Kabelo Zwane, a sophomore and MIT’s first student from Swaziland, died in Bedford, Mass. on Saturday, November 7, in an apparent suicide. He was 21.
From a small village in a rural region of the landlocked country eight thousand miles away, he came to a foreign school and country. He is survived by his mother and a sister.
His quiet, inquisitive manner made a big impression among friends at the African Students Association, the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Experimental Study Group. Zwane was soft-spoken, spending his time building things and studying, but around close friends and complete strangers, he was eager to talk about his Christian faith and their lives and beliefs.
Friends remembered Zwane for caring about others and sticking to his principles.
“When he found something he believed in, he held on to it no matter what happened,” said Harvard freshman Dalumuzi Mhlanga at a memorial service on Wednesday. Mhlanga met Zwane while both were at the Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa. Zwane joined the Swaziland Gender Awareness Project, a group which advocates equal rights for gay people and women, in a country where homosexuality is illegal and not socially accepted, and where one in four adults has HIV.
“What are you doing? This is against your culture,” people asked him. But he stuck to it because he believed in it, Mhlanga said.
At school in Swaziland, he founded a club celebrating the culture of his homeland, which has drawn international criticism for its king’s lavish spending. But he felt that “I will defend my culture, I will stand for the value in it,” Mhlanga said.
At MIT, he found new convictions: He converted to Christianity in October 2008. Reflecting on the experience in this spring, he wrote: “Since I arrived in September I have changed a great deal. I have found a faith that fills my life … I have also gained 30 pounds, which is not too bad.”
He met with friends at the Campus Crusade for Christ for Bible studies and prayer times, and he asked tough questions about modern faith.
If religion is so important, why don’t people talk about it more? he asked. How could people of faith help solve the world’s problems, like poverty and homelessness? How could faith inform modern justice? And he thought about a fundamental problem of Christianity — if God knew we would turn against him, why would he make us?
Did his beliefs about equal rights for gay people conflict with any Christian tenets? Why were there so many different kinds of Christians, and how could he convince them to all work together?
With friends and strangers alike, he talked through the hard questions, asking whatever was on his mind and learning about how other people thought about the world.
“He wanted to see what made people tick, and connect it back to Christianity, and share it with other people,” said friend Clinton L. Scroggins ’10, who met Zwane at a CCC-Impact Movement Monday Night Bible Study.
Abiy Tasissa ’12, who met Zwane at the African Students Association, said at a memorial service that Zwane loved to talk to strangers, even those whom others might ignore. He talked to the homeless, to cab drivers, and to people he didn’t know at bus stations, just as easily as he talked to his friends.
He frequently talked to his freshman advisor, ESG co-director Holly B. Sweet, about religion. “I appreciated that he cared about my spiritual well being,” she said.
But he didn’t just talk spirituality. Zwane liked to learn words from languages other people spoke, and his face would light up when he got the pronunciation right, Tasissa said.
Despite his academic achievements, Zwane was “the most modest person,” said Mhlanga. He was soft-spoken and nice, friends said. Friends remembered him using the South African slang “howzit” (“how’s it going?”). And he called people older than him “sir” and “ma’am,” Scroggins said.
In Swaziland, Zwane dedicated himself to his studies, to his clubs, including a poetry group he founded, and to volunteering, including work to improve his school’s recycling program and work at an orphanage.
He worked hard, Mhlanga said, and “never slept until he got things done.” Once they found him asleep, face buried in a physics book, where he had studied through the night.
At MIT, he was the same way — “extremely hard working,” Sweet said. He spent a lot of time studying but, aside from his interest in a history class, friends don’t remember any specific academic interests. He looked forward to taking subjects in mechanical engineering, his major.
Zwane had a “passion for building,” his friend Tassisa said, which came through in a big way this summer. When he told Zwane he was moving off-campus and could use some help moving, Zwane put together a contraption that let them carry things behind a bicycle. “Kabelo, this will never work,” he said — but it worked well, and they got plenty of stares as they crossed the Harvard Bridge.
He “loved to fix anything that’s broken — give it to Kabelo, and he’ll fix it in five seconds,” Tasissa said.
Zwane liked water; Scroggins remembered a sailing trip. He also liked biking all over Boston, running for miles, reading and writing poetry, and drawing.
He was proud of Swazi culture, but Zwane didn’t talk much about his home, where his mother is raising his sister, a couple of years his younger. This summer he worked part-time at least three different campus jobs, spent his money carefully, and saved money so that he could help out his family, Scroggins said. All the time, he also studied, hoping to prepare himself academically for the fall semester.
“I strongly believe in helping other people. Committing one’s life to the betterment of others has to be the most satisfying thing. That is what I plan to do with my life regardless of what field I end up in,” he wrote in his application to ESG.
At Zwane’s memorial service, Scroggins gave a eulogy. “I saw joy in his life, explosions of praise, and bold declarations,” he said.