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Africa U. at 20: It all started with one tree

 

By Kathy Gilbert

Africa University, receives congratulations from commencement speaker Geoffrey Onyeama. More than 400 students graduated in June 2012. The university celebrated its 20th anniversity throughout 2012.
Africa University, receives congratulations from commencement speaker Geoffrey Onyeama. More than 400 students graduated in June 2012. The university celebrated its 20th anniversity throughout 2012.
COURTESY AFRICA UNIVERSITY

One Acacia tree planted in Zimbabwe blossomed into Africa University

It all started with the dream of a Methodist bishop who stood on Chiremba Mountain looking down on the valley and envisioned hundreds of African young people with books in their hands, running to school.

The vision that started in 1898 came true in 1992 when the first students enrolled at United Methodist-related Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe—in the same valley Bishop Joseph Crane Hatzell first imagined the hope of education for the people of Africa.

A yearlong observance of the university's 20th anniversary will culminate with a celebration March 22-24. In that 20-year span, more than 4,000 young people from the continent of Africa have graduated and are working in all parts of the world.

From the beginning, the dream was to educate the people of Africa to benefit Africa. It has been a life-changing experience for the students who have come to the university from 29 countries across the continent.

Loice Ngonyamo, a 1994 graduate, said she remembers how a friendship with one of her classmates, a young man from Sierre Leone, changed her view of Africa.

"Sierra Leone was going through a terrible time. He had family back home, but he was very worried about whether they would be OK," she said. After sharing his experiences and feelings, she discovered, when she returned home, that what was happening in Sierra Leone mattered to her.

"I began to appreciate and take to heart the other African countries and their problems and celebrations because of Africa University."

Ground-breaking university

In 1984, Bishop Emilio J. M. de Carvalho of Angola and Bishop Arthur F. Kulah of Liberia challenged the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to support the establishment of a university in Africa.

When more than 300 graduates received their diplomas from Africa University in 2010, they represented 21 African countries. It was the most diverse graduating class in the institution's history at that time.
When more than 300 graduates received their diplomas from Africa University in 2010, they represented 21 African countries. It was the most diverse graduating class in the institution's history at that time.
COURTESY ANDRA STEVENS/UMNS

A committee worked for three years, conducting feasibility studies and talking with African church leaders about educational and vocational needs. A plan for the university was presented to the board in October 1987.

Prompted by United Methodist plans to establish a continent-wide university in Zimbabwe where no private universities existed, President Robert Mugabe formed a government commission in 1987 to study the country's higher education needs and make recommendations about the role of private universities.

At the 1988 General Conference, the proposal to create Africa University was among the first items considered. Delegates adopted it overwhelmingly.

On April 6, 1991, thousands of people from throughout Zimbabwe watched as the ground was broken and one Acacia tree was planted at Old Mutare Mission, site of Africa University.

In January 1992, Mugabe granted Africa University's charter.

Brick by brick

Christian Zigbuo visits with the Rev. Mary Beth Byrne from Indiana, during a fellowship event around graduation in June 2012 at Africa University. He received his education through a scholarship funded by the Indiana Annual Conference.
Christian Zigbuo visits with the Rev. Mary Beth Byrne from Indiana, during a fellowship event around graduation in June 2012 at Africa University. He received his education through a scholarship funded by the Indiana Annual Conference.

The university opened in March 1992 with the Faculty (College) of Theology and the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The Faculty of Management and Administration and the Faculty of Education were completed in 1995 and 1996 respectively. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences opened in August 1998. The Ireson/Kurewa Center for Agriculture, Natural Resources and Humanities was dedicated in 1996. Dedicated since then have been the Kwang Lim Chapel, the Jokomo/Yamada Library, the Faculty of Theology Building and the Faculty of Health Sciences Building.

A student union/administration offices building is available for students' use. Twelve dormitories, eight staff houses, and tennis and basketball courts have been completed.

"I think my experience at Africa University has helped me to appreciate the difference in people better, much faster than if I had gone anywhere else," Ngonyamo said. "I think that by the time I finished college, I was a different person."