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Student travels to impoverished African nation, returns a rich man

November 15, 2008

Kyle Hicks
Last summer Kyle Hicks, a senior business major at Lander University and native of Central, traveled to Zimbabwe with his mentor Dr. Kenneth Mufuka, Lander professor of history.
It was election day in Zimbabwe when Lander University senior Kyle Hicks of Central got off a plane in that country last summer. In fact, it was a runoff in a heated contest for Zimbabwe's presidency. The slate had been forcibly narrowed down to one candidate, the current president Robert Mugabe. The election had been one of many violent and turbulent times for the Zimbabwean people, a nation drowning in a sea of economic turmoil.

So, with this as the backdrop for his arrival, Hicks, a business major at Lander, had to wonder if he had made the right decision in coming to Zimbabwe. It didn't help, of course, that his traveling companion had left the country years prior for fear that Mugabe might have him killed. Hicks' fellow traveler, Dr. Kenneth Mufuka, Lander professor of history and native of Zimbabwe, had also remained a voice in Zimbabwe as a journalist writing from abroad and remaining ever critical of Mugabe's administration.

But why were Hicks and Mufuka in Zimbabwe in the first place?
For Mufuka the journey was to see family, mainly his ailing mother. But for Hicks it was a quest of self-discovery. But the two first had to make it through airport security once they landed in Zimbabwe.

As they passed through security Mufuka's passport was confiscated. Officials took the document into a private room to deliberate on what action would be taken regarding Mufuka's admittance to the country. However, after all others had cleared the terminal and Hicks and Mufuka were left to guess about their fate, the officials returned and welcomed Mufuka to Zimbabwe. "'Well,' I thought, 'that was close,'" said Hicks.

Beyond the airport, Hicks and Mufuka were met with other moments of anxiety.

"Every 15 miles there was a police or military roadblock," said Hicks. "They were hoping to be offered bribes."

Hicks was in good hands. Mufuka had been in these situations before and new exactly what to do. At one point, Mufuka and Hicks recounted, police wanted to know why they were visiting the American Methodist University and Mufuka told them, "We are missionaries from the United States, and we sponsor kids at the university." Lander does, indeed, have a number of students from Zimbabwe. At another checkpoint Mufuka said to the police and soldiers, "Thank you for looking after our country. Please don't let yourself get chilly because it's a cold night."

"These guys mainly wanted acknowledgment of the job they do," said Hicks. "So Dr. Mufuka won them over with compliments."

These roadblocks may have heightened the anxiety for Hicks and Mufuka during their trip, but they are obstacles that Zimbabweans deal with on a daily basis. Another aspect of the Zimbabwe citizens' daily lives comes in the form of economic hardship, a problem not experienced by Hicks and Mufuka as they traveled across the nation. In fact, Hicks exchanged 50 U.S. dollars into Zimbabwean dollars and ended up having a little less than half left over at the end of his journey.

"I consider myself to be a poor student, but I was wealthy over there," said Hicks.

At the time of his trip, Hicks' $50 equated to 700 billion Zimbabwean dollars. While Mufuka and Hicks were at a hotel, they recalled, they paid a dollar a day for hospitality, which turned out to be more than the hotel employees made in a month. The rate of inflation in Zimbabwe is also very high.

"When we gave the hotel employees the money, Dr. Mufuka would tell them to hold onto the dollar for a week," said Hicks. "In that time the value would nearly double because inflation there is so bad."

According to Mufuka, the economic situation, along with a lack of support for the government, has led to many of the most educated and talented Zimbabweans leaving to live in other countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Mufuka actually pays his brother, who is a lawyer, an allowance so he can stay in Zimbabwe.

Hicks and Mufuka had the opportunity to discuss this issue with the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee. The meeting ended in a job opportunity for Hicks. McGee told Hicks that the federal government could pay for his graduate studies if he promised to return to Zimbabwe for four years to help educate and work with Zimbabwean citizens. Hicks said he was still mulling over McGee's proposal.

While in Zimbabwe Hicks also had the opportunity to live with an African family for several days. He stayed at the home of Zimbabwe's equivalent of a commissioner of public works, Fabian Mabaya. There he was able to see how native Zimbabweans live and to eat traditional Zimbabwean food.

"The food is different over there," said Hicks. "They eat more greens because there is little meat. I ate a couple of days off of greens and cornmeal."

At the end of their journey Hicks and Mufuka attended a gathering with 20 prominent figures in Zimbabwe. Each person in attendance gave a speech. When it came time for Hicks to speak, he recalled saying, "This is the part of Africa we don't see on American television. We don't see the smiles, the warmth of friendship, or the hope these faces exhibit and the love they have for their country. For years Zimbabwe has been crying out. Zimbabwe has been crying out for so long that the nation has lost its voice and can only whisper. I can hear your whisper. Now I understand why Dr. Mufuka, despite all the dangers, returns to Zimbabwe every year, and we hold our breath until he returns safely."

Hicks said that seeing Zimbabweans hold onto hope in spite of the adversity they face had humbled him and, at the same time, granted him more appreciation for his life in the United States.