Africa University founding father dies at 87


The Rev. John Wesley Z. Kurewa, a founding father and first vice chancellor of Africa University, is being remembered as “a prophet of extraordinary gentleness” who followed the direction of the Holy Spirit in every move he made. 

Kurewa died Feb. 15 at age 87.

James H. Salley, Africa University associate vice chancellor for Institutional Advancement, said Kurewa laid a solid foundation for the university to grow into what it has become. The first commencement was in 1994 with 27 graduates from four African countries. In 2019, the university celebrated its 25th commencement with more than 500 graduates from 22 African nations.

“His leadership ability and networks within The United Methodist Church and around the world opened doors that would not have been available to anyone else,” Salley said.

Kurewa was involved in the development of the university from the beginning, serving as on-site manager of the Africa University project in 1987. The United Methodist Church’s 1988 General Conference approved the establishment of a United Methodist-related university in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa University was recognized and opened as the first private university in Zimbabwe in 1992.

He served as vice chancellor from 1992-97. On his retirement in 1997, Kurewa said, “I look at this modern campus and the vibrant, international community we have now and remember that I used to look after cattle in these fields when I was at school at Old Mutare Mission. It’s been great work.”

Kurewa returned to Africa University in 2000 as associate professor in the E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism. In 2015, the Foundation for Evangelism in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, endowed a professorship in Africa University’s Faculty of Theology named for Kurewa.

Kurewa came to Africa University from the post of secretary to the Parliament of Zimbabwe in 1983. He did his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the U.S. He held degrees from Asbury College in Kentucky and Garrett Theological Seminary and Northwestern University, both in Illinois.

“His experiences as the first secretary of the Zimbabwe Parliament provided access to a wide range of necessary resources the board needed as it tried to build a university from a dream,” Salley said. “He advanced the vision and mission successfully. It is not often you get to see a dream become reality and is built from a foundation you laid.”

Salley, who worked with Kurewa for 36 years, said he was “a prophet of extraordinary gentleness.”  

“We have lost the wisdom that keeps us grounded and focused on the original vision of the university,” said Africa University current vice chancellor Munashe Furusa.

“We have also lost his deep faith, which allowed him to look at the valley and believe it would be a world-class university and agreed to be vice chancellor. That faith is not common,” he said.

The Rev. Shirley DeWolf, 73, a missionary and lecturer at Africa University, said she became friends with Kurewa at Asbury College in 1964. 

“Kurewa was one of the most faithful people I have ever known. He followed his calling and knew what God wanted him to do,” she said.

“He was quiet and humble and gained the respect of those he met. He accepted the post in Parliament as an effort towards political reconciliation. He was on everybody’s side.”

The Rev. Elias Nhamoinesu Mumbiro, 82, first met Kurewa at Old Mutare Mission in 1962.

One of the highlights of Kurewa’s life was his appointment to be a pastor at Chikwizo, a mission center in the remote northeast of Zimbabwe, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Harare, Mumbiro said.

“Chikwizo may be viewed as a test to see if Kurewa was really called to ministry. He made a great impact. He loved the local people and transformed the area into an ideal mission center,” Mumbiro said. 

The Rev. Roger Ireson, former top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said he and Kurewa met as students at Garrett Theological Seminary in the 1960s.

“John became a very important symbol of what Africa University was all about. In his youth, he was a student at Hartzell school and herded cattle in the fields that later became Africa University,” he said.

The first named building at Africa University is the Kurewa-Ireson School of Agriculture, Natural Science and Humanities.

“We have lost an icon of Wesleyan Methodist education,” said the Rev. Forbes Matonga, a board member of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“In this man, we found perfect harmony of spirituality and academic excellence, true to the great Wesleyan heritage that sees no contradiction between education and spirituality,” he said.

The Rev. Greg Bergquist, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said Kurewa was instrumental in shaping Africa University into the world-class institution it is today.

He was a beloved professor and a skilled administrator, Bergquist said.

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“The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and The United Methodist Church were blessed to have him as a partner in education and clergy formation,” Bergquist said.

The Rev. Kalaba Chali studied under Kurewa from 2001 to 2005.

“Professor Kurewa taught me United Methodist history and polity. I was impacted by his integrity, wisdom, academic excellence and humility,” Chali said. “What a loss for the African continent, the academic world and the global Christianity community.”

Kurewa served as evangelism secretary for the World Council of Churches in Geneva; administrative assistant to Zimbabwean Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa; lecturer at Epworth Theological College and the University of Zimbabwe in Harare; and pastor of Old Mutare Mission and the Chikwizo Circuit.

Kurewa will be interred at Old Mutare Mission cemetery on Feb. 18. He is survived by his wife, Gertrude, son Kuirai and daughter Wimbai.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. Chikwanah is a communicator of the Zimbabwe East Conference. Sam Hodges contributed to this report. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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