Nqobile Bhebhe and Flora Fadzai Sibanda, Chronicle Reporters
“We lost materials worth thousands of United States dollars but not our skills, we’re back, sofa by sofa…” said Mpopoma Outspan Association chairman, Khozanayi Mlambo in an interview amidst the rubble of what was once Mpopoma Outspan factory.
In the early hours of Wednesday, the once thriving factory, popularly known as eSpamprekini, situated along Nketa Drive, adjacent to Mpopoma Park, was razed by a raging fire.
The scene was grim. In an instant, top of the range sofas, wardrobes, kitchen units, tables and wooden doors made as per customer specifications, were reduced to ashes.
But two days later, still devastated, counting losses and some figuring out how they would compensate clients who paid in advance, scores of men were back at work.
Standing on the ashes, Mlambo boldly declared: “We are back!”
Several were doing upholstery work while others were piling up rubble.
During the interview, one man passed-by singing gospel musician Charles Charamba’s hit, “Vakamuka vakangoona machira chete,” as a way of building morale among the entrepreneurs who were trying to pick up the pieces.
“We’ll rise from the ashes,” Mlambo vowed as he carried a chisel.
“We’ve been operating here since around 1996, taking orders from as far as Hwange, Beitbridge and Gweru and supplying many shops in Bulawayo. Since the place has been destroyed, people are still flocking here to sell their various wares. That’s an extra motivation for us,” he said.
Mlambo said they had begun work while they waited for assistance from well-wishers, Government included, as they have orders to honour.
“We need to put up a temporary shed. We also need equipment such as compressors, planes, timber, and foam rubber among many items. We’re not at our usual high morale but we’ll never give up.
“We haven’t lost hope; we’re bouncing back in a huge way. To our various clients, we appeal for more time to get back on our feet. All pre-orders will be delivered, that’s our pledge.”
Apart from delivering orders to clients, another motivating factor which came out during separate interviews with the entrepreneurs was the need to maintain the living standards they enjoyed before tragedy struck.
Some have children at expensive private schools and transferring them would affect their performance.
“From the proceeds derived from my business venture, I’ve sent two of my children to expensive private schools in Bulawayo. They’re now at university meaning more money is needed.
“I don’t want my children to drop out due to non-payment of fees. This tragedy has motivated my colleagues and I to produce more appealing products and lure more high-end clients,” said Mthandazo Mkhwananzi.
The usually lively eSimprapekini was characterised by youths scrambling for potential clients and cars loaded with furniture.
On Wednesday morning, people watched the area that was established more than 40 years ago turn into a heap of debris within minutes.
The horror fire quickly trended on various social media platforms and many were left asking: “What’s so special about eSimprapekini?”
Saturday Chronicle spoke to several elderly people in Mpopoma suburb on the history of the place.
Mr Sonny Tapona (90) said eSimprapekini was established around 1974.
“It was used as a marketplace for selling farm produce and there was a famous tailor who used to supply schools with uniforms. After independence, people gradually moved out of the area and started selling in front of the shops in Mpopoma,” he recollects.
Those that remained turned eSimprapekini into a social club where people used to play football.
A musical band would occasionally come to entertain locals.
According to Mr Tapona, many years down the line, the late nationalist, Cde Sikhanyiso “Duke” Ndlovu, a long time Mpopoma resident and legislator, turned the area into a welfare organisation.
“In the early 2000s, there were a few people now selling chickens and farm produce at the place. It was around the time when furniture people came and started operating there.
“When they started, there was a coffin-making company and one furniture-making person but as time went on, the area grew into a famous furniture-making shop,” he said.
One resident, who only identified himself as Sibanda, claimed to be one of the pioneers.
He operates a grinding mill.
Sibanda said the place was historical and many people have fond memories of it.
“Most people who grew up in Mpopoma will tell you they used to buy vegetables and nkukhu makhaya (free range chickens) from this area. After some time, it became a playground for many children and later transformed into a famous furniture factory. We really hope the Government will speedily come up with a rescue package,” said Sibanda.
According to the Bulawayo City Council, the place was a social club turned into a small scale hardware manufacturing and repairing various products such as sofas.
It consisted of four sheds and a guard room all built with bricks under zinc and asbestos and an unknown number of make-shift sheds sitting on a yard measuring approximately 45m x 60m.