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Growing Up Zim: An Interview with Two International Students


When Maakwe Cumanzala, ‘19 walked into the room, the first thing she did was give Renee Rietz, ‘17, a big hug.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” Maakwe said, and Renee agreed.

Maakwe Cumanzala (Mah-kway Choo-man-zala) and Renee Rietz (Ren-ay Reetz), both students here at St. Kate’s, share many things in common. They both have a love of spending time with family and friends. They’re both boisterous, love to laugh and make other people smile. Both of them are focused on their studies--Renee as a Dietetics Major, and Maakwe as a Math/Economics Double Major--and want to use their education to help make a difference in people’s lives.

One thing both women also have in common is this: they are both from Zimbabwe, a country near the southern tip of Africa. Renee spent her whole life in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, while Maakwe grew up in Harare but is originally from Binga, a small town about 12-16 hours (driving) west of Harare. Both women have been at St. Kate’s since 2015; Renee transferring in for the Spring 2015 semester, and Maakwe joining for the Fall 2015 semester.

Before this interview was set up, the girls knew of each other, but had not officially met. I met each of them separately last school year, and I wanted to introduce the two of them and have them talk together about growing up in Zimbabwe, coming to St. Kate’s, and anything else that they wanted to talk about. Even without prompting, they had plenty to say!  

Renee is Deaf, so ASL interpreters were also present at our interview to make sure communication was clear for all of us.

What do you miss most about Zimbabwe?

Maakwe: Food!

Renee: Yes, same, the food!

It came up again and again throughout our interview--Renee and Maakwe miss the food from Zimbabwe! Among the many foods the girls miss most is a meat snack called “Biltong”. Though they said it’s similar to beef jerky, both girls assured me that Biltong is much, much tastier.

What is something about Zimbabwe that you are really proud of?

Renee: I’m proud of our fresh meat! And the “Braai” [rhymes with “eye”] culture. I really enjoy that too. Everyone has friends over at their house, and here you just don’t see that as much.

Maakwe: Yeah. [Braai] is equivalent to a barbecue here. I think I’m most proud of the hospitality--that everyone is just so welcoming and caring

Renee: Very friendly

Maakwe: Yeah, and you can always find someone to help you when you need.

Renee: When I had first come to America, I met people that have been to dozens of different countries, and I was so proud that they always said “Wow, Zimbabwe, you guys are so friendly and welcoming,” Guards say hello when you park and everyone is so helpful.

Maakwe: Yeah, I think we have the friendliest people and the happiest people, even though we have problems.

Renee: Right, yeah, you know sometimes, we’re so persevering. Even if things don’t work out as planned, we’ll still figure out a new plan, and even if things don’t work, we’ll still get through it regardless.

Maakwe: And perseverance, like what you’re saying, that is a big part of being Zimbabwean--you go through a lot and you need to be strong. And I think everyone in the country is very strong because of everything we've been through.

Renee: I’m really proud that we have the ability to see things through and stay strong through the tough times.

Maakwe and Renee also shared with me a little bit about Zimbabwe’s recent history and current events, including their own experiences during the major issues with Zim currency and hyperinflation that happened in 2007-2008. I’d encourage anyone who is curious to go and read up on Zim history and current events--It’s so interesting!

What is something you wish everyone knew about Zimbabwe?  

Renee: I wish that people understood more about the history of Zimbabwe and how, a long time ago, there were different tribes. And how English people came to Zimbabwe as well and helped to establish the cities there. And I wish people had a better understanding of how some people are more [culturally] influenced by the English and some are more traditional and follow more of the tribal traditions and culture.

Maakwe: Yeah. I guess something along those lines also: we have 14 official languages. So like what she was saying about the different tribes. We don’t just have one language and different dialects, it’s actually all different languages, and that’s really cool.

Along the lines of languages, both Renee and Maakwe would consider English their first language. However, Renee is also fluent in American Sign Language, while Maakwe speaks seven languages total.

How do people react when they find out you’re from Zimbabwe?

Renee: Well, for me, people typically say “Oh, I thought you were American,” and I’m like “Nope, I’m from Zimbabwe,”. It’s the same everywhere--there are different kinds of people in both places. People have been moving to and from different countries for hundreds of years. Zimbabwe is similar to America in that way. A long time ago, British people immigrated to Zimbabwe. People are always migrating everywhere.

Maakwe: It’s really weird, actually. People from East African or West African countries or other places in Africa tend to not know where Zimbabwe is, they sometimes don’t even know that Zimbabwe is in Africa, and I have to be like “Yeah, it’s in Africa,”. With Americans too, most of them don’t know where Zimbabwe is, and I have to tell them “It’s above South Africa, next to Mozambique and Botswana and Zambia,”

Renee: Yeah, I have to do that too.

Maakwe: Yeah, and even when it’s other Zimbabweans, they think that I’m Shona [a tribe in Zimbabwe] when I’m not Shona, and I have to explain that I’m Tonga. So yeah, it’s always explanation after explanation.

We went on to talk about how Africa is a huge continent! There are 54 recognized countries in Africa, each with its own history, languages, stories, and experiences. Maakwe shared with me that even growing up in Africa, they don’t always learn about all the other countries’ histories. She said, “I didn’t know about Somalia or Ethiopia. I knew about Nigeria because of the movies, and Ghana because it’s right there, and Kenya because of the athletes. But you know, there are so many other countries though. Some countries, people will say and I’m like “That’s in Africa?” because it’s so north or east or west, and we don’t really learn about that in school. We only really learn about the other southern countries. I can tell you about Zim history, or South Africa, or America or European and British history, but I can’t really tell you much about, I don’t know, Angolan history. 

“Exactly,” Renee had chipped in, “It’s funny, because people imagine Africa as one big place. But it’s actually, you know, 54 different countries. We don’t even know everything about our own continent, but everyone always just assumes Africa is one country and everyone there knows everything about it,”

How did you first find out about St. Kate’s, and what drew you to come to school here?

Maakwe and Renee both found out about St. Kate’s through a program called the United States Educational Advising Center, a program run through the US Embassy in Zimbabwe. They help connect students to colleges, go through the application process, connect them with the resources to get student visas, scholarships for international students, and more.

Renee found out about St. Kate’s when she was first applying the schools, but chose to first attend Ohlone Community College, in Fremont, California, where there was a large population of Deaf students--something she’d never experienced before. Later, after deciding that she wanted to become a dietitian, Renee transferred to St. Kate’s get her degree in Dietetics.

Maakwe also found out about St. Kate’s while applying for colleges. She loved the mission of St. Kate’s and that it was a Catholic, women’s university. Her parents also wanted her to attend a Women’s university, and Maakwe and Renee agreed that they enjoy the all-women’s aspect of St. Kate’s, as well as the safe and comfortable feel of the campus.

What was your first impression of America?

Renee: Starbucks! I remember I thought “Famous people go to Starbucks, so I’m going to go to Starbucks and get coffee. That’s the first thing I remember from when I got here.

Maakwe: My host mom would tell this story: When I first came to America, we went to Target. We have shops in Zim, we have big shops, but here we went to SuperTarget. It was so big, and there were too many options! My host mom was taking me to buy pillows and bed stuff, and she was like “What kind of pillow do you like?” and I said “One that I can sleep on??” and she asked “No, there are soft pillows, hard pillows, big ones, small ones…” and I was like “I just need a pillow!” There were so many options to choose from!

I’d encourage anyone curious about Zimbabwe to not only educate themselves, but ask questions of the people who have been there and who are from there. As with any country or culture, it’s impossible to read a little and know everything there is to know, and also impossible to judge an entire place or people based on one or two personal experiences. Maakwe and Renee not only taught me more about their experiences, but also encouraged me to visit Zimbabwe myself. It must be their world-famous Zimbabwe hospitality speaking, because they said that I, and anyone who wants to visit, are always welcome.

Special thanks to Maakwe Cumanzala and Renee Rietz, Interpreters Nina and Alicia, and Ellen Wallingford.

Natalie Nation is a second-year Dietetics major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. She enjoys swing dancing, Netflix, American Sign Language, and the color purple. Natalie has her own food and recipe blog at cutecollegecook.com.
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