What I Learned in Zimbabwe

-Jeff Maggioli, RPCV

Now that I’m back in the U.S., I often struggle when asked about the time I spent in Zimbabwe. I think some of the struggle comes from what my assignment turned out to be – a series of separate experiences, each of which lasted for a few months. I was in Zimbabwe for 13 months, or exactly half of what I expected when I left the U.S. in October of 1999. A shortened assignment should have left me with less to write about. But, I often feel like it has left me with more. As I moved from training, to teaching at my rural school, to being moved back to Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital), to working for a hospice in that city, there was enough time for strong impressions and feelings, but not much for those to be tested and refined by day-to-day life. I’m left with many (mostly good) memories of Zimbabwe. The struggle is to connect them in a way that makes sense.

I taught for four short months at my school in Eastern Zimbabwe. Volunteers were pulled from their rural sites as the violence preceding the parliamentary elections heated up in April of 2000. All of the rural volunteers spent a number of weeks consolidated in Harare. In May, Peace Corps made the decision to send the majority of the volunteers home, with the hope that those who weren’t scheduled to end their service in 2000 could return once the parliamentary elections were over. Out of around 100 volunteers fewer than 30 chose to stay and get matched to an interim city job. I was one of those.

I chose to stay because I wanted to get back to my school. The first term I taught was filled with many more mistakes than successes. But, I was encouraged about the coming terms. The small rural school of 200 students where I and eight Zimbabwean teachers worked had become my home. My Shona was improving. My students and I had come a long way in understanding each other. The parents seemed motivated to improve the school. In fact, the school committee had already secured their own grant (before I arrived) to build a laboratory and install electricity – two projects that were still in process when I left.

Of course, those were the practical reasons to stay. In the end, the reasons that are less easy to put into words were at least as important. I had in those few months begun to feel connections to the place (mountainous and fertile, Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands is not a difficult region to love) as well as with my students. After some months of trial and error, my partner here in the States and I managed a routine of letters and occasional phone calls that was giving us both security in sticking with our (very) long distance relationship. Lastly, a few friendships had begun that I was certain would only grow.

These nascent friendships included my relationship with two male teachers. One was the headmaster at my school and the other my housemate. I miss them, which isn’t so surprising. They are exceptional people who treated me with warmth and respect-both personally and professionally. Of course now, when I think about being at my school, what comes to mind isn’t the abstract idea of the goodness of these friends, but the times that we shared. We had a habit of talking on occasion for a few hours after dinner. Our conversations varied: Shona and western beliefs, our students, Zimbabwe’s shaky future. The setting has probably left as much of an imprint as the things we talked about. Dusk was around 6:30 or 7. We’d usually pass around a bowl of groundnuts or boiled pumpkin as we talked. By the time we finished talking, the room would be lit dimly by one kerosene lantern. Outside, the night was black and cool. On clear nights, we’d walk my headmaster home under a brilliant Southern African sky.

I bring up my memories with these two men because writing it out I can kind of recapture my times with them and maybe a bit of the immediacy of life in rural Zimbabwe. But, I also do it because I’ve started to feel like my relationship with them was part of a larger theme; one that ties together memories from all the phases of my Peace Corps assignment. That theme, as best as I can describe it, was my gradual realization of the ways men relate to each other in Zimbabwe.

It became obvious during training, which was held in a rural village in central Zimbabwe, that Zimbabwean men interacted in ways that few American men would. One Saturday during training I accompanied my host family to a Seventh Day Adventist service. After the service we settled in groups of about 20 outside to talk about the sermon and the week’s lesson. One group of young men (about 18 to 35 yrs old) settled on a low wall. Another soon filled in, sitting on the ground at their feet. As the afternoon and the heat reached its peak, the men began to lean on each other-a supporting hand on a friend’s shoulder, a head resting on a thigh, an arm casually draped across a friend’s calf. The unselfconscious intimacy these guys had with each other caught me off guard.

Once I was at my school and began teaching I was able to see a bit of how younger men interacted with one another socially. One bright day in March, after the rainy season had ended, I was assigned the duty of taking a group of boys from my secondary school about 5 kilometers to a river. Our job was to repair a pipe that was used to gravity feed a supply of water down to the school during the dry season. Our hike started in a valley and continued up into the low green mountains of Zimbabwe, with the more rugged mountains of Mozambique to our backs. The colors were stunning. We passed homesteads with their fields of tobacco, red peppers, and sunflowers. My students picked ripe guavas and threw them to each other and to me.

The boys worked together seamlessly. They divided themselves up into groups when we reached the river and each group took on a separate task. There was some debate about specifics, but it always resolved good-naturedly. On the way to and from the river, I was impressed by the fact that none of the boys seemed to be excluded. I knew these students from the classroom, but many were different among their peers. I saw two boys in particular who often seemed distant and tentative in class. They clearly had the respect of the others and took on central positions in deciding how to look for leaks and assigning jobs to one another. No one seemed to be left out or singled out for being different. Disagreements were resolved with a little jostling, smiles, and exasperated exclamations of “shamwari” (the Shona word for friend).

Taken by themselves I doubt I would find much of a common thread running through these memories. But set against a backdrop of countless small day-to-day experiences with men in rural and urban Zimbabwe, patterns emerge. For me it was kind of a learning experience to see, as the norm, how men could interact in ways that were intimate, cooperative, and inclusive – qualities not reinforced much in American men. Of course, I now have the perspective of looking across the full time I spent in Zimbabwe. At the time of each experience, I just had a sense that something significant had happened, but couldn’t always explain why. Peace Corps prepares you for the jarring experiences of awakening in a new culture. But, I wasn’t as prepared for the moments when facets of the new culture felt oddly familiar while part of my own felt strange and slightly off.

I don’t write this with any claims of objectivity or any deep investigation into the people of Zimbabwe. There was likely much more that I didn’t observe than I did. I also don’t make any claims for Zimbabwean men having some kind of ideal way of looking at the world. If this were an article about cultural attitudes toward women, HIV/AIDS, or homosexuality, I wouldn’t be able to be very charitable. Finally, this isn’t meant to be about men of any specific sexual orientation. I never had a good sense of what it means to be homosexual in rural Africa. And, in the end, I think that, regardless of sexual orientation, you absorb your culture’s ideas of how you should be.

I left Zimbabwe in November of 2000, after Peace Corps had decided that we would not be allowed to go back to our rural schools for the remainder of our time in country. There were opportunities to be reassigned to positions with NGOs in the cities, but for a number of reasons these didn’t seem like a good fit for me.

The time at my school continues to dominate my memories of Zimbabwe. Its mention brings echoes of marking papers under an asbestos roof that roared with the storm outside, of moments of connection with my students, and the faces of the friends. But, what links the different stages of my time in Zimbabwe are the qualities of the people I met there. This includes the cultural qualities of men that I’ve described. In a larger sense, it includes a graciousness and way of respecting each other that seem uncommon in the U.S. My assignment was odd, at times frustrating, and little of what I expected, but it’s experiences like these that make me unable to regret my time in Zimbabwe. In 13 months I learned a little about teaching, but much more about the possibilities of human relationships. In the end, I think I’m left with the challenge most all RPCVs face: how to build connections between these things I’ve learned and life back in the U.S.

– Jeff Maggioli can be reached by email at lgbrpcv@lgbrpcv.org