MUTARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS) - Operating amid economic and political turmoil in Zimbabwe, Africa University has issued an urgent plea for United Methodist congregations to fulfill their 2008 financial obligations to the school.

Fanuel Tagwira, interim vice chancellor of the United Methodist-related university, made the plea Sept. 3 in a letter addressed to United Methodist leaders across the globe.

"As I write you, our 1,300 students are on the campus of Africa University for the 2008/2009 academic year. . While Africa University has not missed a day of classes during this difficult time, we are now facing a crisis," Tagwira wrote.

The core of the university's worsening financial situation is Zimbabwe's hyperinflation, tagged by the government at a rate of 11 million percent in June. The country's currency loses value by the hour on many days.

One key source of financial support comes from a special United Methodist church-wide fund that levies an apportionment to congregations. In 2008, that fund's target is $2.5 million.

Tagwira urges congregations to pay their entire Africa University apportionment early to help the university through the crisis.

"As our reserve accounts dwindle as a result of the nation's dire economic situation, we need your immediate financial support through the apportionments that come from the Africa University fund," Tagwira wrote.

Beacon of hope

Since opening in 1992, Africa University has produced more than 2,700 graduates who now work as agriculturalists, pastors, educators, businesspeople, health workers and other professionals in communities across sub-Saharan Africa. Students this year come from 22 African countries, with about 70 percent on financial aid or full scholarships.

The private school has been the only one of Zimbabwe's 12 institutions of higher education to stay open throughout the nation's crisis. It also partners in an off-campus daily feeding program, providing meals for 5,000 vulnerable children including many AIDS orphans.

Tagwira said the university has altered its billing practices because of out-of-control inflation.

In a separate letter sent in July, he told students, parents and guardians they would have to make monthly payments for tuition and room and board instead of paying once a semester.

"We know this creates a hardship for our Zimbabwean students and their parents, but in the current environment, we believe this is the best way to move forward," Tagwira wrote in his Sept. 3 letter to supporters.

"We are conserving financial resources in every possible way. We have continued to meet our payroll, pay our bills and serve our community and continent. Nonetheless, we have been forced to deplete our reserve funds to meet day-to-day obligations."

No reserves

At one time, the school had $1.7 million in reserves, but that money had to be tapped, according to James Salley, associate vice chancellor of institutional advancement for the Africa University Development Office in Nashville, Tenn.

"Essentially speaking, we don't have reserves - nothing to fall back on other than the apportionments," Salley told United Methodist News Service.

The school's operating budget is $4 million annually in U.S. dollars, with about half coming from apportionments. Apportionments are contributions of 29 cents per member requested from each United Methodist church in the United States. Student fees, other contributions and earnings from a $43 million U.S.-based endowment make up most of the remaining budget.

Financial support and prayers

Despite Zimbabwe's struggles, Tagwira told supporters that Africa University is navigating the difficulties "exceedingly well."

"During this extraordinary time in Zimbabwe, we are committed to do everything we can to meet our mission to provide a quality education within a Pan-African context. Our campus is safe. Our faculty is well qualified and respected around the world. Our students are dedicated to learning and excited to be in school," Tagwira wrote in his letter.

"Along with your financial support, we ask for your prayers, for our university, and for our nation as it struggles to find its way during this season of unease."

To contribute to Africa University, visit the Web site or call its Nashville office at 615-340-7348.

This story was based in part on a news release by the United Methodist Office of Public Information.