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The smiles of Zimbabwe are infectious

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In Zimbabwe’s century old Mbara Township, a child in the bustling Curio Market, Harare’s largest for traditional arts and crafts, begs to have his picture taken. His mother grants permission. His eyes shine as he views himself on my camera’s screen.

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Whizzing by on the bus in the dusty southern rural countryside a woman flashes a big smile as I snap a picture through the windshield.

A young student at the Hartzell School in Mutare takes a break from his chore hoeing kale at the school’s vegetable plot to give me a wave.

These were the facial expressions I encountered as I toured this beautiful land for two weeks, not the quizzical expressions of mild shock when I informed American acquaintances of my travel plans. Of course, I must admit, Zimbabwe was not on the top of my list to be the first African country that I would visit. Like many developing nations, Western press is rarely kind, focusing on political and economic negatives. After all, that’s what makes the evening news. As a cultural and culinary travel writer, an invitation from the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority was all it took, fortunately, to ignore unfounded expressions of caution.

If the future of a nation is in its youth, a visit to two rural schools confirmed the resourceful exuberance of Zimbabwe’s young generation. When in 1898 United Methodist Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell founded the Old Mutare Mission he envisioned “…hundreds of African youth with books in their hands running to school… (and dreamed) of training African teachers to educate Africa’s children.” Over a century later that dream is a reality. On many days during my two-week tour I witnessed lines of youths in fresh clean starched colorful uniforms as early as 6:00 a.m. walking several miles to their school.

At the Hartzell School an enthusiastic fifth grade class crowded around an obviously admired young teacher, Mr. G.T. Zvingowanisei, in a simple classroom whose walls were decorated with homework projects and a blackboard full of science questions that I had to think through before answering. Besides all academic courses being taught, there were projects on such subjects as AIDS, agriculture and cooking. In answering the common question what's your favorite subjects, a group of girls replied math and English without hesitation. An impressive impromptu presentation by the high school’s Journalism Club bodes well for the continuation of a free press in this nation with over three dozen daily newspapers expressing a broad spectrum of views and avidly read.

The self reliance of this first grade through sixth form boarding and day school was evident as students practicing on one of the playing fields seemed unconcerned when the school’s cattle herd passed through. The young student assisting the adult herder was doing his job with enthusiasm. Several fields were devoted to vegetable and fruit gardens full of kale, spinach, tomatoes, green onions, potatoes, oranges, grapefruit and papaya.

Administered by the United Methodist affiliated Africa University, Hartzell School includes a 60 bed hospital and the Fairfield Children’s Home, an orphanage for children as young as infants. Attractive houses fronted by colorful flowerbeds accommodate ten children, a house mother and an assistant. Each has its own kitchen and the houses surround a playground.

The smaller Nechilibi Secondary School in Hwange, western Zimbabwe, was not expecting a visit from international journalists. Students in their maroon and white uniforms were busy at sport, tending to the vegetable garden and avidly learning word processing in the computer lab. A plaque from the Ministry of Education cited Nechilibi for excellence and alongside that was posted the school’s mission statement, student expectations and rigorous curriculum requirements.

Politics, economic woes, natural and man-made disasters flood our daily consciousness. Negative impressions are difficult to shed and they cloud the decision of travelers to explore cultures that they fear may remove them from their comfort zone. Yet this mind set robs the potential visitor of the opportunity to both revel in the diversity of cultural expression and discover the commonality of the human family. Some wise sage said it succinctly in the ancient past, "All people smile in the same language."

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