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Zimbabwe's strife, through the eyes of children



Virginia Nyikadzino ’11 wears a construction hat while working for a civil engineering company in Zimbabwe.

The childish essays displayed in Linderman Library are hardly works of great literature.

In simple English, they answer mundane questions that might have been assigned by any grade school teacher, such as “What I did with my break” and “My favorite teacher.”

But the essays the Zimbabwean children composed unwittingly describe lives lived in a tumultuous and troubled country.

The children write about boredom they experienced during their five-month break from school—three months longer than usual because their teachers were on strike, protesting low wages. The children’s parents hardly fretted about their lagging education because they were concerned about the family’s survival.

For now, the teachers have returned to the classrooms, but the once prosperous South African country is still beset with widespread hunger, AIDS, a shattered economic system and a cholera epidemic.

Virginia Nyikadzino ’11, a civil engineering and applied math major and member of the Lehigh chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, has closely followed events in Zimbabwe. She intently reads newspapers, online news sites and blogs, and she gathers additional information during her phone conversations to her family living in Zimbabwe. As the problems escalated last year, Nyikadzino sought ways of assisting her countrymen.

As a first-year student, she joined a group of well-intentioned African students attending American universities. The students planned to visit and implement service projects in each of the African countries represented by members on the team. Although the program had financial backing from well-known non-governmental organizations and bright students leading it, their plans fell apart just before the team would have boarded planes bound to Africa. For a couple of weeks, Nyikadzino was stranded in Bethlehem as she scrambled to book a flight home.

The trip’s failure deeply disappointed Nyikadzino, yet she says, “with my broken heart, I had to do something.”

"I want to make something out of nothing"

Before she embarked on another project, Nyikadzino identified some guiding principles.

“I told myself what can I do and what can’t I do,” she says. She rejected some of the attitudes that characterized the other team. “I can’t do things so that my name is on eight million Web sites and in the New York Times. I can’t do that. I can’t do things because I get to be a tourist in 10 countries. I can’t.” She also defined her goals, saying, “I want to make a difference, yes. I don’t want donations, yes.”

Since the country’s economy collapsed, many Zimbabweans receive international aid, and some subsist almost solely on grain donated by international organizations and wealthy countries. As both a donor and recipient of such handouts, Nyikadzino noticed that the people became dependent and had lost their sense of self-sufficiency. She decided that any aid she supplied must be earned.

“I wanted something that would cost me something and cost whomever I worked with something,” she says.

Zimbabweans own few material things and that “something” Nyikadzino sought would have to be created at no cost to the people she helped but have monetary value to others. She remembers thinking, “I want to make something out of nothing. That’s defying all laws of nature. I can’t do that.”

Nyikadzino spent last fall secretly mulling over the problem, and eventually, she found a loophole in the imposing laws of nature. Nyikadzino asked a woman who was already informally teaching children from Nyikadzino’s neighborhood to have the children write essays about their lives. Without even realizing it, they would describe Zimbabwe’s plight and its affect on their lives.

Nyikadzino also enlisted the help of Fungai James Tichiwangana, an international journalist and human rights activist in Zimbabwe who frequently photographs children similar to the ones in Nyikadzino’s neighborhood. As an officer in the Global Union, Nyikadzino easily persuaded the Global Union to purchase 12 of Tichiwangana’s photos, and Tichiwangana donated 20 percent of the price to the children in Nyikadzino’s neighborhood.

The photos and essays will be displayed in Lucy’s Café until the end of the semester.

Kathy Morrow, the humanities librarian at Linderman, says that Linderman Library has hosted similar exhibits that supported “a good cause and presented global information to students.”

Nyikadzino believes this project succeeded where the other one failed, because she relied on a higher power than herself.

“It’s not my smart mind, the first time it was. It’s not my brilliant ideas. I know that God was teaching me a lesson and He wanted me to be affected. That’s the story—and He loves those kids like crazy because I love them.”

--Becky Straw


Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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