Leaves crunching beneath our feet, golden sun peeking through the branches, my children and I race down Ford Avenue, Oneonta, New York, one Sunday fall morning. A figure approaches: college students don’t wake up this early, I think, who is that? She nears, her braids swinging with her energetic step. I realize it’s Matipa Mutoti, a new international student from Zimbabwe. “I’m on my way to volunteer for the Zephyr Teachout campaign for Congress,” she tells me cheerfully, waving goodbye.
I first met Matipa in my role as international student advisor at Hartwick College. I picked her up from the Albany bus station one August morning in time for orientation. We stopped at a roadside convenience store along Route 88 and Matipa’s eyes took in the wall of refrigerators housing red, yellow, and blue Gatorade, cran-apple juice, energy drinks, and three brands of bottled water. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, selecting one. As we drove, she told me about her grandmother’s home in Zimbabwe in the countryside or kumusha, the Shona word for “home.” “I loved visiting my grandmother’s home there because it was such a simple way of life,” she explained. “There was no wifi and little mobile service, so we spent lots of time talking to one another. I love the sense of community there. We know all our neighbors and they are our family.”
When most people think of a Hartwick, or a college like it, they think of a regional student body largely from area high schools. And they are partly right. At Hartwick, Matipa can’t help but stand out. She is the only student from Zimbabwe and one of a handful of students who have lived their lives abroad. Her warm voice is tinged with a slight accent. She is unfailingly polite.
This January, we had lunch at a cafe in Oneonta to talk about her first semester at Hartwick and the news from Zimbabwe. “Thank you for the food and conversation,” she told me, sipping coffee, wrapped in a soft scarf, “Last summer was such a significant time for me to come to America,” she said, “when protests were peaking in Zimbabwe.” She described the violence during last August’s protests against president Robert Mugabe, who has governed for over thirty-seven years, and now at age ninety-two, refuses to step down from power.
She told me about how much she admires pastor Evan Mawarire, the man who sparked last summer’s anti-Mugabe protests by posting videos of himself wrapped in the Zimbabwean flag. “It feels as if I just want to belong to another country,” he said. His “#thisflag” social media movement ignited a storm of anti-government protests, quickly quelled by riot police armed with tear gas and water cannons. Videos of police beating protesters, including one of a woman raising her arms in self-defense, went viral, along with news of a toddler killed by tear gas launched into his parents’ home. Matipa speaks too of her admiration for Zimbabwean lawyer and activist, Fadzayi Mahere, whose Facebook posts and YouTube videos on everything from potholes and rubbish removal, to bond notes and the cash crisis, remind Zimbabweans of their constitutional rights.
Matipa explained over lunch that almost everyone she knew participated in the first Stay Away, organized by Mawarire via social media. “People didn’t go to the shops or to work. They just stayed in their homes. “The streets were so quiet,” she said. “Still, I think people were skeptical because we did not know if our actions would result in anything, and we were scared because we did not know what would happen afterward.”
Zimbabweans have reason to fear the protests. Over the years in Zimbabwe, outspoken journalists have simply disappeared. Matipa described the summer day she had her passport photos taken for her U.S. visa application. From the shop near Harare Gardens outside of the parliament building, she could see perhaps twenty family and friends protesting the disappearance of journalist and activist Itai Dzamara. “He has been missing for a long time,” she explained, “no one knows where he is.” As she watched, police broke up the protest with batons and shields.
Still, Matipa describes herself as “obsessed with politics.” Her mother forced her to read and listen to the news until it became a habit she couldn’t break. She has read many of the Clintons’ and Obama’s books and can list all the American presidents and their accomplishments. This fall she attended the Model United National Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, and hopes to run for a Student Senate leadership position at Hartwick.
It seems politics runs in her blood: her parents are career diplomats and her uncle served as Deputy Minister of Justice until he was fired for his alignment with presidential hopeful Joice Mujuru. Matipa lived for a time in Ethiopia while her mother worked at the consulate in Addis Ababa. She recounted a story of meeting Robert Mugabe, her childhood hero, while visiting the embassy where her mother worked. She handed him a card with a carefully drawn portrait of Mugabe in front of the Ethiopian flag and a sketch of the two of them shaking hands under a rainbow. “I believe Mugabe could have been the next Nelson Mandela,” she said. “He was the leader of the resistance to British rule. Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Africa; its industries were peaking, and we had among the highest rates for literacy and girls’ education. The country was on the right trajectory. “But,” she reminds us that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Matipa’s fall classes at Hartwick fueled her love of politics. “The professor was so passionate,” she said, referring to her fall U.S. Government and Politics course with Professor Jim Buthman. “He made me want to get involved.” In Buthman’s class she met Zachary Evolve, an enthusiastic recent graduate of Northwestern University, doing local organizing for Zephyr Teachout’s democratic congressional campaign. After presenting to her class, Evolve passed a sheet for volunteers looking to make calls to local voters, and Matipa was one of three students to sign up. She volunteered weekly in a downtown Oneonta office calling voters to let them know about Teachout’s platform. Matipa was happy to learn that Evolve—unlike most Americans—knew something of Zimbabwe’s history and current fiscal crisis. “Can you give me a trillion dollars, Matipa?” he teased her, between phone calls and snacks of donut holes at the campaign office.
After the election, Evolve posted updates about the January Women’s Marches; Matipa decided to join some friends from the east and west coasts at the march in New York City. “In America, people aren’t afraid to do these things. They know that no harm will come to them.” She loved the noisy hubbub and “great atmosphere, full of excitement, energy, hope, and change, not hopelessness. The marches were not so much anti-Trump as pro-human rights.”
I know I’m overly involved,” she said. “I am an extreme person.” But still, she doesn’t understand why people can say politics doesn’t affect them. Talking to students and voters during the campaign, she often heard, “it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens happens.” She wonders how people can say that: “Politics affects everything. Who supplies the water you drink? Who fixes the roads you drive on?”
When she plans to return to Zimbabwe for the 2018 presidential elections; she can’t wait to express her opinions about the candidates via social media to try to enact change. “As I watched the U.S. inauguration on T.V.,” she said, “I tweeted about how I had never seen the peaceful transfer of power from one government to another. Americans have never experienced not having that freedom.” Having these experiences has made her want to be part of the process in both the U.S. and in Zimbabwe. “One vote can make a difference.”
Carolyn works in global education and teaches English, education, and service learning courses at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. Before working in international education, she taught English in independent schools in Alabama, Massachusetts, and Maryland.