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From Harare to Harvard: A Zimbabwean Student Comes to the United States

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Beauty and Bekezela
Last week, Kevin, Jonathan (Kevin's roommate in Harare) and I took the overnight train from Harare to Bulawayo, and in our cabin we met Beauty Ncube. With a name as beautiful as "Beauty," I couldn't help but start talking with her, and through our conversation I learned about her relationship with her daughter, Bekezela.

Bekezela Ncube, 20, has the distinct honor of being one of only three Zimbabwean students joining this fall's incoming class of Harvard University, which some think is America's best university. Furthermore, she is the only black Zimbabwean entering the college, and the only woman. And she's attending the university on a full scholarship.

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Bekezela, Zanele, Vezubuhle, Beauty, Thamsanqa
Very generously, Beauty invited me to come to the house for dinner when I returned to Harare. I took her up on that invitation and met Bekezela, Bekezela's sisters Vezubuhle, 15, and Zanele, 12, and her brother Thamsanqa, 10.

Beauty is very proud of her eldest daughter. Bekezela has survived and thrived through the loss of her father last September and the responsibilities of helping to raise her siblings. Beauty, working as a teacher and taking on extra shifts, has helped put her children in highly-regarded schools like Arundel School, a prep school she says is the best in Zimbabwe, in hopes of sending them on to schools like Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. "Teachers can't be expected to make miracles out of nothing. In other schools, you might have five students to one textbook. And that textbook will be missing pages." Government schools, which charge less in school fees, have fewer resources. Schools like Arundel charge higher school fees per pupil, fees which Beauty earned by working more hours. "We're not wealthy, but I want to put my children in the best schools."

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Top notch choices for Bekezela
Bekezela's school offered her many opportunities in which to succeed. "She went to school with mostly whites and coloreds," explains Beauty, and points out that Bekezela can do well in any situation. "When she took her exams, after her father passed away, she got 1, 1, 1, 1, all the way across. And she was working from very early, from four or five in the morning, to very late at night." Beauty worked for two years as an accountant after graduating from Arundel, and took correspondence courses in accounting and economics, while doing audits with the co-workers at her firm. "They want to see you go through the most rigorous course you can in your home country before going there," she says of the American university system. "We have the O-levels and the A-levels, under the British system, so I took my A-levels, or advanced levels, before applying."

Map showing the voyage from Harare to Massachusetts
When I asked Bekezela why she wanted to come to the United States for college, instead of studying in her home country, she gave me quite a few reasons. For one, she mentioned the University of Zimbabwe, or "U-Zed," as they call it here. "Academically, it's a wonderful institution. Its standards are very high, and I would have gone there," she told me. "But..." she paused, and I encouraged her. "Well, maybe you've heard about the student riots, and the pee in the fridges." I hadn't heard about that, but she went on. "Yes, and it's rife with HIV, which to me is an indication of the values there." Zimbabwe currently faces mounting rates of HIV-infection in youth: one figure I've read is that 90 percent of all deaths in the country are related to AIDS, and other students have told me that rates of HIV infection in Southern Africa can reach as high as one in five people in some areas. Bekezela also commented on the nature of traveling to a different place. "I think the foreign experience is important. You can spend all your life in one culture and one set of values. I'm looking forward to the difference." A third reason is the scholarship that Harvard offered her. Bekezela had originally planned to go to the United Kingdom to study, but "at the time I worked it out, it cost $500,000 Zimbabwean and now it's even more, because of the inflation." Harvard, one of America's most expensive universities, became the best option for her when their financial-aid package paid for her room, board, tuition, books, and living expenses. Finally, the range of courses and the strength of the faculty at her new school draws Bekezela. "When I go to Harvard I can be an economics major, fulfill pre-med requirements, take a philosophy major," she smiles. "I don't want to have a single spare moment. I want to join all the extracurricular groups, do soccer, be in the newspaper, join Roteract and Amnesty International, and take African music."

Her last comment brings up to me the idea of Bekezela being an African in a country with a population of African-Americans. "It'll be the first time I'm a minority," she reflects, and I agree. One thing that Beauty and Bekezela clarified for me is that in Zimbabwe, people don't really like it if you say "African." They prefer if you distinguish between "white" or "colored" or "Indian" or "black." I, in turn, clarified for them that, in the U.S., you say "African-American" for anyone with African heritage. They said that was very different than in Zimbabwe, and that Bekezela really won't be African-American: she's Zimbabwean. I tell her everyone will like her because of her accent, and she says, "To-mah-toe," kidding with me. I wish Bekezela well as we finish our tea and biscuits, and take pictures with the digital camera. I personally believe that one of America's greatest strengths is the unity that comes from the great diversity of people who live there. However, there have been so many misunderstandings and clashes based on race or culture that I often wonder what the future will bring in terms of relations between people of different backgrounds in the United States. I'd like to know your opinions and thoughts on this idea: feel free to post your message on the Trek Connect board or email me at


Kevin - The Bumpy Road from Training to Freedom
Kavitha - Homeless Youth - From the Cold Streets to Caring Arms
Monica - The DP Foundation: Two Ladies who Make a Difference
Abeja - Rural Traditions and European Legacies
Making A Difference - What Rights Are Most Important to You?

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