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

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.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue

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