The Right Chemistry

Chemistry major Goodwell Nzou ’15 has accomplished some extraordinary things in his short life: he’s toured Europe and America as a percussionist with his internationally recognized band, has been featured in an Oscar-winning documentary, and graduated from the most prestigious high school in Zimbabwe – all of which started with a snake bite. 

When he was just 11 years old, Nzou and his brother waded into a river to cool off near their home in Chitsungo Village in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe. A puff adder, one of Africa’s deadliest snakes, suddenly bit Nzou. His leg immediately began to swell. With no transportation, his family placed him in a wheelbarrow and traveled more than 12 miles to the nearest clinic. For the next month and a half, Nzou would spend his days being carted (literally) back and forth to local clinics, only to see his foot and leg grow worse.

By the time his family found the money to send him to a larger hospital almost 250 miles from his home, gangrene had set in and his doctors had no choice but to amputate. Nzou was relieved that the worst of his pain was over, but the hardest part of his journey was still to come.  

“Zimbabwe’s public schools aren’t equipped for the disabled, and the stigmatization is really bad,” says Nzou. With a heavy, cumbersome wooden leg, there was no way Nzou could return to school in his home village. A small grant from the government enabled him to attend schools exclusively for disabled children.

At King George VI Children’s Centre (a high school), Nzou outshone all his classmates academically. He also excelled as a percussionist playing the marimba with Liyana, a band he and his friends formed in 2005 made up entirely of disabled musicians. In 2006, the group won the Crossroads Africa Inter-regional Music Festival in Mozambique and toured Sweden, The Netherlands, and Belgium later that year.

Upon returning from tour, Nzou began to think more and more about his amputated leg – and how he could help others avoid the same fate. “I decided I wanted to be a doctor because if there had been a doctor in the village when I was bitten by the snake, I would still have my leg.”

King George had no physical science teacher or lab, so Nzou taught himself chemistry with textbooks he purchased with his money from Liyana’s European tour. His determination got the attention of Christian Brothers College (CBC), the most prestigious high school in Zimbabwe. CBC sent the head of their science department to meet Nzou and see the lab he constructed in a school closet. Using what little equipment and chemicals he had, he completed an impressive experiment that wowed the teacher. “The science head went back to CBC and said ‘We want him here,’” says Nzou.

Meanwhile, Liyana was achieving great success as well.  A film about the band, Music by Prudence, aired on HBO and won the 2010 Academy Award for best documentary (short subject).

Nzou turned to the film's producer, Elinor Burkett, for advice about the future and she encouraged him to apply to Nazareth. “She told me about this small school where she had given a talk. I knew that if she remembered that small of a school, it must have been something unique.”

And she was right. At Nazareth, Nzou was able to do research to improve a drug that will enable doctors to test for HIV more easily, something he knows he wouldn’t do elsewhere as a rising sophomore. “If I had gone to a school like Columbia, I would be washing out beakers.”

He also found a home in the Nazareth music community as part of the Nazareth Percussion Ensemble. “The cultural and musical exchanges I have witnessed between our music students and Goodwell is so inspiring,” says Kristen Shiner-McGuire, the percussion coordinator in the School of Music. “He is a gem of a person and is going to make a significant impact on the larger world.”

After Nazareth, he went on to Wake Forest University as a doctoral biochem student.

Nzou's mantra: “What the mind perceives, it achieves.”

2020 UPDATE: Neurobiologist Goodwell Nzou is leading researchers at Wake Forest University in creating a more accurate model of the human brain, toward the goal of studying and improving treatment for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and multiple sclerosis. After completing his doctorate, he went on to postdoctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, where he is investigating treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

Goodwell Nzou

When he's not in the lab working on research, Nzou plays the marimba with the Nazareth College Percussion Ensemble.