Ottilia Chareka was a rising academic star, a researcher with a passion for political engagement, a mentor who expected a lot from her students and a role model who helped find new teachers among underrepresented populations.
She was also a person who, despite numerous setbacks, laughed easily and possessed an unwavering sense of confidence, perseverance and generosity.
Chareka, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of St. Francis Xavier and an active community member in the small coastal town of Antigonish, N.S., experienced many difficulties throughout her life: Her father refused to pay for her high-school education; the Canadian system, in the early 1990s, did not recognize her African teaching credentials; thugs in Zimbabwe put a chill on her academic research; and a bus crash killed her brother back home, where HIV/AIDS ravaged others close to her.
But Chareka did not dwell on her pain and when she did bring up a tough situation, such as being left off the Canadian teacher rolls, she would refer to the trouble with the kind of laugh reserved for someone who appreciates a good slapstick scene. In the face of an obstacle, she did what had to be done. As a teenager, that meant working to pay for her high-school fees and as an adult who had come from a country where she employed maids, it meant cleaning hotel rooms to pay for her teacher-qualifying studies.
She eventually became a tenured professor, established a new initiative in the bachelor of education program for African Nova Scotians and helped create and advance the Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey School Improvement program. She won grants, earned awards and formed lasting collaborations.
Once she was established, the hard work did not stop. She would pick up sessional teaching gigs that she somehow found time for on top of her St. FX lecturing and research, community and church volunteering, and raising five daughters. She taught those extra classes so that she could send additional money to her family back in Zimbabwe and help give others the same opportunity she felt she had been given. She sponsored her sister's husband, who was studying in Canada, and had plans to help other family members enroll in a Canadian university.
Chareka believed that she had beaten the odds. In a short documentary on her made by Cara Jones, an Antigonish friend she regularly referred to as her Canadian sister, she asked rhetorically, "Whoever knew that a poor little girl growing up in rural Africa would reach this far?" and thanked her new country for helping make this happen.
But despite clearing so many hurdles and possessing an indefatigable spirit, Chareka lost her life on March 16 at the age of 42 in her Antigonish home. She died from what appears to have been a domestic dispute. Her husband, Patrick Chareka, has been charged with murder and is now awaiting trial.
For close colleague Jeff Orr, dean of St. FX's Faculty of Education, what happened that night will be settled by the justice system. He, like others close to her, do not want to speculate about motive or talk about anything from that horrible incident. He says what's important to him, and to her other friends and colleagues, is "to celebrate her life and offer support for her five girls."
Ottilia Pedzai Mukanga Zinyanduko was born on May 2, 1968. Her father, Pedzai Zinyanduko and mother, Mbuya Preymore, raised her and her many siblings on a farm in Bikita, located in the Zimbabwean province of Masvingo. After being inspired by one of her teachers, her earlier thoughts of pursuing agriculture changed to a future in education.
"I knew from Day 1 what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a teacher, and no one was going to stop me," Chareka says in the Jones film, entitled Familiar Stranger, referring to her father not wanting to pay for a girl to go to school. "I had to go against the culture. I had to be a rebel in order for me to advance."
She became the first female in her clan to complete high school. She continued her studies and, in her early twenties, graduated from a teacher's college in the central Zimbabwean town of Gweru.
In 1993, her husband had the opportunity to study in Canada, earning a scholarship to attend the University of New Brunswick. She arrived with him and their young daughter. Since she had graduated from teachers' college, she expected to land a job in a local school. Instead, she spent a year as a chambermaid at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel in Fredericton while she pursued and eventually earned a diploma in advanced undergraduate studies (social studies). She continued to study and the following year began her masters of education.
In the mid-90s she and her husband returned to Zimbabwe and both landed jobs. She taught high school geography and commerce and was then hired by Morgan Zintec Teachers' College as a lecturer in the Department of Social Studies. In 1999, she visited Canada and began looking into pursuing a PhD with Alan Sears at the University of New Brunswick.
In 2000, she was selected to receive a Commonwealth scholarship to conduct interviews in Zimbabwe. The award had been vetted by the government, but her work on democracy was not something that the Zimbabwean regime seemed to appreciate. She received a visit by so-called war veterans, who warned her not to continue the work.
She came back to Canada in May, 2001, to pursue her doctoral studies, with Sears as her adviser and worked as a research assistant for the Spirit of Democracy Project. Her PhD research focused on democratic participation of recent African immigrants and native-born Canadians and implications for Canadian citizenship and multicultural education.
She completed her PhD and in 2005 landed a lecturing job at St. FX upon a recommendation by Sears, who counted her as both a colleague and friend. While her research interests were in multicultural education, citizenship education, migration and integration of immigrants, global education and inclusive practices, she was also someone who would soon excel in the technical areas of her field, such as quantitative research methods and school data management.
In 2007, her paper Civic Duty: Young People's Conceptions of Voting as a Means of Political Participation earned her the Jackson Award for the best English-language article published in Canadian Journal of Education.
"Her research was mostly about how can we create more equity and justice in the world," said Orr, the faculty's dean.
Those around her knew that even a frivolous birthday tradition could be turned into a way to help out others. When one of her colleagues was turning 60, she suggested that rather than 60 pink flamingos in his front yard, 60 bras would work better. She knew that once the surprise was done with, the joke could take on a new life and become clothing for those who could not afford it. The 60 pink bras were shipped to Zimbabwe.
She was recently awarded tenure and was named associate professor. Her husband, meanwhile, remained a less permanent member of the university, where he worked irregularly as a math and statistics professor.
According to both the police and friends, there had never been any previous signs of domestic abuse.
On March 16, just after midnight, police responded to a 911 call made from the Chareka home and discovered Ottilia with life-threatening injuries. Police arrested Mr. Chareka at the scene and a weapon was seized. Ottilia was rushed to hospital and died two hours later.
Her husband was eventually charged with first-degree murder and remains in custody. Ottilia's autopsy revealed that she died from blunt-force trauma.
Mr. Chareka will be back in court on June 7, where it will be determined whether or not a preliminary hearing will be necessary.
At the packed funeral held at the university chapel, several rows were filled with the various colours of academic robes worn by professors as a tribute to their fallen colleague. Chareka's eldest daughter, Missy Praymore, 23, recounted to each of the other four daughters, Patience, 18; Patricia, 16; Primrose, 14; and Prisca, 3, what their mother loved about them. A choir was formed for the occasion and changed the words of the song This Little Light of Mine to Ottilila's Little Light of Mine. Despite their sadness, her family sang and clapped, and her eldest daughter later went up to several people to thank them for the friendship they had give her mother.
Ottilila Chareka leaves her mother and stepfather, five daughters and several siblings.
A memorial fund has been set up to support the family. It can be accessed at http://sites.stfx.ca/education/memorial_fund/.