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Williamson Chitiyo was over 9,000 miles from home when he died in July.
A nurturer, educator and member of his country’s main political opposition party, Chitiyo came to the US from his native Zimbabwe after retiring in 2013, fleeing a major economic downturn that left his retirement all but worthless. Now that he has passed, his family wants to send him home, but the expense is so great they cannot shoulder it alone.
Chitiyo’s story begins in Mutare, Zimbabwe, where he was born. He was the eldest son, the second of 10 children. His father passed away when he was in his early 20’s.
“He had to take up the mantle of taking care of the younger siblings because my grandma was a stay at home wife,” said Tariro Chitiyo, his daughter. “He went into teacher training, and he became a teacher. It was one of the professions that would enable him to take care of his mom financially. He put his younger siblings through school.”
He met his wife, Tariro’s mother, in training.
He taught geography and history in high school, then became a principal, and later an administration at the University of Zimbabwe in the capital city, Harare, where their four children were born.
At the university, he worked directly with students as the go-between between them and the school.
“They seemed to love him, because they all just ended up converging in his office,” Tariro said. “I’d sometimes go there on Friday afternoons, and my dad would be sitting there with a bunch of students and they’d be talking. They were so comfortable with him.”
She describes her father as a nurturer, a problem-solver.
“He was a nurturer. You could always go to him, regardless of who you were. You could always go to him with whatever problems you had, and he always would find a way to come up with a solution for that,” Tariro said.
She recalled a particular instance with her father that she thinks of when she gets into trouble.
“My dad always told me, whatever the boys can do, you can do, too. That meant I would go climbing trees. We used to play on the roof of our garage. We had this huge tree that was right next to the roof of the garage. … It was a really sturdy tree, and the branches went on top of the garage. We would climb it … I would play for hours with my brothers up there” she said.
One day, when she was about five years old, she got stuck up there. Her brothers had climbed down the tree and left her.
“I couldn’t get down, and I started crying … My dad came out and he was like ‘I’m not going to tell you to jump. I could tell you to jump and I’ll catch you, but … you need to figure it out’ … He told me ‘If you remember how you got up there, you’ll know how to get down.’”
When she gets into trouble now, she remembers his words.
“Whenever (I) get into trouble, I always try to retrace my steps. How did I get myself into this, and if I got myself into this, I can get myself out of it,” she said.
Life in the Chitiyo family – and in families all across Zimbabwe – got harder after 2008.
“Zimbabwe went through a really tumultuous economic slump around 2007, 2008. (It) wiped out everyone’s retirement plans, so all the retirement money went down the drain. It went from being worth a whole lot to being worth nothing,” Tariro said.
Her father was set to retire in 2013, but was worried the family wouldn’t be able to live off his retirement package, now worth little to nothing.
One of Tariro’s brothers, who had moved to London because of the collapsing economy and large unemployment rate, called their father one day to tell him about a potential way out of Zimbabwe.
“He called one day and was like ‘You know, one of my friends forwarded a green card lottery system thing, so just send me your pictures and you never know,'” Tariro recalled. “It’s like a draw, put your name in a hat and whoever’s name gets picked, and my dad’s name got picked.”
At first, she said, her father didn’t know what it meant.
“He just didn’t get it. ‘What’s the excitement about it? What am I going to go to America and do in my old age?'” Tariro remembered him saying.
Her brother, however, was excited.
“My brother explained this is a green card,” Tariro said. “(He told him) ‘You could go and work if you wanted to. At the same time, you could go visit your family (because he’s got a cousin that lives in Minnesota). Visit with him and see whether you like it or not, and if you don’t, you can always come back home, and we’ll pick it up from there.'”
So when he retired, he left Zimbabwe for the US.
“As painful as it is, it’s either you stay and you die, or you move and try to make it the best way you can,” Tariro said. “For him to move after retiring … someone who’s lived in a country for all their life, for them to then pick up and leave after they retired because they can’t see how they were going to survive … it was heartbreaking. ”
He couldn’t get a job at a university, and he ended up working as a sales associate at Walmart.
“Although it was frustrating, he was always happy. He didn’t let it get him down. He’d be like, ‘Okay, yes I’m disappointed, but life goes on,” Tariro said.
He found his way back to education, albeit not in the capacity he was used to, but as a substitute teacher.
“One of his friends at work was like you should be teaching because I think everyone noticed this man is too educated to be working at Walmart,” Tariro said. “He would work nights at Walmart and come back home, finish work at 7 (am) and be at his substitute teaching job at about 8 (am) or depending on what time his assignments were… sometimes the assignments would be a couple of hours or they would be throughout the day. He would get back home and try to get some sleep from 4 pm and wake up and go to work at 10 pm, so that was really strenuous on him.”
During his time in Dickinson, he was active in the local Zimbabwean community, where he met his friend Tawanda Dzvokora.
“He told me his life story. We kind of connected because he was a teacher … I also was a teacher in Zimbabwe,” Dzvokora said.
They shared something else, too – they were both members of the main opposition party in Zimbabwe – Movement for Democratic Change- and they were involved in their country’s politics even while in the US.
Dzvokora said when he heard Chitiyo’s stories of activism in Zimbabwe, he was excited and looked to him for advice.
“He was an advisor. He was like a father to me,” Dzvokora said. “He would sit down and then tell me ‘If you want to get this done, please do the things this way and that way. That’s how we used to do it back home in Zimbabwe.'”
Activism was common with teachers.
“If you are a teacher in Zimbabwe, you are an agent of change, so you’re bound to talk about what is going on in your country, and what is wrong, and what is not wrong, and how things should be. He was an outspoken person. He would speak out, just like I would,” Dzvokora said.
Speaking out against the Zimbabwean government can be deadly.
“Once you do that, there’s no freedom of speech. You cannot criticize the government. You cannot say the government is wrong. Once you do that, you become an enemy of the government, and they come after you. They kill people,” Dzvokora said.
He said he left Zimbabwe because of political persecution.
“They follow the leaders of the protests to their homes and abduct them and even make them disappear. I was one of the leaders, and I was being followed every day and night,” he said.
Tariro said thankfully, her father had not experienced that firsthand.
“My aunt (his sister) was murdered during the war, so he understood what people go through during times of political turmoil, and the one thing he always used to tell us was ‘Make sure you’re safe. Be careful of who you’re talking to when you are talking’, because he understood that it was a matter of life and death,” she said.
Chitiyo didn’t leave Zimbabwe out of fear of the government, but Dzvokora and Tariro said his story is still representative of the plight of many Zimbabweans.
“His story represents the story of millions of other Zimbabweans who would have gone through college and done everything to ensure that they have a successful life, but they never have it,” Dzvokora said.
To Dzvokora, that Chitiyo spent his life working toward something he never saw was painful.
“His story, it’s a painful story. To me, it broke my heart. This is a man who served his country, his community, for 42 years, working diligently and honestly,” he said. “If he was in a normal country like the USA, you know that you’d have retired maybe with a million dollar 401K pension. He retired, and he didn’t have anything to show for it. Maybe you get $100 a month, but that $100, you have to stand in the line, in the queue, for days for you to get that. This is a man who should have been enjoying his life somewhere in Zimbabwe playing with grandchildren, enjoying his sweat, the fruits of his labor.”
Chitiyo had been in remission from prostate cancer, but started getting sick again.
During a colonoscopy, his doctors discovered he had colon cancer that had spread to his liver. After recovering in Bismarck from his kidneys shutting down, he went through chemotherapy. It worked … and then it didn’t.
“He was at the hospital at CHI. He stayed in the hospital for a couple of weeks, then they said that the treatment wasn’t helping, so they stopped all the treatment and he was transferred to St. Benedict’s on a Tuesday two weeks ago, and he passed the following day. It went really quick,” Tariro said.
His family want to return him to his beloved him.
“It’s important for us to get him back home because my brothers didn’t get a chance to say goodbye … He came from a large family and he was the eldest son and took care of his siblings so family would like a way to send him home and get a chance to say goodbye to him. Before he passed, he wanted to be buried at his communal home next to his parents … we wanted to honor that,” Tariro said.
More than just his family are waiting for him.
“This is a man who spent 42 years working in Zimbabwe, went to school there. All his workmates, his friends … Thousands and thousands of people are at their homestead, who have been there since the day he passed, just waiting for him. Like she said, it’s very traditional. For us it’s cultural that you have to be buried in your home,” Dzvokora said.
To repatriate his remains will cost the family between $18,000 and $20,000.
“Although he does have a funeral policy back home, (and) it was supposed to cover his repatriation back home, but because of the recent demonetization of the Zimbabwean dollar and the reintroduction of the currency, they told us that they cannot afford to repatriate, so the family has to handle that,” Tariro said.
The family have yet to receive his life insurance policy, but they have raised a bit of money already.
“I just want to thank the Dickinson community, the Zimbabwean community and some of our African friends. We contributed I think over $4,000 towards the funeral. It takes about – it’s very expensive – $18-20k to repatriate someone to Zimbabwe. The family had some savings … but we’re still really short,” Dzvokora said.
If you would like to help bring Chitiyo home, the family has set up a Go Fund Me page. They still have about $12,000 to raise