Just When I Learn the Answers, They Change the Questions: A Zimbabwean’s Journey

by Senzeni - Posts (12). Posted Monday, July 30th, 2012 at 10:29 am

I smile wryly as I go through my freshman photos. It is hard to believe that just 2 years ago, I arrived in the United States, fresh-faced and starry eyed; weighed down by suitcases, expectations and an overwhelming fear of the unknown. In my head, as well as in my diary and journal, was a clear strategy of how I would ‘attain greatness’.

It amazes me to look back and realize how drastically my interests have changed, how dramatically my intellectual aspirations have evolved and how even my fears are not the same anymore.  The certainty I once had about what I wanted to see and achieve is gone, the answers replaced by more and more questions about myself and my path.

After the snow

My friend and I enjoying our first day in the snow.

My friend and I enjoying our first day in the snow.

Prior to my arrival in the States, I had only seen snow on television. It was with great anticipation and excitement that I waited for the first snowy day.  I vividly recall my first encounter with snow: It was one of those mornings when I would steal glances at the rising sun from behind my computer while frantically working to finish a paper. From my common room window, I noticed the ice crystals slowly dropping to the ground.

The sight was breathtaking.  I dropped all my work, raced to the window; and saw that Yale’s courtyard had been transformed into a picturesque scene from a Disney movie. The beauty of what I was seeing almost moved me to tears.

Snow in Silliman College - Frank Teng MC '13

Snow in Silliman College – Frank Teng MC ’13

Of course, the novelty has long since worn off. With snow comes the obligation to wear layers of coats, all of which have to be removed upon entering a building.  There is also the hassle of having to trudge to class in ridiculous snow boots. And after a snow comes the ‘freezing rain,’ which covers the roads with ice, turning the simple task of walking into a Hunger Games-esque challenge.

These days, my heart sinks when I see the snow. My optimism dies. My enthusiasm welters and I just want to go home.

Fearing the cold

Having never encountered snow before, I was afraid that when the snow did come, I would freeze. Today, I worry about a different kind of cold I hadn’t encountered before America.  My fear has evolved into a paranoid feeling that the cold, impersonal nature of most Americans is going to smother the warmth out of me.

America is a very cold country. Relationships and human interactions which should be warm and earnest often come off as superficial. Only in America does, “Let’s have dinner together sometime” signal the end of a conversation, not an actual invitation to catch up over food.

The predominant individualistic nature of most Americans makes me yearn for Africa’s ubuntu society. Ubuntu, is a communal social philosophy which emphasizes that a person is a person because of the people around him. Ubuntu calls upon people to belive that “Your pain is my pain. My wealth is your wealth. Your salvation is my salvation.”

It is a concept so impalpable to Americans that my American roommate looks at me in consternation whenever she sees my Zimbabwean friend Nod’s belongings in our room. To her, it signals intimacy. For us, it is a mutual understanding that property rights do not exist between people who inhabit the same space. Having grown up in a family where clothes did not belong to the individual, but to the people who could fit into them, and having gone to boarding school where anything from lotion to school uniforms could be shared, navigating American laws of individualism has been as traumatizing as tightrope walking.

Everyone is so wrapped up in a cocoon of endless activities that they have no time to accommodate anyone else. Even in romantic relationships, many college students, perhaps too busy to invest in their attraction to someone else, resort to ‘hooking up’ because it provides a channel to vent sexual frustration without having to deal with the emotional baggage that comes with a relationship.

One girl is admitted in hospital for a week, and her suitemate does not notice. Another frequently hooks up with a boy who confesses after a year that he is in a 3-year long-distance relationship. I shake my head.

Varieties of love

I also remember how fervently my family and I prayed that I would not get a homosexual roommate. I remember the confusion I felt when I unknowingly walked up to a LGBT stand during the extracurricular activity fair for freshmen students and had to politely talk to the representatives for 5 minutes.

I remember stopping in utter fascination as I watched a person, who I swear was male, strut to class in a dress and high heels.

My home country, Zimbabwe, is an intensely homophobic country. Not only is it illegal to be homosexual, but it also culturally and socially shunned.  My society had taught me that gender and sexuality was not debatable. However, during the past two years, I have watched as people I knew came out.

I have sat in on intellectual and academic debates on homosexuality. I have made friends, loved them, discovered their sexuality, and realized that this does not change my opinion of them. I have had paralyzing crushes on boys who I later discovered to be gay, and I have questioned my own sexuality.

More questions than answers

It has definitely been a difficult 2 years. I have cried tears of joy, tears of pain, and tears of disappointment in myself, in Yale, in America, in Zimbabwe. For me, college has not been a place where I discovered myself. It is a place where I lost myself to the questions in my head. If Christianity was forced on Zimbabweans during colonialism, why do people still practice it? Should I wear my hoodie tonight? Is she attractive or am I attracted to girls?

I have also constantly questioned whether studying in the United States was a good decision. Will a 4 year absence from Zimbabwe empower me to serve it better? How will my 12 engineering classes in a liberal arts school stack up against 36 engineering classes and a 1 year internship at the University of Zimbabwe? After seeing all the opportunities in the United States, and after realizing the potential that I have, will I ever happily go back home where electricity and water shortages will force me to be less productive with my life?

I have been forced to defend my beliefs and to have an opinion on some concepts that I could not have cared less about. Sometimes, I have risen to the challenge – gone ice skating, dated outside my race, danced to Katie Perry. Other times, my only comfort being the knowledge despite feelings of a loss of identity; I have still retained an ability to be vulnerable in a land where everyone is “doing well.”

I look at the naïve girl in those freshman year pictures and sigh. Just when I knew all of life’s answers, they went and changed all the questions.

20 Responses to “Just When I Learn the Answers, They Change the Questions: A Zimbabwean’s Journey”

  1. Simba says:

    Senzeni, I am very glad that you addressed the issue of homophobia, and think you are very brave for voicing your opinion on this issue,which is an unpopular one in Zimbabwe. As you know, there is a lot of discrimination against LGBT people in Zimbabwe and a lot of it is irrational. It’s quite sad that as people who endured years of discrimination based on race, we have now turned around to discriminate against others based on something as superfluous as sexual orientation.

    Thank you for having an open mind!

  2. Marty Tillman says:

    Senzeni: Thank you for writing such an honest post here. I was moved reading it. I am going to Harare in October at the invitation of our State Department (and in cooperation with EducationUSA–do you know Rebecca Zeigler-Mano?) to deliver workshops to Zimbabwean educators about the value of career services for students. This will be my first trip to Africa. I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you about your Yale experience. Please reply to me at martyjtillman@gmail.com. I have a linked in profile. I also am good friends with Ann Kuhlman at Yale – you may know who she is.

    Best wishes,
    Martin Tillman

  3. Abhushan says:

    Great Post!

  4. Martin says:

    Good blog.
    I think that often more important than some ‘answers’ are what questions we are asking.
    I pray that God may guide you.
    (an Australian making my home in Zimbabwe)

  5. Linda Freels says:

    W hen you come from nothing, you have something. When you come from something ,you have nothing. Just as you; our clothes were share. There was no name tag. Nothing had a name tag. At that moment it was who ever had it on. Who ever had it in their hand. From soap, toothpaste. We was rich with family and friends. They never care how much you had. The whole family would share. The spanish say it best. En mi casa is your mi casa. I born and raise here. At times myself feel like I am on another planet. So in this great country of ours you are not alone in that respect.

  6. Theodora says:

    Senzeni: great task done! you have boldly told the fact many people would have hidden from the outside world. but i want to know whether you have completely regretted for enrolling in Yale.
    God bless you & sail you through safely; i’m really moved.

  7. riano baggy says:

    thank Senzeni, we knows when we stay /study in foreign country we meet a new culture
    behavior,peoples with all different with our culture we have adoption and to filtered where the best for our life without to leave our native culture and get synergy. When we back to our country we rich to understand how to make friendships with a new world.

  8. Dominic says:

    Good job! Tackled some very tough subjects

  9. Parks Papindanyoka says:

    I just hope you won’t be gay yourself and watch your step girl because all that glitters is not gold. Ziva kwakabva mudzimu weshiri uri mudendere.

  10. Marcia says:

    Great work Senzeni, remember the shona tsumo “kusina mai hakuendwe” ….. strange but true, however this should not be taken in its literal sense. of course there is no place better than home….We leave the comfort of our homes and countries to seek for better opportunities which would have otherwise never come our way had we stayed at home. We find ourselves faced with many trials and tribulations that make us question the choices we make.Though frustrating at times ,at the end of the day you will realize that your experience abroad has indeed redefined and is slowly molding you into a young woman with an original point of view…harbor no regrets :D

  11. precius simba says:

    Niceone Senzeni! Like the way you navigated some ver serious issues with a light edge. Fntastic penship & grea blog!

  12. tatenda muchemwa says:

    Senzeni, thanks for deftly tackling some very serious issues. I struggle trying to express to people how strange i find relationships in america, they are sometimes so impersonal and superficial it boggles my mind. Please know you are not alone in this struggle, surround yourself with a good network of friends and make new family through the people you can connect with and hopefully this will ease some of the pain.

    Live life to the fullest, make the best choices for you and ask/answer the tough questions you have raised as you go along.. as we all used to say “make a plan” there is plenty of good experience to be had and make the most of your time at the esteemed university you attend.. you are the flag bearer for Zimbabwe, your family and us all.

    Kunywangwe ini, chaitemura chavekusevawo, shinga mwana wamai. ndatenda zvangu

  13. MICHAEL MKWELELE says:

    Fantastically written!

  14. Almira says:

    hi Senzeni! again, a very nice post from you.
    one thing that comes in my mind, soon after I read this post is : “OMG, is it??”.
    I will start my master degree in US this Fall. and same with your country, there are lot of practices in US that would be very intolerable if it’s happened in Indonesia. i am pretty scare but still, I am excited to go to US. the best plan that I have is to live life to the fullest while (hopefully) enjoying my engineering courses.

    right now, I try to gather as much knowledge via honest post like yours! thanks for sharing your experience :-D

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Hey Almira, this is Jessica, the Student Union editor. Congrats on getting into a masters program. I hope you’re looking forward to starting and that it will be an exciting experience for you. I was wondering if you might be willing to share some of the things you’re scared of. I bet other people would be able to relate, and would love to know that they’re not alone in worrying about some of these things! You can reply here or email me at jstahl@voanews.com.

  15. Debbie says:

    Hi Senzeni, first of all, I was disappointed at your need to generalize all Americans in your assertion “America is a very cold country”. I have two sisters there and many friends who tell me that its quite the opposite… that Zimbabweans are the ones who are cold.
    Also, in my high school days I had a handful of gay friends who were quite open (in behavior at least) and if anyone insulted them for it, they would report it to our counsellors and the perps were heavily reprimanded. Including myself once when I was 11. So your comment on Zimbabwe and homosexuality reflects on your experiences and not necessarily those of the whole country.
    Otherwise good piece

  16. Toni says:

    As an American student studying in the UK, I am really surprised by Senzeni’s account of ‘community.’ During my first week here, I was anxious to connect and approached the African and Caribbean Society booth for information. The women just stared at me and turned away. Only the gentleman spoke. It’s been three months now and I have given up trying to speak–I never get a reply, smile, or acknowledgment. Sure, the Africans (I have to group them since I can’t get close enough to learn about specific nationalities) are communal; I see them together all the time. I just have the impression that they dislike outsiders.

    My impression is a bit like yours, is it not? You generalize about a group of people in one area of a huge country because of your experiences. It’s not fair. In my community, we share everything–food, clothes, cars, feelings, thoughts, money. Aren’t most people the same? From your comments, I imagine that you can access resources from anywhere in your country. That’s not quite true is it? You may have unlimited access within your specific group but restrictions do exist regarding another group, correct?

    There is nothing wrong with loving your home and missing it. I find myself yearning for the passion, the openness, the energy of the American people. At home, there is so much life, flair! However, despite my experiences here, I realize that several unknown factors may be in play to explain the perceived rebuffs. Until I discover the true reason, I accept that this is the way a group of people–myself included–behave in this particular setting. I will not let this experience mar my vision toward others. When I am so allowed, I will enjoy the company of people from around the world and learn as much as I can about cultures very different from my own.

    I am sure as you look back on this post 2.5 years later, you have realized the same thing.

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