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.”

Originally published in the March 2013 issue

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