As a stamp collector at 10 years old, I faithfully walked downtown to the YMCA stamp club every Saturday morning — my world stamp book tucked under my arm.
My brother, Jeff, with his boring old USA stamp book, made fun of me because I loved my brightly-colored, sometimes exotic, African stamps and their foreign and faraway-sounding names: Abyssinia, Tanganyika, Bechuanaland, Gold Coast, Nyasaland, Somaliland, Upper Volta, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia.
England was trying to be the ruler of the world. A lot of the stamps had pictures of King George VI mixed in with African warriors and wild animals. Not much later the new young queen, Elizabeth, was added to the bright colors and exotica.
A new song, amazingly enough, was gaining popularity at that exact time in 1948. It seemed to voice my sentiments:
“Faraway places with their strange-sounding names,
faraway over the seas,
those faraway places with their strange-sounding names
are calling, calling me …”.
The call of world travel, however faint, was sounding in my heart.
Much later I found out that, from the 1960s on, as African nations gained their independence, they chose new names. Abyssinia became Ethiopia; Tanganyika was now Tanzania; Bechuanaland became Botswana; Gold Coast became Ghana; Nyasaland became Malawi; Somaliland became Somalia; Upper Volta became Burkina Faso; Northeren Rhodesia became Zambia; and Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
We never studied Africa in fifth grade, or any other grade. My knowledge of Zimbabwe came from being a United Methodist minister promoting the founding of Africa University in Zimbabwe — a college for students from all over Africa. Zimbabwe’s United Methodist bishop, Abel Muzorewa, was an inspiration to us all — a staunch supporter of Black self-rule and national pride. Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980.
In 2013, 65 years after my stamp club days, I finally set foot in southern Africa — Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe — on safari. I was especially excited about Zimbabwe.
Robert Mugabe, once a darling of African liberation, had become a miserable dictator who had left the Zimbabwean people in extreme poverty. Our small travel group stopped at a little grocery store with almost empty shelves. We were about to visit a communal homestead housing some 20 families, who were living on very little. We spent $18 at the store to buy them hand soap, washing soap, tea, salt, rice, cooking oil, biscuits, bread and juice.
Later we spent time with sixth graders at St. Mary’s School, girls so thin they were suffering from malnutrition. Overseas Adventure Travel, our travel group, was trying to arrange for them to have a hot breakfast each morning. We succeeded!
Back at our safari camp, we could see that our Zimbabwean hospitality staff were very proud of their country and their work at the camp, even though they were heartsick at the way most of their fellow citizens were treated. Their national bird, the fish eagle, is for them a beloved symbol of freedom and new life — their fervent hope for Zimbabwe.
On our last evening, the staff joined hands around the campfire with us to sing the African national anthem. Their love for their poor, battered country shone in their eyes.
It had taken me 30 years post-stamp club before I learned even a little about Zimbabwe. It had taken me 35 more years until I finally stepped on southern African soil. That night around a safari campfire, I cried for Zimbabwe.