Crystal Colbert spends semester in Zimbabwe

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 6/16/99.

Colbert Zimbabwe grew on Crystal Colbert. When she first arrived in the landlocked country in southeast Africa last January for a semester abroad, she wanted to return to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she just finished her junior year.

"When I first got there, I was disappointed," Crystal said. "I wanted to go home. If you would have given me a ticket, I would have been back in Paynesville."

After spending five months there through a study abroad program, she's already dreaming of returning to Zimbabwe and other places in Africa. She misses her host family (pictured above with Crystal at the far right), the students on her program, friends she made at the University of Zimbabwe. She misses having time to think and write in her journal, having in-depth conversations, and feeling part of an exotic place.

"I miss it so much," she said.

"I miss seeing black people, Africans, babies strapped on backs, kids in uniforms," she added.

She even misses the inconveniences, waiting for the small buses that served as public transportation or walking. "I probably did more walking than ever in my life," she said.

Crystal left with 25 students from the Midwest for a semester abroad on Jan. 5 and stayed in Zimbabwe until May 4. Most of their time was spent in the capital city of Harare, but the class made a number of field trips. Destinations included the ruins of an ancient civilization called Great Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, and Hwange National Park for a photo safari, where they saw elephants, zebras and kudus. (At a park near Harare, Crystal saw lions and cheetahs.)

On her own, she visited South Africa and attended a Davis Cup tennis match between Zimbabwe and Australia.

The groups also had shorter homestays in Bulawayo for a week and a half and in a rural setting for four days. Crystal stayed with an elderly widow on a farm in Mzengezi, along with other students from her program. "That was interesting, to say the least," Crystal said. While there, they helped in corn, bean, and ground nut fields, slept under a tin roof that Crystal described as noisy when it rained, and washed in a small house next to the pit latrine, after warming the water in a bucket over a stove.

"Looking back on it," she said, "it was pretty amazing what the people go through to put food on the table."

"The roads were awful," she added. "that was the most memorable part."

"If I learned anything, it was patience. Incredible amounts of patience," she said. "It doesn't matter where you are; everything is slower."

She also adjusted to the hot climate, ("You know you're in Zimbabwe when you're muddy and sweaty and it's just 8 a.m."), to a male-dominated society, and to new food.

The staple food in Zimbabwe is a ground white corn, called Sadza, that Crystal likened to corn meal. They cook sadza until it is thicker than mashed potatoes, and eat it with soup and either chicken or beef. They also ate lots of peanut butter, some homemade, either on bread or in Sadza for breakfast. Crystal liked eating with her hands, saying food tastes better that way.

Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe. Located in the south, the language there uses the different clicking sounds made with the tongue. Harare is in the north of Zimbabwe, where the people speak Shona, which Crystal studied in classes at the university. The official language in Zimbabwe is English.

The group took three courses for the program. They studied the Shona language for three months. For the first month and a half, they took a cultural course about Zimbabwe, and for the next month and a half they took a political and economic course about their host country.

In April, each student was required to do an independent project. Crystal is very interested in race relations, and did her project on the Indian community in Zimbabwe. "I saw a lot of black-white interaction, but I didn't see much Indian interaction. That's why it interested me," she explained.

The Indian community is very tightly knit in Zimbabwe, according to Crystal. People of Indian descent frequently own businesses and it's said that you won't find a poor Indian in the country.

While they do interact in business dealings, socially the Indian community largely keeps to itself. One factor is religion, with the Indian community mainly practicing Islam or Hinduism. Another factor is the lasting impact of the pre-independence period, when blacks, Indians, and whites lived in separate sections of the city.

"The cultures are just so different," said Crystal. "It's just hard, I think, for the children to interact with different people because of their parents."

In doing research for her paper, Crystal had to use newly found patience. Frequently, potential sources would refer her to other people rather than comment. "Research was so slow over there," she said. "It was difficult."

According to Crystal, a psychology and English major, the semester abroad had nothing to do with her major. " I just wanted to go to Africa," she said. "I've always wanted to go to Africa." She wanted to see what it was like, considering that she has ancestors from somewhere on the continent.

Next year, Crystal wants to do her senior honor thesis on being bi-racial in Paynesville, at Coe College, and Zimbabwe.

"I expected that I would be really comfortable," she said, of going to Africa. "I thought I'd just ease into the culture with no glitches. A part of me is here, so I should be comfortable. I should fit."

One place she found acceptance was with her host families. In Harare, she had two parents and five siblings. Both host parents worked in finance, her father for a transportation company and her mother as the financial director for southern Africa for Coca-Cola. Crystal had her own room in their house, which had domestic help and security guards. "That house was one of the nicest houses I've ever been in in my life," said Crystal.

Her family had hosted students before and was very interested in learning about Crystal and her home. "Just hanging out with the kids and getting to know them was a lot of fun," she said, of becoming part of a family halfway around the world.

She also saw poverty in Zimbabwe. "You just wonder how a society can be divided that much, and not very much in the middle," she said. "It's just two ends."

In the rural area she saw people eke out a living from the land. In Harare, she saw sewage running in the street and what she called horrid living conditions. Many people do not have formal employment, and have to work informally to earn a living: market women, artisans and craftmakers, domestic workers, and security guards.

Crystal wants to return to Africa and tour Zimbabwe again, along with Egypt, Tanzania, and South Africa. "I can really see myself working over there," she said. "I love the people and the environment I really grew accustomed to."

"There's so much to be done there that it'd really be interesting and fulfilling," she added.

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