June 27,2000

Middlebury College Relief Team Returns from Flood-Stricken Mozambique and Zimbabwe

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MIDDLEBURY, Vt.—A team of Middlebury College students returned to campus on Thursday, June 22 following a two-week relief project in flood-stricken Mozambique and Zimbabwe. While in Africa, the volunteers helped with reconstruction and clean-up efforts in areas damaged by the torrential rains that had occurred earlier this year. They were honored at a reception held on the Middlebury College campus on Friday, June 23 where they described their experiences. President John McCardell presented each team member with a citation of commendation in recognition of their participation in the relief effort.

In April, eight students—seniors Mishael Coggeshall-Burr from Walpole, N.H., Sarah Glendon from Windsor, Mass., and Nadezhda Tkachenko from Almaty, Kazakhstan; juniors Peter Dixon, Westport, Mass., and Arvind Ponnambalam, Goldens Bridge, N.Y.; sophomore Suzanne Slarsky, Ayer, Mass.; and first-year students Brian Hoyer, Golden, Colo., and Benjamin Morris, East Lyme, Conn.—were selected by a College committee to form the relief team. Augustus Jordan, assistant professor of psychology at Middlebury, and Kathleen Ready, administrative director of the College’s health center, were also invited to accompany the team to Africa.

An earlier endeavor, "Middlebury-Mozambique Relief Initiative: Race Against Time," was launched this year by Middlebury College senior Negar Ashtari, who took action upon hearing of the plight of the people of flood-stricken Mozambique, a country near her homeland of Botswana in southern Africa. The torrential storms from February through April that saturated the region with rain and three major tropical cyclones that hit Mozambique caused the worst flooding in southern Africa’s recent history. The country struggled to rescue people trapped on rooftops and in trees, and to provide shelter, clean water, and food for hundreds of thousands of its displaced citizens. Concerned about reports that the international community had been slow to respond, Ashtari rallied members of both the Middlebury College and local community in the fundraising effort that contributed thousands of dollars in support of Mozambique’s disaster relief. College President John McCardell praised the Middlebury-Mozambique Initiative, saying, "This is yet another way in which Middlebury students demonstrate their personal commitment to improving the world that lies beyond the College walls." Inspired by the project, McCardell proposed that a volunteer team of students be sent to Mozambique to learn more of the situation there, and to offer physical assistance. "It is with great respect for this exemplary willingness to make a difference that I offered financial backing from the College to send a team to Mozambique," said McCardell.

A selection committee comprised of Ashtari, the college chaplain, a faculty member, and an associate dean of student affairs appointed eight students to the team after considering 67 applicants. "It was no easy decision," said Ashtari. "So many have done amazing volunteer projects all over the world and are enthusiastic to apply themselves to this kind of work. We tried to choose a flexible, culturally sensitive crew who would, above all, know what it means to work together through thick and thin."

Middlebury College Chaplain Laurie Jordan helped set up the trip, and contacted Middlebury alumnus Lee Adkins and his wife Bonnie of Salisbury, Vt., who have jointly served as deputy general secretary of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and have led numerous volunteer groups to countries around the world, including five mission trips to Mozambique in the past decade. They also served as official observers for Mozambique’s 1994 presidential elections. Assisting Jordan as advisors, the Adkins suggested that Africa University in neighboring Zimbabwe be asked to host the Middlebury volunteers in Africa, and to facilitate their entry into Mozambique.

Before departing, the students organized a highly successful campus-wide drive to collect items to take with them: books for Africa University, and clothing for villages in Mozambique. "Despite the potential dangers—including landmines from Mozambique’s 16-year civil war that have been displaced by the floodwaters—the students were optimistic and active in preparing for the trip," said Chaplain Jordan. Team member Brian Hoyer also arranged for their donation of $150 to the Denver-based organization PROJECT CURE to obtain a "care kit" containing $3,000 worth of medical supplies.

Flying from New York City to Harare, Zimbabwe, the volunteers arrived on June 6 at the Africa University (AU) campus in the border city of Mutare. While working alongside AU student and faculty members on repairs at a nearby village high school, the Middlebury team found the social and educational connection with its hosts to be a very important aspect of the trip. "In both Mozambique and Zimbabwe, community leaders such as pastors and teachers would pull me aside and discuss the importance of education for their bright, young students," said team-member Gus Jordan. "AU, now only 10 years old, has much the same mission that Middlebury College did at its inception—Mutare is seeking to invest in its community’s future through education," said Jordan. "I hope that the College will in some way participate with AU in the unfolding of that history."

The team found that sponsorship of local students in their pursuit of educational careers was another way to assist the Zimbabwean communities. In the village of Munyarari, the cost of a high school education is only $35 per year for each student. Many students are nevertheless unable to finish high school for lack of the annual tuition fee. Working with one of the local teachers, team member Suzanne Slarsky coordinated the Middlebury volunteers in the sponsorship of nine Munyarari young people, assuring that the students will have the financial backing to complete their high school educations.

"I was very excited to hear that by contributing as little as $105, we can help a student complete three more years of high school. It’s one of the best $35 a year I can imagine spending," said Slarsky. In addition to the nine students already sponsored by the Middlebury team, Slarsky returned to Middlebury with the names of another 21 students needing tuition support. "We felt confident that we’d find people here in Vermont willing to help sponsor the students," she said. "As important as sponsorship are the cross-cultural relationships which will develop between the Middlebury and Munyirare communities. It’s a way to bridge the ocean between the two, and will benefit both sides enormously," Slarsky added.The Middlebury volunteers then traveled into Mozambique, where they helped with reconstruction and clean-up in the town of Chimoio and other villages in Manica Province. One of the worst hit was the village of Dombe, which the students targeted for the donated clothing and PROJECT CURE medical supplies. With the help of the provincial administrator and a representative from an international volunteer relief organization called Concern Worldwide, the team took the materials to the village clinic for distribution to the people who needed them most. "After we drove the supplies in on a hired bus, we worked with the two nurses and a translator to unpack the medical supplies and to sort the 500 articles of clothing," said team member Brian Hoyer. "It was all used right away, and Dombe still needs even more."

Returning to Zimbabwe where the political climate continued to heat up prior to elections, the Middlebury team reaffirmed ties made at Africa University before flying home to the United States. The group was welcomed back to the Middlebury campus at a reception held in its honor on June 23, and members described some of their experiences to members of the College and local community. Sarah Glendon, a team member who was one of the first students to join the early relief initiative, said, "I continue to find it incredible that our student efforts on campus for Mozambique turned into this opportunity to do hands-on work in southern Africa, but this trip was about far more than physical labor. I now emotionally perceive the world in a very different way." Photographs and a stone carving that depicts the team itself, made by a local artisan in Zimbabwe, were displayed during the reception, and each volunteer received a citation of commendation from the College. For more information or to arrange for an educational sponsorship of a Munyarari student, please contact Middlebury College Chaplain Laurie Jordan, at 802-443-5626.

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