Studying history for a while in Canada is where Zimbabwe native Ruramisai Charumbira began. But eventually she felt that, in order to learn more about American and African history, she would have to come to the United States.
“One of the reasons why I came to the states is because there is a lot of resources for African studies, and also because I was going to be working with a professor that had done quite of bit of work on Africa who I felt would be supportive of my work,” she says. Ms. Charumbira is studying for a PhD in history at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. "I do African History as my primary subject and then I also do American History," she says. "And I focus on Women’s History in particular and African- American History, and then I also do comparative religious history.
The Zimbabwean student says much of this comparative history involves the 19th century, when Europeans and Americans sent missionaries around the world, "and the kind of dynamics that came off, whether people were American or whether they were British or they were Canadian or [from] some other place. So there's a lot of interesting things that I have come to learn as they went all over the world. So in some ways I have been able to study about Africa and to study also about the United States."
When Ms. Charumbira isn't studying, she volunteers on campus at the Afro-American cultural center, where she works on historical data dealing with apartheid in South Africa and civil rights issues in America. "What I did was to put together the archives of the center, which had been there for 35 years," she says, "and I worked with other students as well. What we did was to put together the archives and then send them to the main library...and these were records of how the place was founded, interaction between the students and the president of the university...and also the activities that they were doing…activism against apartheid in then-Rhodesia, in South Africa and also pan-African activities that have been going on, as well as civil rights issues in the United States and in New Haven itself."
The cultural center also began a project to collect oral histories from black Yale alumni. "This is regardless [of] whether they were undergraduate, graduate or professional students," says Ms. Charumbira. "So the idea is to have a collective memory bank about what it was like to be a black student at Yale. The hope is also that the different groups that are also at Yale will be able to do similar projects, and over time we can use this material to do a comparative history of blacks in higher education, for example. I found that to be very exciting and exhausting, but I enjoyed it a lot and did it a lot. I had to quit the project because I needed to start writing my dissertation...but it is still continuing.”
Attending Yale has been both an intellectual and a spiritual experience, Ms. Charumbira says, and also one where American students have been interested in learning about her culture. “It is a very liberal place, and sometimes like all liberal places, the sense is that you are welcome," she says. "I found that people are very willing to learn and sometimes people are just prejudiced or act in different ways because they don’t know differently. So, by being an international student, I found it very exciting and I find that American students are willing to learn about other cultures. The down side of it is that, being African, you are expected to be an encyclopedia of everything African. So sometimes I have to say, ‘Look, that place is larger than the United States. There are so many cultures and so many languages, and I don’t know everything there is to know about the continent.'"
Ms. Charumbira has also joined with other black women in forming a black feminist coalition known as "sister-space." "It is a very informal group," she says. "It is not an official group in any way, but it is a group of black women mostly who meet once a week every Friday and we discuss issues that affect black women -- you know, both in Africa and in the diaspora. So in some ways I have had to find my own spaces, as well, that can sort of nudge my own intellect and also support my own spirit.”
Ruramisai Charumbira says she isn't sure what her future plans will be -- whether she will stay in the United States or go back to Zimbabwe. But, for now, she says her focus is on finishing her studies at Yale University.