Scholarship to Take Jennifer W. Kyker '02 to Zimbabwe
Jennifer W. Kyker '02
says Jennifer W. Kyker '02. "In the Shona language of Zimbabwe,
that means be left behind well,' or stay well." When
the last mortarboard is thrown into the air above MHC's amphitheater
on Sunday, such parting words will take on new meaning as Kyker
bids farewell to South Hadley and turns to a new adventure. The
senior, who will graduate summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa,
has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship for a year of independent
study and research in Zimbabwe. She will be affiliated with the
Zimbabwe College of Music in the capital city of Harare.
"I am part of
a tradition of MHC students going to study in Africa," says
Kyker. "[Assistant professor of history] Holly Hanson has
put forth a successful Fulbright candidate for Africa every year
for the past four years. She was instrumental in encouraging me
to apply for the Fulbright and in assisting me with my application."
Hanson, a Fulbright Research Fellow in Uganda herself in 1994,
credits this success to the high caliber of Mount Holyoke's students,
noting that the acceptance rate for Fulbrights to Africa is only
15 percent (compared to 50 percent or higher to other parts of
Kyker began learning
Shona as a fifteen-year-old when she took six months off from
South Eugene International High School to study traditional music
in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe. By then, she was already
an experienced marimba player, but she wanted to learn
the mbira, or thumb piano. "At that time," says
Kyker, "there wasn't really anyone who could teach mbira
in Oregon where I grew up."
players were in short supply when Kyker was hankering to learn
the instrument, Eugene was nevertheless a hotbed of Zimbabwean
music. Kyker explains, "In the late 70s to early 80s, there
was a professor from Zimbabwe, Dumi Maraire, who was getting his
Ph.D. at the University of Washington in Seattle. Maraire got
a bunch of marimba bands started up and down the West Coast."
When Kyker was nine years old, one of those marimba bands
performed at her elementary school. Says Kyker, "A good friend
of mine who I'd lost contact with suddenly reappeared on the stage
of my elementary school playing this music. I was so impressed
that kids were playing as well as adults. And I was really attracted
by the sound. It's so resonant." The following year, the
marimba band played again, and the fifth grader's resolve
was set. "I started taking lessons and I've been doing it
ever since," says Kyker. By the age of twelve, she was playing
professionally in one of Eugene's many marimba ensembles.
After high school,
Kyker deferred her admission to Mount Holyoke for a year to continue
her mbira studies in Zimbabwe. During the summer between
her sophomore and junior years at MHC, she was in Zimbabwe yet
again, this time on a three-month Joanne V. Creighton Summer Research
Fellowship to conduct research for her senior thesis. "That
time I wasn't just studying music. I was trying to find out how
people perceive music. What do they think about the songs? What
are the meanings? It opened up a whole new area of interest for
research will build on the foundation she laid with her thesis,
focussing on a trio of religious rituals that follow death: the
funeral, the memorial service, and the kurova guva, a ceremony
that takes place a year after the funeral to reincorporate the
deceased person's spirit into the family. "I will be looking
specifically at how music is structured at the ceremony,"
says Kyker, "and what musical and cultural values are expressed
in that structure. Unfortunately, it's going to be an easy ceremony
to focus on because there's a high percentage of HIV infection
in Zimbabwe. People have to hold these ceremonies more and more."
Hanson, Kyker's thesis
adviser, calls the senior "exceptionally talented."
In addition to being an mbira and marimba recording
artist, Kyker has played the viola since she was eight years old.
A fluent speaker of French, Kyker spent her junior year in Montpellier,
France, studying at the Université Paul Valéry through
Mount Holyoke's program there. Kyker graduates with a double major
in economics and French, and she has been awarded the Five College
African Studies Certificate, a concentration of study devoted
to Africa that is offered through the Five College Consortium.
at things from so many different angles," says Hanson. "She's
thinking about music and religious ritual in Zimbabwe as a musician,
and yet as an Africa historian, she can ask, What is the social
consequence of this thing we're doing as musicians?" Hanson
notes that Kyker also brings to her research the perspective of
someone who has studied world economic relations.
With the recent reelection
of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the United States Department
of State warns of the likelihood of "political violence and
intimidation" throughout Zimbabwe. However, both Hanson and
Kyker are optimistic. "Despite the political situation in
Zimbabwe, I am tremendously confident about this project because
of Jennifer's ability to cross boundaries," says Hanson.
"Jennifer's work is already creating links and understanding
among people in the world, which is the goal of the Fulbright
program. Her senior thesis is headed for publication because ethnomusicologists
want to know what she has to say, and she hopes to publish her
work in Shona so that Zimbabweans can learn what she's discovered
about the complexity and meanings of music in Shona ritual. At
the same time, she's brought Zimbabwean music to American audiences
through her CDs, her performances, and activities like arranging
a Shona song for Mount Holyoke's Chamber Singers."
Kyker also seems to
take the possibility of danger in stride. "I've been in Zimbabwe
for most of the political low points in the last four or five
years, including the general strike of 1998. I was caught in a
bus, which was teargassed by the police and then had to walk home
from the bus depot since the main bus terminal was a disaster
area. On my way home, there was a group of thugs overturning cars
and beating people. My neighbors had to verify my status as an
honorary Highfield [a suburb of Harare] resident to ensure my
safe passage. When I got home tear gas was also wafting into our
house from confrontations with the police at a nearby marketplace
and shopping center." After witnessing so much turmoil, Kyker
says, "Those kinds of things don't really faze me anymore."
A summer of music
will precede Kyker's departure for Zimbabwe. Shortly after graduation
she will travel to New Mexico to join the staff of Camp Tumbuka,
where the music and dance of the Shona people is celebrated and
taught. Kyker will play and teach music there for a week, before
returning to Eugene for more teaching and performances. Then she
heads for the Zimbabwe Music Festival, which takes place this
year in Seattle, Washington, July 1012.
After her Fulbright
year, Kyker may opt for graduate school, perhaps Wesleyan University
to study ethnomusicology. She is also considering working for
the U.S. Department of State and plans to take the Foreign Service
examination this September. Kyker's latest CD is Tsunga: Mbira
Music of Zimbabwe, which she recorded with mbira player
The United States
Congress created the Fulbright Program in 1946 to promote mutual
understanding among nations through educational and cultural exchanges.
Each year the program allows Americans to study or conduct research
in more than 120 nations. Between 1991 (the first year for which
the commission has records) and 2001, eighteen MHC seniors (and
a number of alumnae) have been awarded grants for research in
a variety of subject areas and countries.