Sky's no limit for Keene's Khumbula as he reaches for aerospace dreams

·7 min read

Jun. 18—Born in a cornfield in Mabee, Zimbabwe, Samuel Khumbula never dreamed he would come to the United States. The son of the seventh wife of a polygamous patriarch, he grew up poor, sleeping on the ground in a hut alongside some of his 37 siblings.

But last year, after spending his youth striving to find and afford education, Khumbula, now 22, stumbled upon an opportunity to attend Keene State College. A physics major, he just completed his freshman year with a 4.0 GPA.

He was humble and soft-spoken as he recounted his story outside Brewbakers in Keene this week. Still getting used to the affluence of this country, he didn't order a coffee — he said only the rich drink coffee in Zimbabwe, a country where many people must walk miles to get clean water — and talked about adjusting to the idea of doing things, like watching TV or movies, just for fun.

After his mother left him and his two younger brothers, Tanaka and Joshua, when he was 10, Khumbula took over the responsibility of growing and preparing food — mostly sadza, a porridge consisting of cornmeal and water, with relish.

"I had to take care of my brothers and still go to school," Khumbula said. "We sustained ourselves."

Because he was possibly conceived with an illegitimate father, many in Mabee considered Khumbula to be "born on the wrong side of the blanket," he said, and told him he was cursed and would never amount to much.

At school in the small village near the eastern border of the former British colony, he used those harsh words as motivation, rather than discouragement. He achieved the highest possible marks in all four subjects and would go on to develop dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer.

However, that dream did not come all at once. In grade school, Khumbula's teachers told the class they could be whatever they wanted — a pilot or a doctor — but that was in stark contrast to the reality of the rural African village, where the nearest high school was more than 35 kilometers (about 20 miles) away.

Knowing he would have to leave his brothers to pursue an education, Khumbula confided in his teachers that he wanted to attend high school — even though he had neither the means nor the money.

He could not pay for the application, the uniform or a place to live, but at age 15 — after an uncle promised to look after his brothers — he set out on foot to Chisumbanje hoping to attend Takwirira Government High School.

After the long trek there, he met with the headmaster, John Madhuku, who was impressed with his exceptional grades and found a storage room in the school where he could sleep. Madhuku waived the requirement that Khumbula wear a uniform in school and helped him find work in teachers' gardens so he could afford cornmeal to eat.

The roughly two-meter-by-two-meter storage room was stocked with books. So Khumbula spent much of his time reading, starting with Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." He continued to excel in school, particularly in math and science.

While at Takwirira Government High School, he became a junior parliamentarian, which afforded him the opportunity to travel to the capital city of Harare and meet with then-president Robert Mugabe.

In this role, Khumbula reported at the provincial level on a variety of topics — including child marriages, which were common despite being banned by the country's constitution. He said he felt proud of this work and the change he was able to effect in at least two young girls' lives.

Still, a feeling of guilt nagged at him. He had been away from his brothers for years and had no way to communicate with them.

"In Zim when you do not have parents, the older brother has to take care of the younger brothers, but I was not in a position to be able to do that," he said. "I had this mixed feeling that even if I was there in person, there wasn't much of a difference I was going to make, so pursuing education was a better choice."

Soon he transferred to Gaza High School in Chipinge, a school even farther from home where he had more opportunities to study science. To get into the school — still unable to afford the application, tuition or a place to live — he told the administration he was seeking to get sponsored by a non-governmental organization.

Instead, he took to selling bananas. Each night after class he would take a bus to Rusitu Valley to harvest batches of bananas, which he would sell wholesale, not returning until 2 a.m. Making only enough money to afford his $10-a-month rent, he would rise each morning at 6 a.m. for school.

He lived this way for a year, until he was introduced to Connie Littlefield, the director of Project Kuchengetedza Zviwanikwa. PKZ is a non-governmental organization focused on increasing access to water, medical resources, food, school supplies and education in Zimbabwe.

"That was kind of a turning point for me," Khumbula said.

He told Littlefield his story and his dreams to become an aerospace engineer. Inspired by his hard work and perseverance, she found him a place to live rent-free and helped him afford clothes, food and school fees.

"Well we're going to get you to America," he said she told him.

Upon his graduation, she made good on that promise and helped arrange a trip for Khumbula to visit his brothers before leaving his home country. By this time, there was a small high school in Mabee, and he told his brothers to continue their studies.

"I told them when I was in the U.S., I was going to look back and see to it that their lives were going to change in some form," he said. "I told them I was not going to forget about them."

Boarding the plane to the United States in August of last year, Khumbula said he was overcome with emotion. There was sadness, as he recalled all the hard times he had come through, and joy as he saw a world of opportunity before him. He said he cried the whole way.

Today, Khumbula lives in West Keene with Vaughan and Marty Hennum, with whom he connected through Littlefield, and attends Keene State College on a full scholarship. He regularly attends services at The United Church of Christ of Keene in Central Square, which has a partner church in Zimbabwe.

"Samuel is an extraordinary young man," Vaughan Hennum said. "He has unusual grace, he has unusual humility, and we are just really blessed to have him as our quote-unquote surrogate son."

He noted that when Khumbula arrived in the United States he was overwhelmed by the affluence here, such as the plethora of food he encountered when he first visited an Aldi grocery store.

"He brings such a nice clarity about the incredible abundance that this country and its inhabitants enjoy, without being critical," Vaughan Hennum said.

He said Khumbula has shown great generosity and kindness — sending $100 (the equivalent of more than three months' pay) to the headmaster who got him into Takwirira Government High School and helping to purchase school uniforms for other Zimbabwean students.

Marty Hennum, who was born in Zimbabwe to medical missionary parents, noted the opportunity that Keene State has given Khumbula.

"I think that what Keene State College has done for Samuel is really profound," she said. "I think that we should all be really proud to have a school like that in the community."

Still dreaming of becoming an aerospace engineer, Khumbula said he has found the professors at Keene State to be extremely helpful and compassionate. He is closer to achieving his dream than ever. He hopes to eventually transfer to Dartmouth College in Hanover, where there is an undergraduate aerospace program, and pursue a doctoral degree in the field.

Meanwhile, with the money he has made working at the Keene State library, he has helped his brothers — Joshua, who turns 19 this year, and Tanaka, who turns 15 — afford food and attend better schools back home in Zimbabwe. Beginning this month he will also work as a mentor for the college's Upward Bound program, which offers guidance to high-school students on track to be first-generation college students.

He hopes to reunite with his brothers in the future and one day be able to thank all the people who helped him along the way.

"I just miss the people that helped me get here," Khumbula said. "Home is where the people are."

Ryan Spencer can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1412, or rspencer@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @rspencerKS