Chance meeting changed her life


Cassandra Veney And Paul Zeleza

August 15, 1999|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,Special to the Sun

Oct. 30, 1997, was a long work day for Cassandra Veney. So she wasn't thrilled when a friend urged her to go to a lecture and dinner that evening at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

An assistant professor of political science at Illinois State University, Cassandra -- who specializes in African issues -- also had an early class to teach the next morning on the Normal, Ill., campus. The last thing she wanted to do was drive an hour to the event and then face the hour drive home to Bloomington, Ill. -- though she was sure the evening would be illuminating.

Not wanting to be rude, however, Cassandra gave herself a pep talk and jumped into her car.

It was a fortuitous decision. For that night, Cassandra met Paul Zeleza, the director of the Center for African Studies and a respected professor of history and African studies. Unknown to Cassandra, Paul was also her future husband.

After an engaging conversation at the event, Cassandra and Paul exchanged office telephone numbers. Two weeks later they met at the annual conference of the African Studies Association in Columbus, Ohio. (Coincidentally, they had never run into each other at the same conference in 1995 and 1996.)

After the conference, the couple began to talk on the phone frequently and Cassandra visited Paul a few times in Champaign.

In December, Paul invited Cassandra to the "launch" party for his latest book, "Manufacturing African Studies in Crisis." (Paul is a native of Malawi, in southeastern Africa.)

Cassandra spent the December holiday break with her family in Columbia, but returned to Illinois for a New Year's Eve date with Paul.

In February 1998, Cassandra went to Tanzania for two months of field research. The couple stayed in touch by e-mail and it was through the computer, Paul says, "that we started declaring our intentions."

Their courtship continued when Cassandra returned in the spring. In May, Paul met Cassandra's family. Though she tried to downplay the introduction, her family knew Paul was important to her "because I kept saying I wouldn't bring anyone home until I was engaged," Cassandra recalls with a chuckle.

In March 1999, Paul -- acting in accordance with his native custom -- enlisted a friend to accompany him on a visit to Cassandra's parents and present them with Paul's intentions. After Lewis and Rachel Saunders gave their consent, Paul got down on one knee and proposed to Cassandra. Crying tears of happiness, she answered yes.

On July 30, Cassandra, 39, and Paul, 44, were married at the First Baptist Church of Guilford, in Columbia. Cassandra's sister Valerie was her maid of honor and Paul's daughter Natasha was a bridesmaid.

The 150 guests came from around the globe and included Malawi's ambassador to the United Nations as well as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia. Cassandra's parents were in attendance, but Paul's father, Abel Zeleza, was unable to travel from his home in Garborone, Botswana. (Paul's mother, Agnes Zeleza, is deceased.)

The reception took place at the Historic Oakland Mansion in Columbia (chosen in part because it is home to the Maryland Museum of African Art).

Before beginning their meal, Cassandra and Paul were toasted by their guests with an African libation. The wishes included a future of health and happiness for them. During the meal, three African drummers serenaded the couple and then went table to table, playing for the guests.

Before they left the reception, Cassandra and Paul took part in a historic African-American tradition -- jumping the broom to signify that they were truly husband and wife.



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