Isabel Mukonyora holds a photograph of her and her family at her sister’s wedding. “This is just part of my family’s story, which brings back memories of all kinds of things,” she said.
story by MACIE DOWELL photography by JACOB LATIMER illustrations by HAILEE LUNTE

On a foggy morning in Oxfordshire, England, Isabel Mukonyora wrapped her arms tightly around her 2-year-old daughter to shield her from the brisk, autumn breeze. The two were on their way to the daycare where her daughter would spend the day.

Mukonyora was in the thick of her semester at Oxford University, so she had no time for any distraction. The separation pulled at her heart, but she knew she would see her daughter at the end of her long day.

Many hard decisions and unforgettable experiences brought WKU philosophy and theology professor Mukonyora to this point in her story. Each stage of growth she went through was impacted by the places she went, the people she met and the memories she made.

Isabel Mukonyora holds a photograph of her and her family at her sister’s wedding. “This is just part of my family’s story, which brings back memories of all kinds of things,” she said.
story by MACIE DOWELL photography by JACOB LATIMER illustrations by HAILEE LUNTE

On a foggy morning in Oxfordshire, England, Isabel Mukonyora wrapped her arms tightly around her 2-year-old daughter to shield her from the brisk, autumn breeze. The two were on their way to the daycare where her daughter would spend the day.

Mukonyora was in the thick of her semester at Oxford University, so she had no time for any distraction. The separation pulled at her heart, but she knew she would see her daughter at the end of her long day.

Many hard decisions and unforgettable experiences brought WKU philosophy and theology professor Mukonyora to this point in her story. Each stage of growth she went through was impacted by the places she went, the people she met and the memories she made.

Zimbabwe to England

Growing up in the southern African country of Zimbabwe, Mukonyora attended a Catholic boarding school for 19 years where she found herself questioning the world she was living in as it was filled with violence over racial disputes. Through her interactions with others at the school, she learned about the complexities of the world and developed a drive to learn and understand the things she was experiencing.

“I was in this boarding school with German nuns who were victims of the Nazis,” Mukonyora said. “They had their own pain; they had no time for racial conflict. I learned from them that sometimes we just get carried away with our own emotions to do what we think we should do, but the world is much more complex than that.”

At the end of her schooling in Zimbabwe, she took an assessment that prepared her for her first year of college.

This exam, which was a part of the Cambridge Assessment International Education program, gave international students, like Mukonyora, the tools to succeed in higher education and future careers. Besides giving her qualification for her university studies, this program gave her qualifications as a fully trained secretary and air hostess.

Since her time at Oxford University, Mukonyora has chosen her bike as her way of getting around. “If we all live more simply, things could be better, and even if they don’t, I think we need a simpler lifestyle overall,” Mukonyora said.

At the age of 19, she traveled across hemispheres from Zimbabwe to England with few belongings and a collection of books.

In 1980, she began her educational journey in Bristol, England, at Trinity College. While there, she met a classmate that she later married while pursuing her undergraduate degree. The two finished their undergraduate studies at London School of Theology in Northwood, England, before moving to Scotland to complete their master’s degrees at University of Aberdeen.

Soon after receiving her master’s degree at Aberdeen, she divorced her husband and was able to continue her education through earning the British Commonwealth Scholarship.

“I realized for the sake of my child and me and my sanity that I needed to protect her through getting the same higher education,” she said.

She applied to Oxford University in 1992 with the goal of obtaining her Ph.D. in theology. She thought it wouldn’t hurt to apply but was doubtful about getting in.

“I was very surprised that they actually accepted me,” she said. “They liked my positive energy, that I wanted to learn and achieve something and be of service to fellow African college students.”

The emotional weight of a divorce and the responsibilities that come from being a single mother made going through a prestigious doctorate program that much more difficult for Mukonyora. She believes that her passion for learning and the happiness her daughter brought her helped alleviate the pressure this experience placed on her.

“It was clear that my college education was helping me cope with my own struggles as an African woman living in the West,” Mukonyora said. “I’m just a human being with all my struggles, and my academic journey is tied into that.”

Mukonyora is the first African woman to graduate from Oxford’s doctoral program in theology, and she understands the honor that comes with this achievement.

“I was happy, but I didn’t exactly think in those terms myself,” Mukonyora said. “I was emotionally coming out of my divorce, so I was really in the search for knowledge. I was lucky in that I was dealing with questions that were African based because it was not published as often as Western philosophy. I really enjoyed my experience, and I think because I had the outlook that African philosophy hadn’t been as published, I was much more relaxed about it.”

To America

Mukonyora works in her office in front of a shelf full of literature from around the world. “These books have travelled with me from England, to Africa and to the U.S.,” Mukonyora said.

After receiving her Ph.D., Mukonyora returned to Zimbabwe as the first woman holding a British Commonwealth Scholar to teach in the Department of Religious Studies, Classics and Philosophy at the University of Zimbabwe. During this time she earned the Fulbright Scholarship, which is considered one of the most prestigious educational programs for international study, allowing her to further her research and work at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

She spent three years there before being offered two jobs, one in Chicago and one at WKU. She traveled to both places for interviews and found that she did not like the fast-paced, impersonal city life of Chicago.

“I just wanted a nice, quiet place where people smiled, and I really have not regretted being here,” she said.

Since she began her teaching career in Bowling Green in August 2004, Mukonyora has made close friendships with colleagues in her department. Audrey Anton, an associate professor of philosophy, praised Mukonyora for her humility and kindness.

“She is unassuming but brilliant,” Anton said. “She comes off as if she’s your aunt or your cousin or your friend. Bella is one of the most interdisciplinary thinkers I know. She feels that it is a part of the job to make sure everyone else is doing OK.”

Mukonyara’s mentor, university distinguished professor Richard Weigel, loves how she brings something unique and different to WKU.

“I think she’s a fascinating person, and it really adds a lot to campus to have someone of such a diverse background,” Weigel said. “I like the research that she does because I wouldn’t know about it, otherwise. She’s very active; she jumps right in the middle of things.”

She has never liked to fill her life solely with academics, but rather she creates a balance of all her passions, which include reading and connecting with both family members and students.

“I am a mom, but I am a grounded scholar who likes the fact that we have to survive in this world, and I don’t think we should study things just to fill our heads,” Mukonyora said. “I love being in academics, provided that it doesn’t distance me from the real world, where we need to work hard and struggle.”

Reflection

Mukonyora collected many pictures over the years, each encapsulating a vivid memory in her life. Through pictures of her daughter, her family and her former husband, she is comfortable sharing her adversities. Although hard times have befallen her, she never stopped smiling or finding the blessings within the pain.

“We have things that hurt and disappoint us, but we still try to be positive,” Mukonyora said.

Of the sentimental objects she shared, one of the most special to her was a poem she had saved from her deceased brother. Before his passing, he had left the poem, “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann, in the front of his diary for his family to read.

 

“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

 

It wasn’t until two years ago that Mukonyora became aware of this poem when her sister sent her a copy of it.

“I wanted to cry all day because I felt like he was talking to me,” Mukonyora said. “I was the little one, always very confused. I didn’t understand death at that age. All I knew was that I looked up to him to answer questions about our family. I grew up not being able to see my brother, and that was the hardest part.”

Mukonyora makes meaningful connections everywhere she goes, and she has left a lasting, positive impact on both students and colleagues in her department.

“Her personality is very endearing, and she treats everyone with love and respect,” Anton said. “She loves her students, and she would do anything to help them learn and feel welcome. She has a huge heart.”

Mukonyora ultimately sees teaching as a way to help her and her students grow.

“I love talking to my students with all these ideas I’ve read and asking what they think,” Mukonyora said. “It’s helping me as much as I am helping them find themselves. I like to research and read, and learn to communicate with students, but it’s about life, basically. How we can come together to build a better world.”

The embroidered rose was handmade by Mukonyora’s daughter’s godmother, who often let Mukonyora rest in her home in Oxford, England when she visited in the 1990s. The note, written in January 1995, reads: “Dearest Bella, This is a little souvenir to wish you a long and happy life! Love from, Nichy"
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