For the first time in the nearly 22 years since Africa University was founded by The United Methodist Church, the boards of the university and the agency that spearheaded the founding of the Pan-African educational institution met together on the campus in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe.
“This is a historic meeting,” Bishop David Yemba said of the joint meeting of the governing bodies of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and Africa University. “This was a week very rich in events and information.”
Yemba, chancellor of the university and bishop of the Central Congo episcopal area, welcomed the opportunity for a worship service in Kwan Lim Chapel that included the directors of both boards, students, faculty, and members of the West Michigan Conference. Yemba was also pleased that the joint meeting coincided with the dedication of the Ubuntu Retreat Center. The West Michigan Conference raised $500,000 to build the center after the Rev. Laurie Haller visited the university when she was a GBHEM board member. An anonymous donor matched what the conference raised.
“Our hope is that now that the dream of Africa University has come true, GBHEM will continue strong collaboration and work with Africa University,” Yemba said, noting that there has been transition and change at the university as well as at GBHEM.
The Rev. Dr. Kim Cape, GBHEM’s general secretary, said the contributions Africa University is making to the continent are so important that she wanted directors to see the campus first-hand and meet students and faculty.
“Seeing is believing,” Cape said. After General Conference approved the founding of Africa University in 1988, “GBHEM was the midwife,” she added.
“Africa University is one of the ways we are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of Africa,” Cape said.
The university, which opened in 1992, draws students from all over Africa. The current enrollment of 2,000 represents students from 29 countries, and nearly 5,000 graduates are changing the face of Africa as they become leaders in the church, government, business, and civil society.
Bishop Marcus Matthews, vice-chair of the AU Board, and Bishop James Dorff, president of GBHEM’s board, agreed the face-to-face meeting was important.
“For me, the founding of Africa University is the most significant thing that has happened in our denomination in the last 20 years,” Matthews said.
“We came together with a common purpose of building a Pan-African university to be used by all the continent,” said Matthews, episcopal leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. To do that, the denomination put aside politics and other differences, he said.
Matthews believes GBHEM board members now will be better able to tell the story of the university and of the students they met to the rest of the church.
Dorff said it was good for GBHEM directors to see the strength and diversity of those who serve on the Africa University Board of Directors, and for AU boards members to see that GBHEM’s board is made up of a good cross-section of the church.
“It also gave representatives from Africa University the opportunity to express appreciation to GBHEM for its role in the development of Africa University over the years. And it gave GBHEM a chance to say thank you to the Africa University Board for their hard work over the last 22 years,” said Dorff, the episcopal leader of the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Conferences.
“The most significant factor was it gave us a chance to solidify our partnership. I believe that together we can ensure Africa University continues to be faithful and productive as it moves into the future,” Dorff said.
The joint meeting featured introductions and reports about Africa University and what the university’s nearly 5,000 graduates are doing now. GBHEM’s directors toured the campus, including the farm and dairy, as well as attending the worship and the dedication ceremony. After the meeting, both boards attended the chancellor’s dinner. During the meeting, Ted Brown, president of Martin Methodist College, a UM-related college in Tennessee, said Africa University could be a model for U.S. institutions in the way they have engaged the church and in their mission and vision to bring the varied peoples of Africa together.
Robin Minthorn, a GBHEM board member, also said Africa University has much to teach the U.S.
“I think oftentimes Native Americans don’t have a voice and seeing the strong indigenous way Africa University is doing things is inspiring,” she said. Minthorn, a member of the Kiowa tribe, said she hopes seeing what Africa University is doing will give GBHEM board members a new perspective and help them acknowledge the diversity in the cultures in the United States.
Africa University board members also felt the meeting was powerful and would serve to strengthen relationships and understanding between the two boards.
Dr. James Seni Burka, a physician from Nigeria in the West Africa Central Conference, welcomed the chance to have personal conversations with his counterparts and hopes that GBHEM board members will go home better able to tell the story of Africa University.
“They will be able to tell the nitty-gritty, the challenges, the opportunities faced by students and faculty,” Burka said.
Grace Muradzikwa, a Zimbabwean member of AU’s Board, agreed that the chance for personal interaction was especially useful. “I thought it helped the two bodies appreciate each other and understand how they work together,” she said. However, both Muradzikwa and Natu Oswald Tweh, an AU board member from Liberia, said they would have preferred more opportunity for discussion.
“Next time there is a joint meeting, I think it should be expanded to have more discussion of issues,” Tweh said.
One board member welcomed the chance to meet the Africa University students that his conference sponsors and brought them Bibles and letters from the bishop. “One young man said he would be living on the streets without the help that allows him to attend Africa University,” said Demetrio Beach. Beach said he learned of small things that would make a great difference for students at AU, such as laptops and printers.
Students were on campus and participated in all the events, telling visitors their own stories and talking about the work of the university.
Robinah Nambafu, a student from Uganda, said students promise to continue taking their studies seriously and responsibly with determination, dedication, and discipline and to put resources provided by the church to good use.
“It is my pleasure to express a heartfelt gratitude to you all who source and provide funding for this university,” she said.
Several students from the Democratic Republic of Congo talked about how Africa University cares for its students and how the learning environment and resources are better than many African universities.
“I went to a public university, and it was so crowded, some people were even standing in classes,” said Kabey Tshiyen Teggy, a student in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
Emmanuel Makal, a first-year student in Health Sciences who dreams of one day building his own hospital, also praised the chance to know other students from all over Africa. “I’m learning a lot about the rest of Africa,” Makal said. Bishop Dorff summed up the week at the joint board meeting.
“Even though we may be separated from you, we are always with you in prayer and spirit.”
By Vicki Brown, associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry