Transformed by My Three 'Sons'

She never wanted kids. She even wrote an incendiary book about being childless by choice. But when three impoverished African teens wanted to go to college, she discovered she was a Mama Bear after all

By Elinor Burkett
The author with the three young Zimbabweans she helped attend college in the U.S. From left: Goodwell, Energy and Honest.
Photograph: Colby Katz

To help Energy, Honest and Goodwell with their college expenses, click here.

Like anyone who has sent kids off to that anxious first year of college, I steeled myself for panicked e-mails, texts and calls from my freshmen (I had three). When those distress signals didn’t come, I wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or rejected. But I definitely felt confused. If they were having such an easy transition, why was I having such a hard one?

I lay awake at night dogged by the questions college counselors had warned me to stifle: Are they fitting in with their hall mates? Getting enough sleep? Surviving the cafeteria?

When I found myself filling out a form for a Snack Attack basket—as if the only way to ward off starvation would be with chips, gummy bears and chocolate—I realized that my world had tipped dangerously off-kilter. I’d spent my adult life proudly childless by choice. Suddenly, at the age of 65, I was sending junk food to dorm rooms, worrying about grades and lamenting the rising cost of tuition.

A bit of background is in order.

As a nonparent, I was a natural, never speculating about what my own little Rachel or David would have looked like or become. Put bluntly, the thought of having children sparked only one feeling in me: utter lack of interest. For years I assumed this was a transient phase, taking for granted, with neither eagerness nor angst, that my biological clock would eventually sync with those of my friends. I might not even have noticed that mine was ticking to a different rhythm if people hadn’t felt the need to grill me about my childless state. After decades of being hectored, pitied, quizzed and warned about my disinclination to breed, I finally gave up, rather than give in, and declared my independence from the last lingering stereotype about women by writing The Baby Boon, a manifesto for the rights of the childless.

That was that.

Then I met the trio of young men who wouldn’t exactly become my three sons but would just as surely lay claim to my time, my concern, my money and, yes, my reluctant, independent heart. 

In 2005, I accepted a Fulbright professorship and moved from New York to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, a sort of perverse reverse migration from the First to the Third World, comfort to deprivation, calm to chaos. I intended to teach journalism, not bring back three kids in need of higher education. Then again, I also didn’t intend to make a documentary about an Afro-fusion band composed of eight musicians who have disabilities, which is what I wound up doing after I heard their amazing group, Liyana, play at a concert.

During the months of filming, three of the young people—the marimba players, whose typically Zimbabwean first names were Honest, Energy and Goodwell—became my friends, enlivening my days with their biting, self-deprecating humor. Amused by his addiction to shoe shopping even though he cannot walk, Energy Maburutse vamped about being the Imelda Marcos of Africa. Goodwell Nzou, the serious one, on occasion jokingly threatened to remove his wooden leg in the middle of the street and use it to punish rude passersby. And Honest Mupatsi, who has hemophilia, warned his friends not to mess with him too hard, lest he bleed all over them and die at their feet.

They tutored me in isiNdebele slang, taught me how to curse in Shona and led me through the contradictions of their lives in a country that sees people with disabilities as cursed.

Shortly after the film, iThemba, was released internationally, Energy, Goodwell and Honest confided, shyly, that they dreamed of studying in America. It was a wildly quixotic fantasy for these reticent teenagers from tiny villages in one of the poorest countries on the planet. As Energy put it, they were “like three ants dreaming of becoming kings when they’re the smallest animal in the jungle.”

The average ant probably has a better life than the three boys did. When doctors diagnosed Energy with osteogenesis imperfecta—brittle-bone syndrome—and explained that his legs would never hold his weight, his father’s family accused his mother of engaging in witchcraft and demanded that his father divorce her. Honest can walk but only with difficulty, because his father refused to believe he had hemophilia and thus kept him away from essential medical care. Goodwell lost his right leg to a snake bite because he lived in an area so remote, it was two weeks before a doctor at the local clinic was available to see him, even as his leg turned gangrenous.

It was a miracle they’d come as far as they had, since in Zimbabwe few children born with disabilities receive any education at all. Many are hidden away in the huts of parents ashamed of their conditions. Others wander the streets of the capital, Harare, literally tied to relatives who use them as begging bait. Honest and Energy were lucky: Their parents thought they should at least finish primary school. Goodwell, however, faced serious resistance when he pleaded to continue past fifth grade. None of his 21 siblings had, and when Goodwell emerged from the hospital bent on further schooling, one aunt asked, Why spend money on a boy who was now useless?

Determined to prove her wrong, Goodwell persisted until his parents found him a place at a school for the disabled, which is where he met Honest and Energy. The three egged one another on and competed all the way through secondary school. Their blithe disdain for self-pity humbled me, as did their tenacity.

But their longing for something more was chilling; in Zimbabwe, more isn’t really available. Failed government policies have wreaked havoc on the once-prosperous nation. The economy has collapsed, leaving some 90 percent of adults jobless. A cholera epidemic recently killed more than 4,000 people. Life expectancy has fallen and is now among the lowest on earth.

When I met them, Goodwell was limping around with a 20-pound wooden leg as his prosthetic. Honest often returned from visits home barely able to walk, because he constantly ran out of the factor that keeps his blood clotting. And Energy, who uses a wheelchair, couldn’t go to the store, get on a bus or visit any public buildings: Nothing was accessible. Even if their parents had believed in higher education, none of them had the money or the savvy to help launch these boys’ futures.

The afternoon the three admitted they were dreaming of an American education, I looked around the tiny, roach-filled cottage they shared with six other boys while attending high school and imagined their adult lives in Zimbabwe. Goodwell, who’d pulled himself up by his fingernails to master chemistry and calculus, would never work in a serious research laboratory, a goal he’d clung to during the year he spent in the hospital after his amputation; local university labs had neither chemicals nor equipment. Energy, an eloquent young man I’d always imagined as a powerful voice for human rights in Africa, would be stuck back in his village, since no local university was wheelchair accessible. And Honest could forget his dream of learning computer science, because the newest local technology was 20th century.

I didn’t think. I didn’t weigh the options or consult with my husband. There was nothing to consider beyond the simplest of equations: They needed out. I could help pry open the exit door.

I smiled at Goodwell, the bold one who’d pushed them all to dream. “You’re not ants,” I said all too confidently. “If you want to go to university in America, I’ll help make it happen.”

It was a reckless, risky offer to 18-year-old boys who’d only begun learning English five years earlier and often lacked the money for bus fare, much less tuition. I had no special “in” at any university, no friends in high places. All I had was simple faith that if the college admissions committees could glimpse what I did—the intellectual spark and unrelenting drive of these young men—they would open their doors.

I hired a math tutor to prepare them for the mysteries of the SATs. Then, twice a week for five months, I picked them up from school and, after the mandatory snack, tutored them in En-glish and essay writing. (They laughed at the American “need to feed,” as they dubbed it, but happily learned to lick my cake-batter bowls clean.) By the time exam day arrived, they were strong and confident; I, of course, was a wreck.

We spent another five months combing through college catalogs. Big universities or small ones? Could they stand the cold of the Northeast?

Like good Zimbabweans, who seem to have a genetic ability to stand in line for hours without complaint, they were patient as we waited for news. A true New Yorker, I prodded the admissions committees to watch iThemba and listen to the boys’ music.

In April 2011, we celebrated their admission to a range of schools suited to their individual interests. Then the panic set in: Goodwell and Energy received less scholarship money than they needed. The boys asked us for nothing, their pride overwhelming their pain. I looked at my husband, Dennis, who simply nodded his head.

“We’ll sort out the money,” I told them. “Just get ready to leave.”

I persuaded Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education to ask the presidents of the universities for more scholarship money. When Dennis and I returned to New York, where we spend half of each year, I begged not only my friends for contributions but also my local bank, supermarket, area churches, even the garden club. I set up a fund-raising website. I showed my film to pull at heartstrings and sent letters of appeal to every foundation, every rich person, I could find. And I tapped our savings—the gift of a lifetime of childlessness—knowing that I’d have to do it all again the next year, and the next year, and the one after that.

The three arrived in America with one small suitcase apiece. By the time they left my house in the Catskills three weeks later, they had each gained weight, had received repeated lectures about condom use and were staggering under a load of down jackets, boots, irons, bedspreads, towels, dishes, cups and laptops, thanks to the generosity of our friends.

We sent Honest off first, to the University of Kansas, and I fretted about how he’d manage his plane connection in Washington. Energy was next; if all went according to plan, a new electric wheelchair that I’d persuaded a California group to donate would be waiting when he arrived at Lynn University, in Florida. Dennis and I personally delivered Goodwell to Nazareth College, in Rochester, New York, and as we drove away, the immensity of what we, and they, had done crashed down on us. Yes, we worried. We had to. That was part of our new job. We also wept, with joy.

The boys didn’t e-mail, text or call in alarm, because they adapted beautifully. Energy can’t stop smiling as wheelchair-ready ramps lead to doors that open automatically. Goodwell loves his chemistry and calculus classes and laughs at the attempts of the school’s percussion ensemble to master the Shona songs he’s been teaching them. Honest giggles about the “funny gods” he learned about in Greek and Roman mythology; he’s also learned to shout himself hoarse as a proud Kansas Jayhawk.

And me? I’ve traveled, in a compressed period, at an unusually late stage in life, the parental arc from making everything happen to letting it be, from being needed in an urgent and imminent fashion to simply being on standby. As countless moms and dads out there know, it’s a strange transition.

I suspect my three “sons” will remain in my life long past their college years. I didn’t give birth to them, but in a sense I did bring them into the world—the world they now inhabit—and I’m as stuck with them as they are with me. Some might say I’ve finally become a parent. I would just say I’ve been given a gift.

To help Energy, Honest and Goodwell with their college expenses, click here.

Elinor Burkett has reported from and/or taught in Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq and elsewhere. She won a Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar for Music by Prudence, which was also about the band Liyana.

To help Energy, Honest and Goodwell with their college expenses, click here.

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First Published Mon, 2013-02-04 10:15

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