Learning To Aid a Continent

Some African students study with an eye toward bettering their homelands

When a soldier pointed an AK-47 at his face, pulling him out of the government vehicle, Sangu J. Delle ’10—who was conducting research in Togo the summer before he came to Harvard—thought his life was over.

He was traveling through the countryside en route to the capital city of Lomé, when a band of soldiers unexpectedly pulled over his car.

“They had no reason to do it,” Delle said. “It was horrifying. I had my notes about the problems with democracy in Togo, and I was terrified that they would find them there—and what they would do to us.”

Though the soldiers eventually let Delle and his companions pass, Delle said the “frightening” ordeal didn’t faze him—or dull his resolve to find solutions to the problems that plague his continent. He continued his research that summer, meeting with the presidents and tribal leaders of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Togo.

“Persistence is the only way forward,” Delle said.

Though they’ve relocated to a place where affluence and prestige are everywhere, some African international students at the College don’t dissociate from their motherlands.

With widespread political strife, economic instability, massive poverty, and gruesome civil conflicts on their minds, these students say they plan to use their Harvard educations to make a contribution back home.

A LEGACY TO CONTINUE

Delle was born in Accra, Ghana, where his father, the chairman of a small political party and a doctor who often made little to no money establishing clinics throughout the country, intimately involved himself in human rights in his country.

During the Liberian civil war, Delle’s father, Edmund, gave refuge to torture victims. Witnessing what happened to political dissidents made a lasting impact on Delle.

“I was young and I’d already seen people burned and beaten, their nails pulled out, their women raped, their limbs chopped off,” Delle said. “I saw the brutal effects of the lack of respect for human rights. And that made me forever realize that, whatever I do, I had to be of service to my country.”

The Delle family isn’t new to political service: his grandfather was the right-hand man to the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Delle’s father, who was sentenced to death by firing squad in the 1970s before being acquitted, showed Delle how to make service to his country worthwhile: to focus on the people.

Delle said that in order for the political and economic climate of Ghana to improve, it must undergo national self-reflection.

“I’m tired of the blame game. It’s not the white man in Kenya chopping people up. It’s not the white man in Togo stealing from the poor. It’s the neocolonialists, the African elite,” Delle said. “Only when a model of development puts the common African at the epicenter will we change anything.”

‘ONLY 10 TIMES WORSE’

Amplifying political and economic problems in Zimbabwe make the need for change all the more urgent for Brighton Mudzingwa ’09.

Since an opposition party claimed victory in last month’s national elections, arson, murder, and massive displacement have put the fragile country at a political standstill.

He’s more than 2,500 miles away from the upheaval, but Mudzingwa is actively searching for solutions to the problem.

Working with Brian K. Chingono ’09 and Gemma F. Rodrigues, a Zimbabwean student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he invited a panel of Zimbabwe experts Wednesday to discuss the direness of the situation—and the repercussions of inaction.

“We’re in a situation where we cannot imagine things getting worse,” he said. “But for some reason, they do—only 10 times worse.”

Although Mudzingwa attended high school in America at United World College (UWC), he said he returned to a Zimbabwe deteriorating faster than he thought possible.

Inflation rates had risen to 100,000 percent by last month, according to media reporters. The employment rate has swelled to 80 percent.

Growing up in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe where day-to-day items like gasoline and flour are considered luxuries, taught Mudzingwa the importance of recognizing his blessings.

“I remember once being woken up at five in the morning to drive a car to the petrol line,” he said. “I spent the entire day, until 11 p.m., there. And when I was literally four or five cars away, the fuel ran out.”

The differences between his time in Zimbabwe and life at Harvard inspire Mudzingwa to work to better his country, he said.

But, although the poverty and suffering are undeniable, social maladies don’t define Africa, said Elizabeth N. Mrema ’11, who is from Tanzania.

“Even my mother used to tell me that I should eat all the food on my plate because there are starving children in Africa,” Mrema said. “I feel like the West thinks that Africa is a million steps back. In a sense, it is, in terms of development. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s not all bad.”

THE BRAIN DRAIN

It was 107 degrees in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Mrema used to sit on the grass outside the local secondary school with a group of 12- and 13-year olds crowded around her almost every day.

As they swatted away gnats and flies, the children would toss around foreign words, acclimating their tongues to new sounds like “yellow” and “soap.”

As the president of her high school’s “Make a Difference” club, an organization devoted to teaching English to students in neighboring schools, Mrema said she witnessed a tangible result of direct investment in Africa.

“Knowing English is important—some businesses won’t hire you unless you speak it,” she said. “I think my defining moment was when I realized that I can and want to help [my country], and seeing how just a couple hours a week could change how far someone would go in life.”

Mrema shies away from the economic and political affairs of her country. She says correcting the flaws in African economies and governments necessitates gradual change, and that investing in education, on the other hand, is not only more attainable, but also the bedrock of the future.

Fifty-year-old textbooks and a shortage of teachers have set the country back, Mrema says. But whether she becomes a university professor or works with a non-governmental organization in the education sector won’t matter, unless more people take up the cause.

“There’s this saying back home about the brain drain, about how kids go to the States or the U.K. and never come back. I’d hate for that to be me,” she said. “I believe you owe something to the country that raised you.”

Like Mrema, both Mudzingwa and Delle desire to return to their countries—but only after gaining real-world experience on Wall Street.

GOING THROUGH THE PIPELINE

That’s a wise move, says Robin M. Worth ’81, who chairs the College’s subcommittee for international admissions.

“It’s just not feasible to go back at the age of 22,” she said. “[The international students] have to have a day job first, they need to have a network that supports what they’re doing and that helps them not lose their desire and belief in making a change in their country.”

While Worth says it was a “struggle” for the College to have four African students enroll just a decade ago, the Admissions Office now enrolls several students from multiple countries in Africa each year.

Worth said that the Class of 1992 had one African student admitted. Ten years later, the Class of 2002 included four African students. But for the Class of 2012, 15 African students were admitted from the continent, and another five more holding African citizenship were admitted from U.S. schools.



As the number of African international students increases on campus, Worth is seeking to establish an organization, modeled after the Mason Program at the Kennedy School—a program that recruits students from developing countries to participate in seminars on social, economic and political topics while they earn their degrees—to foster these students’ desire to contribute to their home countries.

Worth said the program would be up and running by next semester.

“It’s easy for students to get all caught up and distracted. Often, they don’t run into people who share their same desires,” Worth said. “We see this incredible talent coming in. These students are asking themselves, ‘How can I use Harvard to benefit others?’ And we don’t want them to lose that.”

The Admissions Office’s focus on that goal is evidenced in the international application itself. One of the application questions asks prospective students what they plan to do with their Harvard education.

Worth said that the answers range from “economic development to raising the standard of education to improving the role and status of women in society,” but the common thread is where these students want to end up.

“What comes of the country if the few people who get a chance to be educated don’t take it back?” Mudzingwa said.

AFRICAN ‘REVOLUTIONARY’

Dining with a student from Greece or doing laundry next to one from Egypt weren’t exactly new experiences for Mudzingwa before he came to Harvard.

At UWC, he interacted with students from around the world—students, he says, who impacted his “value system.”

Candid conversations about world affairs and a deeper appreciation of cultures led him to think about how to change his country for the better.

“I was opened up to various ways of thinking and shown the importance of the responsible citizen, the importance of contributing to the well-being of the average person,” he said.

But the conversations didn’t stop there. Dominic P. DeNunzio ’09, who Mudzingwa calls a “good friend,” said Mudzingwa has used his candor to teach him about the African continent.

“Before my friendship with Brighton begun here, my knowledge of Africa was very limited. He has taken much of his time to educate me, and any one who will listen,” DeNunzio said. “I am very confident that he will be a force for good in Zimbabwe and throughout the continent, and one that we will be hearing and reading about in years to come.”

Mudzingwa said that such a future—and the question of his being elected—is one of “eventuality,” and that he wants to be part of a collaborative effort to bring about change in Zimbabwe. While Mrema has ruled out running for office, Delle sees himself working in the social, political and economic sectors of Ghanaian life—like his father and grandfather.

And like Mudzingwa, he says he’d bring about “culturally relevant” change in Ghana that earns support from the miscellany of cultural and religious groups in the country.

“When I was five, I said I wanted to be the president of Ghana,” Delle said. “When I was in high school, I said I wanted to be the CEO of Fortune or Forbes. But now, I want to be the revolutionary who will fight for the common African man.”