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‘Another Perspective of the World’

Student From Zimbabwe Starts New Life in Upper Valley

  • Arriving for a surprise birthday party last month, Innocent Mpoki is greeted by Ray School fifth-graders (from left) Hattie Kahl, Sylas Oberting, Jake Reznek, Gray Messersmith and Sophia Pantos. In the background is teacher Rebecca Sexton. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Arriving for a surprise birthday party last month, Innocent Mpoki is greeted by Ray School fifth-graders (from left) Hattie Kahl, Sylas Oberting, Jake Reznek, Gray Messersmith and Sophia Pantos. In the background is teacher Rebecca Sexton. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • During Innocent Mpoki’s surprise birthday party at the Ray School in Hanover last month, Mpoki and fifth-graders at the school made silly faces for a group photo taken by adults. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    During Innocent Mpoki’s surprise birthday party at the Ray School in Hanover last month, Mpoki and fifth-graders at the school made silly faces for a group photo taken by adults. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Innocent Mpoki, third from left, sings with the Dartmouth African Chorus during the Zienzele Celebration at the Dartmouth Outing Club in Hanover last month. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Innocent Mpoki, third from left, sings with the Dartmouth African Chorus during the Zienzele Celebration at the Dartmouth Outing Club in Hanover last month. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Taste of Africa co-owner Damaris Hall, left, greets Prisca Nemapare, vice president of the Zienzele Foundation, during a fundraiser in Hanover last month. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Taste of Africa co-owner Damaris Hall, left, greets Prisca Nemapare, vice president of the Zienzele Foundation, during a fundraiser in Hanover last month. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Arriving for a surprise birthday party last month, Innocent Mpoki is greeted by Ray School fifth-graders (from left) Hattie Kahl, Sylas Oberting, Jake Reznek, Gray Messersmith and Sophia Pantos. In the background is teacher Rebecca Sexton. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • During Innocent Mpoki’s surprise birthday party at the Ray School in Hanover last month, Mpoki and fifth-graders at the school made silly faces for a group photo taken by adults. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Innocent Mpoki, third from left, sings with the Dartmouth African Chorus during the Zienzele Celebration at the Dartmouth Outing Club in Hanover last month. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Taste of Africa co-owner Damaris Hall, left, greets Prisca Nemapare, vice president of the Zienzele Foundation, during a fundraiser in Hanover last month. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Hanover — Innocent Mpoki turned 22 on May 14, and the children in Rebecca Sexton’s fifth-grade class at the Ray School in Hanover wanted to give him a surprise party. Mpoki, who has been in the U.S. pursuing a college education for a year, had spoken to the students a number of times about the contrast between his life at home in rural Zimbabwe and the United States.

Mpoki had never celebrated his birthday. They aren’t observed in Zimbabwe as they are in the West. But on May 15, he’s come to the school for what he thinks will be another presentation. Instead, there is a cake from Lou’s Restaurant and there are candles, birthday presents, pointy birthday hats and handmade cards.

Although he’s talked to the student before about life in Mupagamuri, a village in the province of Masvingo (pronounced Mashingo), the questions still fly.

A child asks if he has been to Victoria Falls, on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. “It’s very expensive to go there,” Mpoki said. “I can’t afford it.” Why couldn’t he use candles to read at night instead of burning fuel made from distilled plastic? “I can’t afford them.” Didn’t the burning plastic smell? Yes, but he had to use it.

The children give him presents. Grace Ashton reads him, shyly, a letter she has written him. One child gives him a piggy bank with a green Dartmouth decal on it. There is also a leather soccer ball, the first Mpoki has been given. Soccer balls in his village of Mupagamuri are fashioned out of plastic waste, which is plentiful. Leather soccer balls are not.

The classroom is crowded. His American host, Marjorie Rose, of Hanover, who with her family, sponsored the cost of his visa and American education, has preceded him into the room. Rose is on the board of the Zienzele Foundation, which brings schooling, health care and nutrition to Masvingo province.

Nancy Clark, a nurse at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph and co-founder of the Zienzele Foundation, is also there, as is Laura Zentmaier, a friend of Rose’s, and the mother of one of the fifth-grade students. Zentmaier knew that Sexton was teaching a unit on Africa this winter and thought that the children would benefit from hearing about Mpoki’s life.

Mpoki speaks English well. Children in Zimbabwe are taught English beginning at age 6. His voice has a low, rolling timbre, and he has a dignified reserve, although he seems more at ease around the children at the Ray School. The kind of frank disclosure that Americans value, and sometimes indulge to excess, is not his way.

He looks pleased by the affection shown him by the children, and answers their questions in a matter-of-fact way. It’s important, he said in a later interview, that “I give them another perspective of the world,” one far removed from the privileges they take for granted.

“We live in such a bubble in the Upper Valley,” said Rose.

What happens when you take a young person out of a profoundly different culture and history, and a country in political and economic upheaval, and plunk him down in the clamor, speed, technologically driven patterns, privileges and customs of American life?

Imagine if the reverse were the case — placing a young American alone in a village in sub-Saharan Africa and asking him to grow his own food, fetch water from a river, plow fields and go without electricity.

Aspects of American life that to us might appear to be the most bewildering to comprehend have, in fact, been the easier roads to navigate for Mpoki: the ease of access to education, computers, transportation, the Internet and freedom of speech, and of information, is what he hoped to find.

What’s been more difficult to contend with is the tangle of emotions that are often an immigrant’s experience: feelings of isolation, homesickness, missing family, and the reality of clashing cultural mores and expectations.

“It was starting a new life,” Mpoki wrote in an email.

Mpoki was born in 1991 in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and lived there until 1996, when his mother left his father. “We had a difficult time living with him. My mother said it’s over, we’re not going back,” he said. His mother, Theresa Muziri, took her young son back to her home in Mupagamuri, where she had family.

From a young age, Mpoki was determined to obtain the kind of education that would take him out of the village, where he’s lived with his mother and younger sister, Enia Muziri, now 12. “I started to see more into the world, and have some dreams,” he said. While he is willing to talk, he seems to prefer writing by email, where he expresses himself fully.

Mpoki began studying at Lebanon College last summer but transferred recently to the Community College of Vermont, where he is studying photography, the dimensions of work, interpersonal communication and geography. He began with an interest in the law, but has become more focused on studying business.

Mpoki’s tenacity in pursuing an education can be measured in miles, and not only in the distance he traveled from Zimbabwe.

As a child, he had to walk three miles each way from home to school. As a teen, he trekked nearly nine miles each way, over mountain trails, to secondary school because that school was the only one that provided training for university entrance exams. Of his 18-mile round-trip hike to secondary school, he said simply, “It was a privilege.”

When at school Mpoki, like the other students, was without the basics of childhood education. There were no books, no paper on which to write. There weren’t enough teachers, there was no transportation, and the schools didn’t provide food to students during the school day.

Because there is no electricity in Mupagamuri and he wanted to study after dark, Mpoki hit on a solution that had appeared on one of his science exams. He improvised a reading lamp by melting and distilling plastic into a flammable liquid. By lighting the fuel, he was able to study late into the night.

To buy books, he caught and roasted rats for people in the village for a minuscule fee.

Mpoki consistently ranked both at the top of his classes and in his O-levels and A-levels, the exams that determine whether a student has the skills to go on to university. But his chances of getting a college education in Zimbabwe were slim because he did not come from a wealthy family with connections. Even the fee for the A-levels — $40 — was prohibitive.

Clark, who lives in West Topsham, went to Zimbabwe in 1998 with Earthwatch, a nonprofit environmental research organization. She has known Mpoki since he was in first grade, and quickly recognized his intellect and ambition, as did Prisca Nemapare, a Zimbabwean educated in the U.S. who started the Zienzele Foundation in 2000. Both women wanted to help him realize his goals, so they began looking for a way to bring him to this country.

“It was an astounding achievement he’d been able to make with very little in the way of resources, so we decided to give him a further opportunity,” Clark said. First, they would pay the fee for the exam, and then they would look into funding an American education.

Neighboring South Africa does not charge students to take exams, Nemapare said in an interview. In Zimbabwe, however, where 90 percent of the workforce is unemployed and the annual rate of inflation was once 250 million percent, cottage industries have sprung up around nearly every level of official business, from exam fees to taxes on the radios in cars to the lamination of passports. If there is money to be made, a fee is imposed.

“Corruption is everywhere,” Nemapare said.

Apart from the impediments to education, the conditions in his village were, Mpoki wrote in an email, “excruciating.” Drought is always a threat. The rains haven’t come this year and the corn crop has already failed. Food is scarce, there is no running water, and there is fear of the government.

Such is the legacy of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, which stands accused of scorching violence against dissidents, repression of press freedom, universal corruption and a complete collapse of the country’s economy and health care system. In Zimbabwe as a whole, the rate of HIV and AIDS infection in people ages 15-49 is about 15 percent, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Zimbabwe has one of the highest rates of infection, not only in Africa but the world, said Clark, although the country has made significant progress in stemming new infections through community health care initiatives.

Mpoki has spent most of his life caring for his sister and his mother, who has HIV but is receiving antiretroviral drugs to stabilize her condition. His father died in 1996, likely from AIDS.

A generation of children is being raised by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers because their parents are dead, said Clark. To complicate an already complex situation, the stigma of AIDS has made it difficult for those with the disease to admit they need the medication that could keep them alive. Many children would rather die than take the antiretroviral drug cocktail — and they do.

“It’s OK to die from TB or diarrhea,” Clark said. But not AIDS.

While trying to focus on his studies in an environment where educational resources are scant, Mpoki also bore the burden of doing the agricultural work that would keep his family going — the plowing, the planting, hauling water by hand to the fields, the harvesting, caring for a neighbor’s cattle.

For Mpoki, the news that his American visa had come through was like a “surreal dream.”

But his excitement turned quickly to apprehension. He had, he wrote in an email, “become the main breadwinner in the family and it was my responsibility to ensure that we had enough to eat. The daily life of my family was in my hands. How my mother and sister would survive in my absence during my studies was the biggest question.”

It was his life and his decision to make, his mother told him. She would not compel him to stay in Zimbabwe. So, in June 2012, with visa and passport in hand, Mpoki made the longest journey of his life, traveling more than 7,000 miles from Mupagamuri to Hanover. He was so keyed up, he didn’t sleep during the 32-hour trip.

When he landed at Kennedy Airport in New York, Clark was there to meet him and drive him to his new home in Hanover with Rose, her husband, Doug Irwin, and their two daughters, Katie and Ellen.

Rose has been involved with the Zienzele Foundation since the early 2000s when, as a founder with writer Jodi Picoult of the Trumbull Hall Troupe, she began collecting donations for the foundation. Both Rose and her husband teach economics at Dartmouth College. She is a lecturer and he is a professor.

From 1988 to 1990, Rose worked for the International Monetary Fund on the Somalia and Kenya desks, and also did work in Tanzania, Nigeria and Swaziland. She and her husband traveled to Zimbabwe in 1990, when the country was considered one of the economic stars of the African continent.

When Rose heard that the foundation wanted to bring Mpoki to the U.S., her first thought was to begin looking for a family in the Upper Valley that could sponsor him. But while she was going through a list of potential candidates, she had an epiphany: “I think it has to be our family.”

Nemapare, who’d spent her college years in the U.S. during the upheaval of the 1960s and was a professor of nutrition at the University of Ohio before returning home, had talked to Mpoki at length about what he could expect. It would be hard, she told him.

But the message, Clark said, paraphrasing her colleague, was that “this was an experience that would make the underlying challenges worthwhile.”

Mpoki had faith in his own ability to overcome any gaps in understanding. “The environment in my village needs explicit perseverance and the fact that I was able to overcome many problems there gave me confidence that I can adjust to American society,” he wrote in an email.

But preparation is one thing, and doing another. There were cultural adjustments, some of them subtle and some of them wrenching.

Things like looking people in the eye, which is considered polite here, is considered not only rude in Zimbabwe, but suspicious, Mpoki said. Children do not converse as openly with their parents there as they do here, and it is unusual for them to talk back to them, which, he wrote in an email, caused misunderstanding.

This reticence is compounded by the personal risks that come from talking too much about the conditions that Zimbabweans have endured under Mugabe. There is also the reality that most Americans know little about the continent of Africa, much less the history and politics of each country.

And inside the home of his American host family, there were misunderstandings of an often painful nature, which neither Mpoki or Rose want to discuss in detail.

“I think we all underestimated the adjustment that was required,” said Rose, “the life changes, the skill set you needed, the culture differences.”

The cultural assumptions of Americans sometimes ran up against both personal pride and Zimbabwean custom. For instance, at a Thanksgiving meal with the Irwin family, a guest asked him jokingly, “Where do you put all that food?”

It was not intended to be hurtful, Rose said, but in Zimbabwe, to imply that you are thin is regarded as a slight.

And then, of course, there is the fact that food is in short supply there.

The winter also took its toll — the darkness, the isolation and the cold, which was physically painful, Mpoki said. He missed the foods of home, like sadza, the staple cornmeal of Zimbabwe. (Rose and Zentmaier arranged to get a shipment of sadza for him.)

When they had trouble communicating face to face, he and Rose grappled with trying to understand each other’s point of view through emails. But it wasn’t always easy. “There was a lot of … misconception, misreading and misrepresenting of each other’s behaviors and actions,” Mpoki wrote in an email.

Mpoki left the Rose household at the end of April and moved in temporarily with Clark at her West Topsham home to begin his classes at CCV. For now, he stays with Clark on weekends but is rooming with a family in Norwich during the week so that he can bicycle to the CCV campus on Route 5.

“It was a move we needed to make for everyone,” Rose said.

But while the challenges that have confronted Mpoki in the U.S. have been arduous, he wrote, “they were nothing as compared to what I experienced in my village.”

“He sees this as his way out to a better existence,” Clark said.

“That is the gift he’s given all of us, that perspective,” Rose said. “I think it’s changed all of our lives.”

At the annual Zienzele Foundation fundraiser on May 21, Clark gets up to talk about the work the foundation has done this year, as does Nemapare. Mpoki gets up to give a short speech. He struggles a little at first, perhaps from emotion or because he is reluctant to speak before a crowd he doesn’t really know.

He thanks Zienzele, Clark and Nemapare, and then Marjorie Rose and the Irwin family, without whom his education in the U.S. would not have been possible.

“For me it has been an honor to be the first student to come to the U.S. from my village,” he said. He searches for the right phrases. “It’s been a tough journey but I’m still going,” he said, ducking his head.

Later, he searches for Rose in the crowd and embraces her.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com

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