Updated: Oct 1
Whenever there are big orders that require complex craft and design, Simba Matanda Matongera is the man to call. He possesses unique skills that set him apart. However, he is not alone. His wife Catherine, like many of the women in the Yes We Can (YWC) organisation, stands at the junction of many beautiful processes that yield impactful and inspirational results. She is not only a seamstress; for months has also been actively involved with creating bags for vegetable gardens. These went to soup kitchens and communities suffering from hunger in collaboration with The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition South Africa. The bags were distributed to farmers all over South Africa to encourage subsistence agriculture.
As husband-and-wife Simba and Catherine have also created eco-friendly gym bags. In partnership with Cape Union Mart, they creatively re-used and repurposed old promotional banners to create drawstring bags. It is paramount for Yes We Can to still be able to create quality products while staying environmentally friendly.
Additionally, in August 2022 they transformed old samples, pre-loved jeans, and denim from Old Khaki display windows to recreate and refashion them to construct up clycled denim bags. At the time of this interview, they were creating over 200 laptop bags for the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business under a tight deadline. UCT is currently the main client of the Yes We Can South Africa Foundation, and we are extremely proud to be associated with the top university on the continent.
Simba and Cat have vast experience and translate this to their fashion design brand Simba African Designs. Simba joyfully shared that he and Cat also boast many orders to their own business from ordinary members within the community. Their quality and trendy African print designs are popular! Their African roots are deeply rooted and feature beautifully in not only their everyday but the work that they do. Let it be known that Simba also works a full-time job fixing industrial sewing machines!
The inspirational story behind the skillset and work
At the centre of these vast skillset, are people who are more than just their material and creative work. In March 2022 Simba shared with us that his dream was to construct a home in his ancestral land, Mutare, Zimbabwe. He has successfully fulfilled this dream by building a 200m² residence, and the plan for the future is to build an even larger property for his business. This, he envisions, shall be a sewing and fashion design school.
While it is tempting to attribute his accomplishments to individual ambition and thinking, Simba expressed the spirit of community and giving embodied in Ubuntu. This is an African expression that in Shona (his home language) translates to “uri munhu nekuda kwevanhu” (you are because of other people) and “ndakasimba kana makasimbawo” (I am strong if you are strong) that emphasises that one is who they are because of other people. It couldn’t be truer for Simba.
He shared that before meeting his wife, he had a dream about them as a couple after his mother had advised him to seek a life partner. Three months later when he met her at Honde church in Mutare, her familiarity escaped him until he finally remembered that it was the woman from his dreams, the one with the scar on her face. His sense of vision is so powerful that it appears in dreams, and as their marriage would prove, he translates vision into reality. Catherine shared that he won her heart and that she was willing and happy to build from the ground up with him from poverty. They are now expanding their sewing business and recently purchased an industrial embrodery machine to the value of R65000.
Through saving and the help of a stokvel, an informal savings society to which an agreed amount of members financially contribute monthly from which they each receive a lump sum, this was made possible within a year! He was nurtured from a tender age by his grandmother and received life-changing advice and an introduction to sewing through his mother just before she passed away. This was the Malawian tailor and teacher that Simba’s mom introduced him to and they all played an instrumental role in the man Simba is today. He further shared that he learnt from Mozambicans how to buy and sell! A person is evidently shaped by the humanity of those around them. But even this is not the complete story of the Matongeras and neither has it completed.
From extreme poverty to a fruitful future through vision
From only being able to afford his first pair of shoes at the age of 23, Simba’s unwavering focus and clear vision have illuminated an inevitable path to success. He emphasised that vision has been a key factor to both his driving force and current success. He explained that he always yearned and still yearns to learn something new. He looks at the latest trends and designs online and takes after the lessons he learns from the people he meets, such as the Malawian man who first taught him how to sew. Simba advised that saying “I know” impedes growth, and that one should always have a spirit of welcoming new knowledge and ideas. He came from humble beginnings and possessed nothing, but now has a beautiful family, quality domestic and industrial machinery and property. Simba is evidently a person who is a testament to the strength that comes with an appreciation for the accumulation of knowledge.
Many Zimbabweans have become global citizens through agility, versatility and sheer hard work. While these are admirable characteristics, they have unfortunately been wielded from detrimental political and economic circumstances in Zimbabwe which have left many as refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable in the diaspora. Simba also indicated discontent with the recent 2023 August Zimbabwean presidential, parliamentary and local government elections as he was hoping for a better change. However, he expresses that one should not wait for politics to get better. “You should have vision”, he asserted. Below is an interview that Bush Radio Station, Cape Town conducted with Simba in August 2023.
As with vision, seeing into the future and diligently planning for it is an inevitable part of the process. Their 3 kids now all know how to sew. Even if they might not one day pursue sewing or fashion designing as a career, he is equipping them with the drive and entrepreneurial spirit that comes with it. Furthermore, the successes he and his wife will have built will not end with them. Simba lamented how painful it is to have grown up with no parents. It is commonly understood and appreciated that out of love and devotion for their children, parents offer help and lend guidance to their kids so that they may be able to flourish in the world. With his wife firmly at his side, and offering unwavering support to each other, they are doing just that. Sewing surely has become a gateway to unlocking not only financial independence and freedom but also ensuring a legacy. The Matongeras hope to expand their legacy while settled in Zimbabwe, and 2 of their 3 children have already relocated. They will soon follow. The legacy of one’s lineage after all plays a pivotal role in many African cultures, as it does in their Shona culture.
When Simba came to South Africa in 2008/9, his vision was never to stay, but to expand his already-growing sewing skills. Teaching and business are key elements of imparting knowledge and ensuring that you give back to the community in a sustainable way. Sustainability is one of the key elements of YWC. It is our mission to create and maintain a sustainable educational programme that equips our members with skillsets to develop themselves and maintain their livelihoods. It goes hand in hand with our vision for recipients of the YWC programme to replicate the programme model in their respective communities; ensuring longevity of it and its self-sustainability as well as creating self-employment and generating income for themselves and others. As the saying goes “If you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”.
However, at YWC we try and go beyond this because we do not believe that merely teaching one how to fish is enough. It is key to teach one how to fish and equip them with the entrepreneurial tools to successfully continually fish and grow beyond the starting point. How do they get the fishing rod and where, can they fund themselves and be able to buy even more advanced fishing tools? There are many limitations. Simba expressed that the biggest setback and challenge in the sewing business is machinery. However, they have managed to overcome this as they have assembled all the necessary equipment to create quality clothing that can go straight into clothing shops. The couple now own machines in Zimbabwe which will also be used for teaching the students back home. A project that he adopted from his Malawian teacher when he was a younger man.
It is all good and well to have skill and material possessions, but a heart of gold is priceless
Because of this spirit of ubuntu and having first-hand knowledge of the pain that poverty and helplessness invite, he loves helping those who are vulnerable and homeless. He explained that poverty is a terrible thing. It did however ignite in him a sense of compassion and empathy towards people.“Inopa moyo wekubatsira” (It [poverty] gives one a heart of helping [other people]) as he further expanded. He has engaged in assisting the homeless at the Homeless Hub from Rehoming Collective in Cape Town, a house that shelters members of society who have been disadvantaged by socioeconomic circumstances. At the homeless center, the most potent was substance abuse, while the women might have been victims of gender-based violence. He could see their humanity trapped in dire socio-economic circumstances beyond their control. To Simba, these are not obstacles. Equipping them with sewing and entrepreneurial skills they could use to empower themselves and escape their positions was one of the first steps towards restoring their dignity.
Simba firmly believes that “In life, everyone is your family”. He always instilled a sense of hope in them in the times that they felt small, incapable, and giving up. This is after recognising their emotions and allowing them to express their deep-seated feelings, which they felt comfortable enough to share with him. Not only is Simba goal-driven and hardworking, but he is a man with a warm heart for change and change beyond himself and his immediate family.
Private and Yes We Can students love him, and I’m sure by now you as the reader do too! It is this vision, skill and heart-driven personality that Yes We Can first radiated towards. At YWC we requested that he join us. He furthermore explained that his skillset was greatly valued and in his Bush Radio interview affirmed “How good it is to be surrounded by people who identified and respect my skill”. As much as he has a family and finds it in the ordinary human being, he and his wife are now also part of the YWC family.
Further challenges and what the future has in store
South Africa has been applying pressure for foreign nationals to leave the country. Particularly, so-called “illegal” immigrants and those on the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), which Simba and his wife are on. Security is minimal and everyday one does not know what the government will decide next for one's future. Well, he’s not waiting for it either. He and Cat are determined to be the core deciders of their destiny. It is with a larger property, more machines and students, and it is with a legacy. We asked him “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” and he confidently responded that “Ndinoona ndiri kure” (I see myself very far).
Simba and Catherine not only draw strength from their determination and their African roots but also their faith in God. Their devotion to God, in particular, encourages them to keep their faith in times when things go wrong. Faith has been described as the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evidence of things yet unseen. Skill, hard work, African Ubuntu and their spirituality are all strong guiding forces in their lives. At YWC we are only happy to play a role in these intersections. We wish the Matongera family a blessed flourishing future!