Business Indaba Interviews Chitambala Mwewa of Simoson Building and Simon Mwewa Lane
Updated: Apr 28, 2019
I went to visit my parents for 2 weeks at the beginning of March of this year in Zambia. Since they both work and have full schedules and my friends are equally working full time I needed to find something to do to fill up my time. Also, I am generally curious about how the Zambian economy is performing and developing. I work and live in Europe which means that I feel somewhat sidelined in not being a part of the action on Zambian soil.
I found a way of still feeling some part of it by interviewing 10 entrepreneurs during those 2 weeks I spent in Zambia. I had contacted these entrepreneurs weeks in advance and told them of the little time I had and what the purpose of the interviews were. 90% of the people that I contacted were willing to give me some time. That is the beauty of doing business in Zambia. It is very easy to get in touch with the right people. There are not as many gatekeepers as those I would encounter in my day job in Europe.
I had gotten wind of Chitambala Mwewa through Facebook. He runs a page called Simon Mwewa Lane. On this page he talks about matters that are dear to his heart both professional and private. He will discuss his favourite indigenous shows and celebrities and even invites the latter to his building for short interviews.
He also uploads short funny videos educating fellow Zambians on correct English pronunciation of words where he will say how indigenous Zambians will pronounce it incorrectly in a setting; and then follows it up by how one should say it correctly. It is a great way to start the day and watch one such upload.
It is not just fits and giggles though because he also digs into serious matters. He discusses mental health issues that society keenly sweeps under the rug. Also, what really started driving traffic to his page was during the cholera outbreak last year in 2018 and he was posting videos and comments on how all Zambians need to step up and keep the city clean, green and healthy. The page at the time of writing this article is less than 4000 follows away from reaching 100,000. When I reached out to Chitambala Mwewa through Facebook, I had no idea whether he would respond to my request or not. We have not met before this interview and I assumed that he would be a busy man. However, he promptly responded and wrote that he would be delighted to sit down for an interview. He simply said: reach out to me when you have touched down.
Prior to leaving for Zambia I had to get ready for the interviews in terms of having the right equipment. I already had a GH4 camera but I knew that I needed to get a better microphone for in the field. I needed to get a camera bag, a gimbal, a tripod and a spare battery for my camera. I ended up buying a Zoom H4N Pro microphone and a Zhiyun Crane 2 gimbal. You can watch my video on how I got ready for my trip by clicking here. Upon arrival in Zambia I was keen to get to get started on the interviews and also find out whether my equipment would live up to the task. I reached out to the 2 people that I wanted to get started with first. Cynthia Ellis of Konzani Gardens was the first person I interviewed simply because I wanted to break the ice with someone familiar as we grew up together. But Chitambala Mwewa was the second person that I wanted to talk to.
I reached out to him on the Saturday that I arrived which was the 2nd of march. He responded as promised and said that he would be free on Tuesday the 5th of March and we agreed to meet up at his building (Simoson). Simoson Building is along Simon Mwewa Lane which is right by city market. This is the busiest street in Zambia in terms of foot traffic and because of that I decided to have my parents' driver drop me off so that I did not need to find a parking spot amidst all that havoc. At the time I did not know that Simoson Building owned and managed their own car park for visitors.
I reached the reception of the building and was simply asked whether Mr Mwewa was expecting me which I confirmed. I was ushered upstairs without further question. I guess the camera equipment had left an impression on them. I knocked on the door and a booming and rich voice that I had become familiar with by virtue of his videos welcomed me in. Mr Mwewa is a jovial man of around the same height as myself. This surprised me because for some reason I did not think that he would be as tall. I am 1m87 and there are few fellow Zambians of similar height. Mr Mwewa is a person that immediately puts one at ease. His aura is that of a reverend in both his demeanour and projection of speech not unlike Barack Obama.
We did the interview in his office which is where he records most of his own videos as well. It quickly became apparent that his vast jargon and method of speech was not an act. He truly did have an American accent and he truly talked the way he talked. It was not a facade.
After the interview was done he remained a gracious host and gave me his time. The Simoson Building was built by his father. The building is the first shopping complex to be built and owned by an indigenous Zambian. Coincidentally, his father was also the first indigenous mayor of Lusaka. Mr Mwewa showed me his late father's office and in it he has hung up posters of movies and other memorabilia.
There was a Starwars poster as well as one of the Shawshank Redemption. There was some memorabilia of Michael Jackson. He also had pictures of his lovely wife and kids in various stages of their life. One particular drawing stood out. It was of his kids and it had been drawn by hand. A street artist had drawn it for him. On the walls of his father's office but also along the corridors of his building there were paintings drawn by Zambian artists as well. It gave the interior of the building a warm feeling.
We also walked outside, around the building itself. We drew quite a bit of attention due to the equipment that I was carrying. It was very clear that the vendors and people on the street knew exactly who Chitambala Mwewa is and they treated him with respect. He told me that this had not always been the case. When he had set about restoring the building, it had attracted the wrong type of tenants and street vendors around the building were in charge of the area.
In fact, the car park that is owned by Simoson Building caused a dispute as the street vendors (kaponyas in local lingo) had taken over the place and Mr Mwewa had legally fought to kick them off the property. As a result, the kaponyas threatened his life and he needed security during those trying times to protect his person. At some point he even had to wear a bullet proof vest. The Court ruled in favour of Simoson Building and police had to come and evict these kaponyas off the grounds.
As we walked around the building, none of what had transpired between Mr Mwewa and the kaponyas was visible in their interaction with one another. We were treated with respect. However, you could tell that Mr Mwewa has a no nonsense attitude when it comes to keeping the grounds clean. A man had come with a trolley close to the entrance of one of his tenants shops and had planned to set up shop there. Mr Mwewa addressed man in person and told him to go elsewhere with his trolley. He also employs 3 people that are continuously busy cleaning the pavement and the difference between his pavement and other shops is highly noticeable. As we walked and talked Mr Mwewa threw anecdotes at me at a speed with which I could not keep up. I told him that he must write a book about the history of his father because it is an interesting one. Outside, we also shot a scene where I was drinking a coke and threw the bottle on the ground once I emptied it. Mr Mwewa then tapped me on my shoulder and told me to pick it up and throw it away. I wanted to start the video with this scene. I was happy that Mr Mwewa was keen to do this scene with me. It was a slight jab at the video he had made telling a female street vendor with a baby on her back to pick up a bottle that was on the ground and to throw it in the bin. He had gotten a lot of backlash over that video. In my interview with him he explained the reason why he had told her to pick up that bottle and on the agreement he has with these vendors in general. This is why I thought it would be good to shoot that scene to show that he tells everyone to pick up trash and that it was merely a coincidence that this time it was a lady with a baby on her back.
Shooting that scene was fun but more difficult than I had thought it would be. For starters, I had run out of memory with my camera and so we had to do it with his phone. Secondly, the cameraman had not filmed us properly which meant that I had to down a second bottle of coke to do the scene again. I was also sad that it was a bottle of coke because I initially wanted to drink maheu (a local drink made of maize) as I found this would resonate more.
Once all the filming was done, Mr Mwewa introduced me to his aunt and mother who happened to be at the building. He also offered me to have some lunch but excused himself from not sitting down with me as he had another meeting at 14:00. I left the interview feeling satisfied with the conversation but also with the feeling of having made a new friend. You can watch the interview below.