Tendai Mutunhire '13 leaned in and shouted to be heard over the pulsing African rhythms and wailing Afro-pop guitar in Pulver Pavilion. “Can you believe it?” he asked. “We have the two most famous women in Zimbabwe right here in this room!”
The occasion was Zimbabwe in Maine, a celebration on Oct. 16 of Colby's Zimbabwean community, with this year's Oak Human Rights Fellow Jestina Mukoko as the focus.
Events began with a panel discussion featuring students from Zimbabwe describing their country and life there. The program attracted a standing-room-only audience, more than 100 students and guests, to one of the Diamond Building's largest classrooms.
A buffet dinner of Zimbabwean food followed, with dishes including sadza (maize, much like American grits) cooked by African students and coordinated by Escar Kusema '09, who returned to campus from New Hampshire for the event. Finally the celebration moved to Cotter Union for a concert by Chiwoniso Maraire, who's been described as “an Afro-Soul Diva” and as “one of Zimbabwe's most highly regarded musicians.”
“It's like Oprah,” Mutunhire said later. “You just say 'Chiwoniso' and everybody knows.”
Mukoko, national director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, is a star in her own right. Formerly a national television news anchor, she is universally known in Zimbabwe -- a household name and face. Then, when she was abducted by state security agents and held incommunicado for three weeks in 2008, the celebrity status that may have saved her life took on a new dimension. Held for three months altogether, she emerged an international symbol of courage in Zimbabwe's human rights struggle.
Colby's connections to the troubled nation in southern Africa run deep. Since 2000 Colby has enrolled 18 students from Zimbabwe, and for most of the past decade the country was either the fifth or sixth best-represented foreign country in Colby's student body. Many of those students come as Oak Scholars, a scholarship open to students from Zimbabwe or Denmark or whose families have been victims of torture or persecution. Others arrive as Davis United World College Scholars.
Since 2000 one Zimbabwean student has been class marshal (2005) and another class speaker (2006). One earned a Ph.D. in engineering systems at MIT; another is an M.D./Ph.D. hematologist from Dartmouth; a third was the first student ever to ace Professor Dasan Thamattoor's organic chemistry final exam and is now a researcher in a medical lab at Harvard.
At the panel discussion four current students from Zimbabwe talked about the difficulties earlier in this decade of living in a deteriorating civil society with hyperinflation, and they passed around trillion-dollar banknotes to illustrate how dizzying the failing economy became.
Rumbidzai Gondo '14 said, “We don't want to sanitize anything about our country,” noting that poverty is widespread -- though, as in most countries, there are both well-to-do and dispossessed citizens.
But when the country reached its nadir, in 2007-08, many suffered. Gift Ntuli '14 said that schoolteachers were caught up in the cross-border commodities trading that became the only source of cooking oil, flour, and bread. It was a matter of survival. “For one year there was no learning. It really crippled our academic system.”
Mutunhire said an elder told him, “Kid, the education you're getting today is worthless,” even though families had to pay fees to keep their children in the public schools.
And it wasn't just the poor who went hungry. Takudzwa Dizha, Mukoko's son, who is studying at Colby first semester, said, “In 2007 and 2008 we had only two meals a day,” at his school.
Moderator Isadora Alteon '13 of Brooklyn, N.Y., asked the panelists about medical care during the crisis in Zimbabwe. Ntuli said many professional physicians left the country, which seriously degraded the health care available. Mutunhire said he was impressed by stories about how young doctors and medical students shouldered enormous loads after established doctors fled.
For Dizha, the medical crisis turned personal. His 5-year-old cousin was being treated for leukemia by the last cancer specialist in the city. When that oncologist packed his bags and left, “That's when [my cousin] started deteriorating, and that's what led to his death,” Dizha said. “It's horrific.”