What the U.S. State Department terms political, economic, and humanitarian crises in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe have at least temporarily halted an exchange program between IUP and the University of Zimbabwe.
The groundwork, painstakingly laid, had begun to pay dividends, but as of late spring, the African university, located in the capital city of Harare, was closed.
“It took five years to break down the barriers we encountered,” Michael Kesner said. “We have a base of good feelings that has been established. When the situation turns around, this thing will blossom.”
Kesner is part of an IUP program committee that also comprises committee chairperson Amadu Ayebo, Alicia Linzey, and Jan Humphreys. All, like Kesner, are faculty members in the IUP Biology Department. At the University of Zimbabwe, the program is administered by the Department of Biological Sciences faculty.
Years of exploitation have left southern Africans wary of interaction with more “developed” parts of the world. The fabulous natural resources that exist in Zimbabwe make it an especially attractive destination; many visitors, though, are not particularly interested in learning about Zimbabwe’s culture or shedding their own prejudices.
The IUP approach is different. In a report on the exchange program in 2002, Kesner and Linzey wrote: “Both faculty and students at IUP have come to a fuller understanding of a part of the world largely foreign to them…. They have come to appreciate that quality work is not totally dependent on superior facilities… They have been able to move beyond generalizations and to appreciate the sometimes-subtle difference between cultural, political, and social systems and further appreciate that the comparison does not always favor the U.S.”
Among the four IUP faculty members on the program committee, there exists more than fifty years of research connected with Zimbabwe. Both Linzey (1992-1993) and Kesner (1999-2000) have had Fulbright Fellowships for research in southern Africa. “We just fell in love with the place,” Kesner said.
Zimbabwe, according to Linzey, is “absolutely in a unique part of the world. For mammalogists, it’s Nirvana. Pennsylvania has lots of great animals, but the experience of seeing elephants and aardvarks in the wild is beyond comparison.”
The four faculty members wanted to make the same experience available to students and faculty here. And, they also wanted to see the treasures they found in Zimbabwe continue to exist and flourish. “We became interested in doing what we could to give back to the people of Zimbabwe. We wanted to ensure that they were well-trained and able to deal with the country’s environmental and public health concerns,” Kesner said.
To date, four students and one professor have come to IUP from the University of Zimbabwe. The students are Stephanie Keeling, Chioniso Masamha, Johannes Chirima, and Zivanai Tsvuura, and the professor is Benjamin Dube. Not only are there new sights for those who travel both east and west, but, Ayebo said, “There is also a cultural dimension.”
Kimberly Kollar ’00 was the first (and thus far only) IUP student to travel to Zimbabwe as part of the program. From September to December, 1999, she studied at UZ, noting in her final report, “The main function of this exchange is to learn in a different culture, and that is done outside of the classroom as well.”
Her experiences outside the classroom, often unexpected, were both positive and negative. She once left campus hastily to avoid being caught up in campus demonstrations against the government.
While she had to weather campus unrest, Kollar also got to hold a baby crocodile and came face to face with lions, cheetahs, and many other animals. She also made friends with Zimbabwean students and was invited to their homes, even being included in a wedding celebration. “I think that this experience is one of the biggest things I could have done for my education,” she wrote.
All in all, Ayebo said, “The program has positively touched the lives of five students, and those five will positively touch others.”
Through a Fulbright Alumni Initiatives Award obtained by Kesner and Linzey in 2000, a UZ/IUP Resource Room was established at UZ with ten computers. These were intended, an award report said, “to significantly enhance the quality of teaching and research in the Department of Biological Sciences.”
The benefits to IUP extend to students and colleagues who may never see Africa. “Our experiences allow us to teach in a different way,” Kesner said.
“There is never a class that I don’t talk about southern Africa,” Humphreys said. “I’d wanted to go to Africa since I was eight or nine. I was forty-five by the time I got there. You can’t describe the feeling the first time you stand at Victoria Falls.”