Interviewed January 29 and February 8, 2021. Interview edited for clarity and length.
Lisa Ndlovu (un-jlo-voo), 28, is a PRUMC Program Administrator for evangelism, hospitality, adult education and pastoral care. She has seen more than most of us and experienced opportunity and challenge. After hearing just a bit of her story during a recent presentation to PRUMC’s Seasoned Saints, we wanted to learn more about the determination, resiliency and love of home (old and new) shown by her experiences.
In your presentation you talked about coming to America when you were young. Will you tell us more about that?
Zimbabwe is a beautiful south-African country, rich in resources and natural wonders, and I enjoyed a fortunate childhood there. But our country started to unwind. The once-beloved activist and leader, Robert Mugabe, had become a dictator. He had been our first president (following British colonization), back in 1980, but he just never left office. He kept overruling the elections and staying in power and getting more and more power-hungry. The people suffered greatly, and then in the early 2000s the country’s economic downfall began.
So in 2002 my mother decided to go to the United States. Her side of our family had already migrated in the 1990s, after her father, a reverend in the AME church, was inspired by missionaries to go to the U.S. to attend Bible school. He later brought over some of his children and their families. My mother didn’t come initially, though we all visited a few times. When she did come, in 2002, she came on her own and spent two years preparing for the rest of us to join her. It was a long process, including raising money for our tickets, and she worked around the clock. My sister and brother and I came over in 2004, when my sister was almost 16, I was 12 and my brother was 6.
This time felt overwhelming. Firstly, since my mom’s parents and siblings had been in the U.S. for a long time, I was used to her going away to visit them every so often. But this time when my mom left, she was gone for two whole years. In the meantime Zimbabwe was just getting worse and worse. The stores ran out of supplies. There were long queues for petrol. Things just took a horrible turn, life was no longer the same as it had been, and I missed my mom a lot.
Then when my siblings and I came here in 2004, we didn’t know we were staying. My mom explained after we got here: she’d had a hard time getting my dad to agree, there was still a chance he might not come (he did not), and we had the option to go back if we didn’t want to stay. I immediately chose to stay and leave everything I knew behind. When my mom says something, she means it. When she says she’s not going back, I believe her. And I wanted to be wherever she was. My sister, though, chose to go back. She was almost through with high school, so it was harder for her to let go of life as she knew it.
Twelve is a difficult age for girls. What was that transition like for you?
The transition between school there and school here was hard, but not in terms of education. The public school I went to here had to test me to see where I best fit based on ability, and I tested in the 10th grade for math, English, science, pretty much the whole thing. But the powers-that-be decided that I need to get “acclimated”, so they put me with my age mates, in 7th grade. That meant I didn’t start learning any new material, except American History and the imperial (or measurement) system, until 11th grade.
And then there was my “Queen’s English”. Because Zimbabwe had been a British-colonized country in the past, English was an official language in addition to our native languages, Ndebele and Shona. I was a fluent English speaker when I came here, yet in English class I got my first C ever in my life on an essay. You have to understand that in my previous school and for me, a C was disgraceful! When I spoke to my teacher, she said the issue was my British spelling. “Center does not end with ‘r-e’, and program does not have an extra ‘m’ and ‘e’ at the end,” she said. During English class, she would ask us to read out loud and I would always volunteer because I loved to read. But when I read, the teacher would allow the other students to correct every word I said so that the words would sound American. By the time I went to college, no one would guess that I was from another country. Looking back, I see that they were bent on changing my accent so that I could “fit in”, but I have to say this was harsh.
The biggest challenge, though, was the social difference. Back home the most popular kid was always the smartest kid. It was a competition to be first in your class. At the end of the school year they’d announce who was first in the class, who was second, who was third, and so on. Here, the smart kids were considered nerds or dorks, and the popular kids were the ones who were not great students, who weren’t respectful, who wore the best clothes. I remember the first time I saw a student sleeping in class while a teacher was teaching at the board. It blew my mind. And if a teacher woke that student up, that student would talk back! In Zimbabwe, that would not happen. The school system there is most like the Catholic school system here. I was not used to misbehavior. You never spoke back to an adult.
Some people reading this will not recognize your married name; they’ve known you as Lisa Huni. Is your husband also from Zimbabwe? How did you meet?
Yes, he is Zim [their community’s shortened term for people and things related to Zimbabwe] and came here in the same year I did. There is a Zim community here in Atlanta, and our mothers had already become friends. We met when his mom invited my mom to a church gathering at her home. He and I became fast friends right away and later began dating. We were each other’s prom date in ’08 and ’10. His name is Mbongeni (mbon-gay-nee), but he goes by Bo here. He’s two years older than me and also proud to be from Zimbabwe.
What about your wedding? Did you hold it here? Did the ceremony have traditions from Zimbabwe?
Traditionally in Zimbabwe, women are pretty much raised to marry and have children. Even if you graduate from a doctoral program, the first question you’ll be asked is “When are you going to get married?”! Weddings are a very big deal for my people!
First, we have a dowry, or “bride price”, as part of the wedding process. It’s called Lobola or Roora. The main goal is to build family relations. The groom’s family will negotiate with the bride’s family until they get the price agreed. This must start before you get married, so Bo’s family and my family had negotiations about what my bride price is going to be, and my dad is the one who negotiated. Under the tradition, he can ask for cash, cash in combination with something else, livestock (could be cattle, goats, chickens, whatever), groceries (such as sugar and maize meal), or gifts like a new suit or cellphone or watch.
The bride price is never meant to be paid in full, because that would mean you have bought the daughter and that’s not the idea. The idea is to make agreement. It’s meant to show respect to my dad, the father of the bride, in appreciation for raising me. And it’s supposed to join the families together and show a commitment that says, “Yes, we accept your daughter, and we will take care of her.”
In our Ndebele traditional ceremony, Zulu attire is worn and the groom wears animal skin. The event takes place at the groom’s family home, and the bride’s family escorts her there in a “family walk” over a distance. Here in America, we start the walk at the end of the street where his house is. While the bride’s family is walking and the groom’s family is waiting outside, everyone in both families is singing traditional chants. The bride’s side may chant, “Open the gates,” and the groom’s side may chant, “We agree to accept the bride.” Or the groom’s side in humor may sing, “We have taken her from darkness and brought her to light!” The bride’s family then goes in to cook and celebrate. Traditionally the bride has her head down, very humble and shy.
I married in March 2019, and we had a small “white wedding” as you would call it (because the bride wears a white dress) at Bo’s childhood church, Riverdale First UMC, followed by a small traditional ceremony. We did things that way because we weren’t yet able to have all of our relatives travel to the U.S. for the wedding and we had been planning for them to come later to a large traditional celebration on our dating anniversary in April 2020. But of course COVID stopped that. Along with our family here, Bo and I have family in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Australia, the U.K., Germany and Canada, and we want everyone to come. So everything has been pushed back, and now we don’t know when that’s going to be.
You’ve mentioned the Zim community a few times. What is that like, and how has it helped you make a life here?
What I found surprising about coming to the United States was that there’s actually a large Zim community across the country and here in Atlanta. My mother took us to church on Sunday, to the Zim church called Pilgrims Community Church, where we could fellowship and sing common hymns in our native tongue. The children there were some of my first friends, and we are still friends today. We have a soccer team, and it is a huge deal to go and watch Zim-ATL play. I can proudly say that Bo was a star player on the team, and I enjoyed supporting him in the stands! We also have a large annual event called the Zim Expo, where Zim communities from across the country gather and hold what’s basically a super-large family reunion. There’s a soccer tournament and a pageant, and vendors sell goods so we can help support one another’s businesses. It’s held in different cities each year, and Atlanta has hosted a few times. The Zim community in the U.S. has been my home away from home.
Have you gone back to Zimbabwe for a visit?
Though my mother and brother have gone back to visit, I’ve never been back in the 16 years since I left, and I haven’t seen my sister or my father in that time. They were supposed to come here last year for the large wedding celebration we had to postpone. Because of the state of Zimbabwe, several members of my extended family have migrated to other countries. Those left are being held afloat by family members abroad. I would like to go for a visit. The main reason I wish to go is to see my people. I have so many fond memories from growing up in Zimbabwe. I miss the community of neighbors. Though our homes were separated by walls, neighbors were like family and you could freely visit and fellowship with them. I miss picking fruit in our backyard, or in anyone’s backyard. (Paying for produce still pains me a little!) I miss the infectious joy we had regardless of our circumstances. I do have pride to be from Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, so much has changed. A part of me is afraid to go back. We’ve had political unrest. Hyperinflation. Everything that I knew is no longer the same. I look forward to visiting my home country someday, but my life is here now, in this country. This is what I know.
Do you have thoughts about how all parts of our society could perhaps look toward greater acceptance?
In America I’ve experienced those who are accepting of new people coming here and those who are not, and I’ve seen the same with people in the Zim community – those who are resentful because of the way they’re sometimes treated here and those who are not. I’ve been thinking recently about how my mom and I have normalized me ordering for her in restaurants, because the service is sometimes different after people hear her thicker accent. She speaks excellent English, so why do we do that? Why can we all not be more accepting instead of staying so comfortably on one side or the other?
I’m grateful that the country has tried to eradicate this “alien” term. We are all people. We have common goals to live the American dream. It’s easier to treat people differently when we don’t see them as people, when we see them as a number that we think is causing us trouble. Americans understandably talk with pride about being distant descendants of people who traveled here, how their great-grandparents came from Italy or Ireland or Greece. I am the same; I just have a more direct connection to my ancestry. This place is a big melting pot, as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. We are all people. It is what makes America beautiful.