Commentary: Looking back at Africa University's first decade
10/8/2002 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn
NOTE: Photographs, including a head-and-shoulders picture of Pamela Crosby, are available.
Going to Africa is a monumental experience for many people. Travelers return home hungry to share stories of the continent's profound impact on them.
For many, a visit to Africa University is a highlight. At the campus in Mutare, Zimbabwe, the students, faculty, and staff have the beauty and tranquility of a rural setting while enjoying a vibrant, international campus community.
But more than 10 years and a journey of faith ago, the university existed only on paper. Instead of a campus, a visitor would have seen only a vast valley, with a new road and bridge that had been built to give developers access to the area. Later, Volunteers in Mission remodeled temporary buildings to serve the first 40 students.
Today, the university is preparing for a grand celebration, Nov. 15-17, marking its first decade of educating students from around Africa and producing the continent's future leaders. From that first group of 40 students, the school has grown to a current enrollment of about 1,000.
Some 12 years ago, the Africa University board of directors appointed a building and grounds committee. The group began planning the 1,500-acre campus on property donated by the Zimbabwe Annual Conference. The committee included Kaseya Ilunga, Elias Mumbiro, James Salley, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Bonaventure Ndorimana and the late Richard "Dick" Reeves, who served as chairman.
Reeves was a retired engineer from Decatur, Ill., whose love for Africa University became known throughout the church. Following a 38-year career as a water-pump manufacturer, he'd traveled several times to Africa, building latrines, digging wells and developing clean drinking water resources under the auspices of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
"I'm just an old pump man," Reeves would say. But as an Africa University board member with engineering experience, he made many trips - at his own expense - to oversee the university's architectural progress. He worked closely with Zimbabwe-based architect Norman Dickens and Dickens' firm of Hope, Mills, Peto Associates in Harare.
The architects, contractors, and members of the university's building and grounds committee developed a plan that would not smother the landscape with Western-style buildings. They wanted the campus to be compatible with the valley's rolling hills and acacia trees. They selected materials produced in Zimbabwe, and their designs were contemporary yet reminiscent of buildings indigenous to the area, such as rondovals, which are commonly used as village meeting houses. Erected in 1996, a round chapel, donated by the Kwang Lim United Methodist Church, in Seoul, South Korea, is the focal point of the campus.
The first sight that greets a visitor is the university's entrance gate, modeled after the Great Zimbabwe - the ruins of a complex built by indigenous African people between 1250 and 1450 A.D. Once through the gate, vehicles cross the "Bridge to Dreams," donated in 1992 by the Central Illinois Annual Conference.
Not long after the 1994 official opening, the pressing need for student residence halls became the order of the day. In 1995, U.S. businessman and philanthropist Peter Kleist contributed $500,000 and offered his land development and construction expertise. Some of his suggestions related to such improvements as adding showerheads to preserve water distribution and building stairways on a natural curve to extend the life of the steps.
The campus has 15 residence halls with lounge and laundry facilities, and lecture halls and computer labs. The buildings include the $1 million Ireson/Kurewa Center, funded by USAID and built in 1996, home to the Faculty of Agriculture & Natural Resources, with modern, well-equipped laboratories and lecture halls. Most of the edifices take advantage of the prevailing breezes for temperature controls. Only buildings housing computers, extensive telecommunications systems and books require air conditioning. Dedicated in 2001, and also funded by USAID, the new Jokomo/Yamada Library supports teaching and research efforts with both traditional and electronic resources.
Today's Africa University is a testament to the generosity and tenacity of United Methodists all over the world, who have supported the school from the beginning. The campus also reflects the work of dedicated architects, contractors, engineers, builders, construction workers and volunteers. In 10 short years, the campus has grown from fewer than 10 temporary structures to 30 debt-free, contemporary buildings that reflect the spirit and flavor of Africa.
And the work continues. # # # *Crosby is assistant editor and writer for the Office of Interpretation of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn.
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.