In her native Zimbabwe, her first name means

hope

.

Now, Tariro Mupombwa wants to bring a brighter future to her troubled homeland through a simple project with simple means: sewing machines.

The 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania junior has been in Philadelphia on a student visa since 2006, majoring in biochemistry with a minor in economics. Three days a week in a Penn medical school lab, the student whose adviser calls her "brilliant" does advanced research on tuberculosis and enzymes.

But on a winter break in Zimbabwe two months ago, Mupombwa witnessed how the cholera epidemic that began in August, coupled with astronomical hyperinflation, is ravaging the country.

Even before its latest crises, the country was infamous for Robert Mugabe, the longtime leader viewed by the United States and many other Western governments as a dictator, though he now is being forced to share power.

"I realized I had to contribute something positive to the society," Mupombwa said in a recent interview.

Her plan is to collect donated sewing machines in America and export them to the Bumhudzo Old People's Home in Zimbabwe to start a nonprofit business making school uniforms and infant garments.

The residents of the Salvation Army-affiliated home would be trained as tailors to turn out button-down shirts, pleated skirts, khaki pants, and blazers.

Seeking support, Mupombwa has made a pitch for a prestigious Projects for Peace grant from the Davis United World Scholars program at Middlebury College in Vermont, which gives grants up to $10,000 for deserving ideas.

If she wins one, she plans to buy sewing machines in Zimbabwe. Absent a grant, she plans to raise funds and gather donated machines on her own.

Mupombwa, a middle child bracketed by brothers, grew up in the city of Kadoma, 90 minutes south of Harare, the daughter of a mother named Charity. Her father, Ian, a mechanical engineer at the Golden Valley gold mine, died in 2000.

She attended an all-girls Catholic missionary school and received a Penn scholarship coordinated through the United States Student Achievers program for economically disadvantaged youth.

Many of the old-age home retirees are from near Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. They have "no living relatives or their families could not afford to support them," Mupombwa wrote in her proposal. "About 30 percent . . . are of Malawian descent. This makes them vulnerable [to discrimination] and subject to neglect and abuse when they reach old age."

Because life expectancy in Zimbabwe is just 44 years, old age is a relative term. Mupombwa said most of the residents of Bumhudzo are 60 or younger.

While many foreign students in America use immigrant visas for personal growth and aggrandizement, Mupombwa distinguishes herself by having a social conscience, said her mentor, Harvey Rubin, a Penn professor of medicine, microbiology and computer science. When Mupombwa asked to speak to Rubin one day in his office, he said, he thought it would be about her lab work.

"But then she came to me and said, 'How can we help my country?' "

Surely, it needs help.

"Once considered the breadbasket of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe is now a country that can hardly feed its own people," Mupombwa wrote in the proposal she also submitted for support from the Global Development Initiative, a Penn program to promote international relations.

As of October, Zimbabwe's inflation rate had jumped 231 million percent over five years, Mupombwa wrote. Eighty percent of the population was unemployed. Malnutrition was rampant amid collapsing systems for drinking water, sanitation, and garbage collection.

Because electricity cuts are a daily occurrence in Zimbabwe, and the donated machines probably will be electric, Mupombwa also expects to need a generator for the project.

"Zimbabwe's economic turmoil has made the elderly extremely vulnerable," she wrote, adding the project would benefit a wide circle by providing job training in addition to several dozen initial jobs.

She hopes to begin with 25 to 35 sewing machines.

Her plan, she wrote, is to use "a small fraction" of a grant or funds she raises "to cover the initial wages of the tailors." Thereafter, "wages will be paid from revenue generated from garment sales." Textiles and thread will be purchased from Zimbabwe mills.

Mupombwa estimates that the country's half-dozen Salvation Army-affiliated schools - attended by upward of 3,000 uniform-wearing pupils - will provide a ready market for the clothes.

All she needs now are the machines, which Rubin offered to store in the basement of his Chestnut Hill house awaiting the summer break, when Mupombwa hopes to ship them to Africa.

With that, she will launch the project she calls "sewing a living - for the old, and the community at large."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541, or mmatza@phillynews.com.