Alumna Petronella Munhenzva sets up foundation to support aspiration in rural Zimbabwe

A recently graduated ODID student has drawn on her own unusual journey – from a small town in rural Zimbabwe to Oxford University – to set up a foundation and write a book to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

Petronella Munhenzva, who completed the MPhil in Development Studies this summer, was born in Gokwe in Northwestern Zimbabwe – a cotton-farming community and one of the country’s least developed areas, where few children aspire to go to university. Her own experience of early education involved walking long distances to attend schools with very basic facilities.

“I have walked five kilometres to school, sat in the classroom without benches or a proper roof, shared a textbook with nine other students to read a passage, or the teacher would copy the entire passage unto the chalkboard,” Petronella recalled. “Because the school couldn’t afford enough brooms, I carried one to school to clean the Blair toilets ... because we didn’t have floor wax, I cleaned the classroom with muchacha leaves to get a nice greenish finish.”

Despite the difficulties of this early environment, and thanks to encouragement in particular form her father, a teacher, she completed secondary school and went on to the University of Zimbabwe, where she studied economics. From there, inspired in part by an outreach event sponsored by the Africa Oxford Initiative and involving academics from ODID, she won a place on the MPhil, supported by a departmental scholarship as well as funding from her college, Corpus Christi.

A recent return visit to Gokwe brought home to her the distance she had travelled and provided the impetus to establish a foundation with the aim of empowering other local young people.

“I went to every school where I had learned, sat in the chairs I had sat in, and spoke with the teachers who had once taught me. Going back there made me appreciate the journey I had been on,” Petronella said. “I am approaching the Petronella Munhenzva Foundation from a position of – what would I have needed growing up in Gokwe? I am not doing it from comfort and pity. I am doing it from a position of holding as many hands in Gokwe as I can. Seven-year-old me didn’t have someone come to her and say, ‘Hey, I was like you 19 years ago, and now I am in Oxford. It gets better!’”

The initial focus for the foundation will be the five schools in Gokwe where Petronella studied; one plan is to identify five students from each school and pay their school fees for a year – at an average cost of $40 a year for each child. She also plans to arrange career guidance sessions and for the distribution of stationery and books.

Among the books will be the one she has written herself, From Gokwe to Oxford: The Girl Who Dared to Dream, which documents her own journey away from Gokwe.

“Consistently I realised that the path to success is not linear; the system around it naturally excludes a particular group of people,” Petronella said. “I then decided to tell my story and motivate kids growing up like me in Africa and anyone in an impossible situation that it is possible for them to achieve their goals and fulfil their dreams, despite their background, their bank balance, or social standing."

Petronella is following this up with a second book, Navigating Access, Race and Class: The Story of a Zimbabwean Girl ln Oxford, which reflects on her experiences here.

”All my life in Zimbabwe I had just been a student and when I arrived in Oxford I became a female black student and I had to navigate issues of race, identity, and class,” Petronella said. “It was an interesting learning curve. I was the only black graduate student at my college, Corpus Christi. This came with many opportunities, and challenges as well, but it was overall a rich experience.”

To find out more about Petronella, the foundation and her books, visit her website.