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Children play a game in the farm area of Africa University in 2013.  The building in the background was the original building where students gathered for breaks and outdoor dining in 1992.

File photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

Children play a game in the farm area of Africa University in 2013. The building in the background was the original building where students gathered for breaks and outdoor dining in 1992.

Africa University students celebrate their graduation in 2006.

File photo by Andra Stevens, Africa University

Africa University students celebrate their graduation in 2006.

Africa University has an enrollment of 1,415 drawn from 26 countries.

2006 file photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Africa University has an enrollment of 1,415 drawn from 26 countries.

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Africa University keeps dream alive

By Tom Gillem
April 22, 2016 |MUTARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS)

Bishop Marcus Matthews leaped to his feet in joy that Saturday morning in 1988 when the quadrennial General Conference of The United Methodist Church overwhelmingly voted approval of the Africa Initiative, a dream to launch the first-ever United Methodist-related university in Africa.

“It was one of the most powerful moments that I have ever experienced at General Conference,” recalled Matthews, Africa University’s interim board chair and episcopal leader of the Washington-Baltimore Conference. “My jumping up was a way of expressing what I was feeling about Africa University and its possibilities, what we could actually do as a denomination.”

The dreams expressed at the St. Louis General Conference – that the Africa Initiative would bring together United Methodists around the world with a common agenda – became a reality.  Today Africa University boasts 6,200 alumni. Countless people in the worldwide connection have supported AU with their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.     

Bishop Emílio J.M. de Carvalho of Angola, now retired, foretold the initiative’s success when he urged its adoption in 1988. “By creating the university,” he said to the delegation, “The United Methodist Church can assume a new role in helping African societies to move into the future and by engaging itself in the battle for the humanization of the African women and men.”

The pan-African higher education experience that AU provides has developed principled leaders with networks, skills, values and personal attributes to serve and transform their communities. Among them is Walter Suza, a Tanzanian who earned an agriculture degree at Africa University in 1996. Suza oversees a multi-country effort to train a new generation of plant breeders, as a sustainable solution to food insecurity in Africa.

“AU gave me a great education, a family and a wonderful life in a country far away from home,” said Suza. “Today, I see how special AU has been and will always be to the African continent.”

AU's current enrolment of 1,415 students, more than half of whom are women, come from 26 African countries. They choose among undergraduate and graduate degree programs in agriculture and natural resources, education, health sciences, humanities and social sciences, management and administration, peace leadership and governance and theology.

Over the years, United Methodists have provided financial support through the Africa University Fund apportionment and World Service Special Gifts, bearing testimony to the high regard for AU within the connection. Local congregations in the United States invested more than $2.1 million in the Africa University Fund in 2015. Support for the fund apportionment among annual conferences continued to increase, with 32 conferences investing 100 percent or more of their asking.

‘Nothing less than incredible’

In the South Central Jurisdiction, Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas is including AU in its centenary celebration fundraising campaign. “I've always thought that Africa University was one of the treasures of our church in terms of relationship,” said the Rev. Paul Rasmussen, senior pastor, “but also one of the well-kept secrets. What most people don't know is that we've had lay leadership on the ground at AU helping out since its inception in 1988.”

Laywoman Ruth Ellen Stone, coordinator of Friends of Africa University in the Indiana Conference, said small-membership churches could participate in direct student scholarship support. By doing so, they not only see the importance of their financial gift, but also have a personal connection with the student they support. “An annual conference and the local churches it serves benefit as they support Africa University by having the opportunity to be a part of such an important initiative,” Stone said. “It is always good to be connected to something successful.”

Franklin First United Methodist Church in the Tennessee Conference has enjoyed a long relationship with AU through its sponsorship of individual students, said the Rev. Lynn Hill, senior pastor. “It is nothing less than incredible. We get to know our students, follow their progress at AU and celebrate their accomplishments, which has always included their graduation,” he said. “Because of this personal involvement with AU, the financial support has continued undiminished for several years.”

Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño of the California-Pacific Conference called AU “an investment in God’s preferred future for Africa and … the world. 

“Amidst ongoing struggles due to long historic economic injustice, transformation is coming to the continent of Africa, and Africa University is a vital part of that transformation,” she said. “We are seeing great faithfulness and fruitfulness as Africa University’s graduates become the leaders of this great continent. I pray that The United Methodist Church around the world will continue to support Africa University.”

Editor’s note: Africa University’s 25th anniversary celebrations will take place March 22-26, 2017, in Mutare, Zimbabwe. For more information, write to audevoffice@gbhem.org or telephone 615-340-7438.

Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, newsdesk@umcom.org or 615-742-5469.