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Remembering Africa University Visionary John Wesley Z. Kurewa

February 25, 2020

John Kurewa

Rev. Dr. John Wesley Z. Kurewa was a champion for Africa University and a leading voice in its founding. With his passing on Feb. 15, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) has lost a valued member of our higher education family.

Many GBHEM staff worked closely with Kurewa on the planning and launch of Africa University in the 1980s and 1990s. As we mourn his passing and celebrate his legacy, we asked three former staffers and friends of Kurewa to share their memories of this Methodist education giant.

Rev. Dr. Roger Ireson, former GBHEM general secretary

Rev. Dr. Roger Ireson recalled how important Kurewa’s personal educational experience was in shaping Africa University. He explained that Kurewa’s own Methodist education was a story of success that they hoped to offer to more African students through the new university.

When the Africa University Initiative selected the future site of its campus, Kurewa told Ireson that he had once herded cows near the site of the first buildings. Kurewa then attended the United Methodist Hartzell High School in Old Mutare, later earning multiple advanced degrees including one from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

It was at Garrett where Ireson and Kurewa first met as students. When they reunited in the 1980s as part of the Africa University Initiative, Ireson turned to Kurewa to assist GBHEM and the Church as they navigated negotiations with the government in Zimbabwe.

When discussing a possible symbol for the new university, Ireson noted that it was Kurewa who suggested using an acacia tree in the logo. He told Ireson that the tree’s broad shady branches were often community gathering spots in Africa and would be recognizable to students from many different countries.

“The acacia tree captured the whole idea – that Africa University would be a place of hope for the future and a place where many different people could gather,” said Ireson.

Dr. Kenjiro Yamada, former GBHEM associate general secretary for the Division of Higher Education

Dr. Kenjiro Yamada remembers how negotiating for the rights to build Africa University – the first private and independent university in Zimbabwe – was at times an uphill battle. Kurewa was Secretary of the Zimbabwe Parliament at the time and his support and guidance were crucial to the success of the initiative.  

“The negotiation was intense and complicated because there was no law at the time to establish a private and independent university in Zimbabwe,” said Yamada. “Dr. Kurewa had to deal with and went through this difficult situation. During the negotiation, the Zimbabwean minister of higher education was changed five times, which added more complications.”

When the Zimbabwean Government agreed to create a special commission to conduct a feasibility study for the establishment of a private and independent university in Mutare, Yamada and Kurewa worked together to build a powerful case for Africa University.

“One of Dr. Kurewa’s significant contributions was to bring the special commission to Old Mutare Mission to hear the Africa University project,” said Yamada.

Ultimately the plans were approved, and Kurewa became a founding father of the university that now has more than 9,000 graduates across Africa.

 Rev. Dr. Jerome Del Pino, former GBHEM general secretary

“There are a variety of significant initiatives by Dr. Kurewa that contributed substantially to the development of a modern Africa University. However, none, in my view, was more significant than his commitment to be uncompromising regarding the academic rigor of the curriculum and the qualifications of those who were charged to teach it,” said Rev. Dr. Jerome Del Pino.

As the early search for faculty and formation of curriculum began at Africa University, Del Pino recalled how Kurewa was “unrelenting in his pursuit of excellence.”

Kurewa was equally driven to ensure that Africa University was true to its original vision to be an authentically Pan-African University and not simply a replica of western higher education institutions.

“As Vice Chancellor and as a member of the distinguished faculty, Dr. Kurewa labored to articulate and structure a vision of the university that would be not only discernable by Africans from a variety of countries, but also by global United Methodism,” said Del Pino.

Years later, at the tenth anniversary of Africa University’s founding, Del Pino remembered Kurewa’s joy as he spoke of seeing that vision realized.

“Dr. Kurewa reminisced about how, as he pursued his advanced degrees in institutions outside of Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and the African continent, he had longed for an institution like Africa University. He told how he had always struggled with that longing and need for indigenous learning and how he hoped, someday, that he would be able to play a role in such a sorely needed enterprise in Zimbabwe and on the continent of Africa,” said Del Pino. “Thanks be to God Almighty that John Kurewa’s hope and prayer were heard!”

A celebration of life service for Kurewa was held on Feb. 17, 2020 on the Africa University campus. Funeral services and burial took place on Feb. 18, 2020 at the Old Mutare UMC Mission Center.

About GBHEM: The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry embraces the ministry of learning and leadership formation in The United Methodist Church and the Wesleyan tradition; serving Christians around the world who are shaped by a process of intellectual engagement, spiritual and character formation, and leadership development. We cultivate a dynamic culture of call and vocational discernment that encourages lay and clergy leaders to discover, claim and flourish in God’s ministry and mission for the Church, the academy and the world. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @GBHEM.