted a foreign student and totally immersed me in their way of life," he recalls, nearly 50 years later. "I'll never forget weeding the soybean fields of the very thorny Canada thistle. That's when I learned to wear gloves."

Adapting to life's thorny circumstances has become one of Bondo's strengths. He had planned to study agricultural economics at the U and return after four years to his hardscrabble village of Rabondo in southwest Kenya.

"It was not part of my plan, but Minnesota became my special home the last 40 years," he says. "I never would have dreamed it, but I've spent the balance of my life here."

During college, he worked odd jobs, washing dishes, unloading trucks on the graveyard shift in northeast Minneapolis and selling encyclopedias door-to-door. Armed with his degree, he went into financial services, including selling insurance and creating benefit plans for small businesses.

About 20 years ago, Bondo was diagnosed with an incurable visual disease that slowly ate away at his eyesight. He can neither drive nor read anymore, but his spirits remain clear and buoyant.

"When I cross the street, I don't see the cars coming, so I cross with a stream of others, who are so kind and helpful," he says. "Why should I complain?"

When his eyesight began to fail, he returned to Rabondo for the first time in 20 years.

"I found the village I grew up in devastated by poverty, illiteracy and HIV/AIDS," he says. "I found a dying village and was overwhelmed. I could not sit and look at what could have been me. You don't turn your back on something like this."

Bondo launched a tiny nonprofit called the Rabondo Community Project, USA (www.rcpusa.org). From his apartment in Golden Valley, he raises money and supplies that have helped fund construction of a primary and secondary school.

"At first, the classes were held under trees with students sitting on rocks and stones. We now have a building. It's not a five-star hotel, but it is giving children an opportunity."

With his blindness, running a nonprofit is challenging. But it's also what keeps Bondo going.

"Losing the ability to see is difficult, but what I'm doing for the children in my village gets me out of the monotony of being alone," he says. "That's why you see me so happy.

"But there is so much left to be done. The gravity of the problems there keeps me moving," he says, before boarding a bus in downtown Minneapolis. "The face of Rabondo has changed. Kids are going to college who never dreamt it. I am so blessed, and what more do I need than a productive life?"

CURT BROWN

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