US: How Kimberley Bhunu’s tennis journey brought her from Zimbabwe to Cal Poly

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UNITED STATES: Opportunity is a word that is thrown around a lot. However, for graduate tennis player Kimberley Bhunu, the word has profound meaning.

Opportunity brought her from Harare, Zimbabwe to France to Cal Poly through tennis. While here, she has earned an education that has helped her create a non-profit to give those same opportunities to people back home.

And here is how it happened.

At 14, Bhunu left her family in Zimbabwe to head to France. In Biot, France, she attended the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy – one of the most prestigious tennis academies in the world —for her high school years.

The academy is named after Serena Williams’ tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

“I always wanted to travel and see different parts of the world and tennis happened to really give me the opportunity to do that,” Bhunu said about attending the academy.

While there, Bhunu worked with an adviser who helped with United States placement for college.

“When I first went [to France] I had not considered playing tennis in college,” Bhunu said.

However, after speaking to the agent she realized college was yet another opportunity where she could continue to play and advance her education.

The agent had sent two other students to Cal Poly for the men’s team, Antoine Noel and Alexis Delisle.

In order to visit Cal Poly, Bhunu had to go through the long and expensive process of going back home and then applying for an American visa.

So, in 2018 when Bhunu arrived at Cal Poly, it was the first time she had stepped foot on the campus.

“I don’t think she knew the words back then but you would define it as a culture shock,” redshirt junior teammate Melissa LaMette said.

“When I came to Cal Poly I really struggled with the culture here,” Bhunu said. “There weren’t many black people at the academy I was at but it was very diverse.”

On top of that, Bhunu was 10,000 miles away from her family.

A few weeks into her college career, she tore her ACL and had to get surgery, meaning she could not travel with the team or practice.

“It was a lonely time,” Bhunu said. “One of the things that got me going when I first got here was the team aspect.”

Following the injury, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Bhunu had moved halfway across the world, barely touched the court in her first two years and then could not see her family for another two.

“I wasn’t able to go back home because my visa expired,” Bhunu said. “If I left there was no guarantee that the embassies would be open for me to come back.”

The one thing Bhunu did have at that time was her new family
on the team. Teammate MacKenzie Worsnop let Bhunu stay with her for part of the pandemic. Another player that took Bhunu in was LaMette. LaMette and Bhunu were excited to meet each other when LaMette joined the program in 2019 because it meant they’d both have another Black teammate.

However, their relationship did not really grow until LaMette brought her home to Houston, Texas. In three trips over the span of a year, Bhunu got to know LaMette’s family, grand- parents and friends from home.

“It’s almost like I have a sister now… we even live together,” LaMette said. “My mom sent us both Valentine’s Day gifts.”

In 2022, Bhunu, fellow teammate Laura Bente and Cal Poly student Sunmisola Adeyemi created Craft by Jáde. Craft by Jáde is a non-profit created to help bridge the opportu- nity gap for under-served people in Zimbabwe and Nigeria through the sale of Afrocentric apparel.

The trio has expanded to a 16-person board including LaMette and Cal Poly business professor Sharon Dobson.

LaMette serves as the Director of Fundraising and Donor Relations while Dobson serves as the Marketing and Finance Adviser.

One of the main programs funded by Craft by Jáde is the family development program, where they are currently working with the Uzo family in Nigeria to provide everything from clothes to textbooks to mental health care.

Bhunu at a Craft by Jáde farmer’s market booth. Credit: Courtesy of Kimberley Bhunu

The second initiative is the tennis program in Zimbabwe. Bhunu has helped coordinate the donations, funding, hiring and scheduling of a professional tennis coach to give lessons to children in Zimbabwe. Much of the equipment comes from donations made in the San Luis Obispo community.

“Me getting here, the opportunity to play for a DI school on full athletic scholarship is because of opportunities I received that many people don’t receive,” Bhunu said.

LaMette echoed the same sentiment that “tennis has opened a lot of doorways for me.”

Craft by Jáde’s goal is to have a tennis court built and sign kids up for the tournament in the near future.

With all the extracurriculars off the court and the time spent earning a master’s in business analytics, it’s hard to believe that Bhunu has time to do what she came to Cal Poly for: Tennis.

Bhunu isn’t just a player on the team, as she has earned her spot at the No. 1 court in either doubles or singles play over the past three years.

“She is very brave,” LaMette said about the girl who left her family at 14, got even farther away after earn- ing a full ride to the central coast and battled injury and the pandemic while in a place that lacks diversity and looks nothing like home.

As a tennis player, she makes the most of her opportunity and is consistently at the top of the lineup.

Those opponents who get the opportunity to face her line up across from an aggressive attacker.

“She’ll end a point in three shots,” LaMette said about Bhunu.

Last year, Bhunu was a team-best 15-8 in doubles and 14-6 in singles to earn her All-Conference honors and All-Academic honors again.

In the young 2023 season, Bhunu is at the No. 1 spot in singles with her coworker, teammate, friend and “sister” LaMette right behind at No. 2.

In a weekend win over San Jose State, LaMette had a 7-5 victory to clinch the doubles point and then Bhunu had a come-from-behind victory in singles for the 4-1 victory.

In October, Bhunu will capitalize on another opportunity with a job at Ernst & Young, one of the big four accounting firms.

“It’s a testimony that no matter what situations you come to, things can always be better,” Bhunu said in reflection. “Who would’ve thought a Zimbabwean girl would be the first black girl on the Cal Poly women’s tennis team?”