enyika’s life of overcoming adversity mirrors that of his home country.
“The word ‘Zimbabwe’ translated means ‘The House of Stone,’” Wenyika said. “Which is prophetic, symbolic, and emblematic for what the country has gone through. Very few countries would still be surviving today.”
Wenyika, president of Ottawa University, was the featured speaker for this year’s second annual Cultural Breakfast, hosted Thursday morning at the Ottawa Memorial Auditorium. The annual event is a partnership between the OMA, the City of Ottawa, and Ottawa University. Wenyika took attendees on a wide ranging cultural tour of his homeland, holding the audience’s attention despite a rogue bat flying around the auditorium.
“Back home, this bat might end up in someone’s cooking pot,” Wenyika joked.
Wenyika began by illustrating the complex, embattled nature of the Zimbabwae’s recent history. The country was organized into sophisticated monarchies until recent history, when the seeds of Anglo-Saxon colonization began to slowly taking root after the first Catholic missionaries visited the country in the 1500s.
“In the 1800s the British started colonizing the country. There was some resistance,” Wenyika explained. “The person who led the resistance in the 1800s was a woman named Nehanda [Charwe Nyakasikana]. She gave a prophecy in the 1850s that ‘The day was coming when men with no knees were going to invade the land.’
“They had never seen anybody wearing long pants, and so she had this vision of people wearing long pants, and the only description she could give was men with no knees coming to take our land.”
The systematic oppression and even elimination of peoples native to Zimbabwe by the British government continued for many decades. Adding another layer of complexity to the situation were longstanding tensions between the local Shona and Ndebele tribes, a conflict that holds deep personal significance for Wenyika; Wenyika is of the Shona tribe and his wife, Dr. Bongi Wenyika, is of the Ndebele tribe.
“So when it was time to get married, it did cause me quite a bit of trouble,” he said. “I was pretty much told by some of my wife’s people, ‘We don’t like you,’ and my own people said “What are you doing?’”
The situation was not without its humor, though.
“It was difficult for me to explain. The first time I saw her, I thought, ‘This woman needs a good man.’ So I moved quick before she found one,” Wenyika said, to laughter from event attendees.
Picking back up the thread of Zimbabwe’s history, Wenyika detailed how the country came to be known as Rhodesia under the devastating ruling practices of the white-minority government, and how things eventually culminated in a war for independence during the latter half of the 20th century.
Then, in 1980, the country secured independence.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Wenyika said. “I was coming back from school, everyone is celebrating, and on the eve of independence Zimbabwe’s currency was the strongest in the world. It took four American dollars to buy one of our dollars.”
After enjoying a brief but vivid period of prosperity, the country’s economy tanked due in large part to land redistribution and economic restructuring efforts in the 1990s, and is today still in the process of building toward stability and prosperity.
Wenyika ended his talk with a call to empathy toward people of other nations.
“You see a country like [Zimbabwe], and most of the people you will never meet, except for people who make it out, people who have connections,” Wenyika said. “I made it out -- I was influenced, I was invited out, I had someone who believed in me.”
“Most of the people like me that you will see, we are not representative of the true picture of Africa. Right now, the country is struggling. The economy is not doing well, there were elections last year that were not peaceful – there’s still a lot of turmoil. There are now sanctions against Zimbabwe. This is not a political speech, but the people who suffer the most are people on the street. You can’t get foodstuffs, you can’t get currency.”
Wenyika said Zimbabwe’s plight puts life in the United States in perspective.
“We are blessed to live in the most blessed country in the world,” he said. “I don’t care for anyone who criticizes this country. This is still one of the best places to live, period. Millions of people line up on a daily basis at embassies around the world, trying to get here. We are blessed. I would take Donald Trump fifty-times over before I would take most rulers from other countries. We are blessed, and with those blessings come responsibility.”
And Ottawa, in Wenyika’s view, rises to the occasion.
“In this community of Ottawa, you are very good at looking outside,” Wenyika said. “I’ve come to a city that sends people to India, that sends people to China. You are reaching out to people all over the world. I have nicknamed this city ‘The warm heart of Kansas.’ I want to see us continue to be that, to be seen as an oasis of acceptance and love, so that people can say ‘When all else fails, I know where you can get help and encouragement – it’s a place called Ottawa.’”