What do you think of when you hear the word, eloquent? Confident, well-spoken, talented or maybe star-power? Well, all those can be used to describe Ellain Qhawelihle Ncube, aka Cocoa. The Zimbabwean beauty is a finalist in the Miss Eloquent Africa pageant, a fairly new pageant that is empowering young women and celebrating culture across Africa through what has been dubbed ‘Africa’s Biggest Night of Beauty’. The 20yr old former Miss Curvy Varsities, actress, model and writer is no stranger to the spotlight.
Cocoa has won two awards thus far in her career; one Best Supporting Actress award from the Nash Drama Competitions and another from Isiphiwo Sami Drama Competition. Cocoa’s career has grown under the watchful eye of Fingers Modelling Academy, being groomed by Ma’am Sarah Mpofu Sibanda. Cocoa’s talent has landed her a scholarship to study Physical Theatre at the Zimbabwe Theatre Academy, under Mr. Lloyd Nyikadzino.
We sat down with the Bulawayo beauty to talk about her success so far in her fight for the 2021 Miss Eloquent Africa title, and everything in between.
Where were you when you got the news you were one of the two finalists to represent Zimbabwe at the Miss Eloquent pageant? Walk us through the moment.
Right; now this was the most exciting moment of my life because it came when I had lost all hope of making it through. I was on my way to a photoshoot with @AndilePhotography, and it was the last day of voting, of which I had not been checking my profile because I knew I had the lowest votes.
I then decided to just check them that afternoon before the shoot, and wooow…. I had the second-highest votes, which was a huge shock to me. I couldn’t believe it until that evening when the organiser Mr Stanley announced the finalists, and my name was right there. Given the opportunity, I would relive that moment, because it’s the best thing that has happened to me in 2021.
Tell me, how does it feel to be representing your country in such a huge way?
It’s really amazing because I have not only been given an opportunity to represent my country, but also my city Bulawayo, my family, and also the curvy beautiful women out there in Zimbabwe and in Africa as a whole. So, I am so excited and also looking forward to representing my country with confidence, dignity, pride and hope that one day Zimbabwe will be a pioneer in the arts sector.
Was pageantry ever a part of the life plan for Cocoa?
Yes, my modelling career began when I was doing my A’ Levels. I have always been inspired by beauty queens such as Ashely Morgan, Sipho Mazibuko, Catriona Gray, Zozibini Tunzi, who dedicate their time and skills to creating a peaceful, safe, and healthy environment for everyone, thereby making the world a better place for everyone.
Can you summarise for me what Miss Eloquent basically is?
Miss Eloquent Africa is a Beauty Pageant that seeks to empower African women to embrace their beauty, and be proud of being African. This year’s theme is “Our Africa, Our Pride”. The theme is to promote Africa’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and ultimately promote tourism through pageantry.
You are the pageant’s local license holder for next year, what does that mean?
It means that next year I and my fellow queen Nicole Mandimutsa will be responsible for organising Miss Eloquent Zimbabwe.
The Miss Eloquent pageant aims at empowering young African women, promoting African cultures and uniting Africans. How do you plan on taking these aims a step further if you win the title?
Many African women succumb to the fact that they can’t do things because of what society says, and also in many cases, images of Africa are always negative and focused on war, corruption, poverty, to mention a few, and yet there’s more to Africa than all that negativity. Therefore, If I’m to be crowned Miss Eloquent Africa I will dedicate my time, skill and energy to changing that mentality through my 2021 project “Action of Hope.” I will do this by educating young boys and girls of the beautiful African traditions, cultures and beliefs, and help them explore their talents without judgement. Hopefully, through this project, we will see more beautiful images of African children and adults embracing their cultures, because we need the world to see how beautiful Africa is.
I also want to use the Miss Eloquent Africa platform to advocate for mental health, my work with Ingutsheni Central Hospital, the mental health referral institution in Zimbabwe, has opened my eyes to this serious issue. According to the WHO, mental illness could be a deadly pandemic by the year 2030. In my opinion, it’s better to raise awareness and be safe than sorry.
Pageantry essentially is putting yourself out there, and with increased use of the internet, cyberbulling is definitely a thing. Has this yet to become something you have gone through?
Fortunately for me, I have not yet experienced cyberbullying, but it is something I am very well aware of.
On that note what advice would you give other women out there on how to handle cyber bullying?
I am not going to pretend to have all the answers, but from the things I have seen and heard, it looks like a horrific experience. My advice to women is, “Don’t take online chatter so seriously, don’t put your worth in the hands of strangers. Not everyone will like you, some people are just broken, and need to bring you down to feel better about themselves.”
The matter of colourism is one many in Africa are starting to talk about and become aware of. What is your take on it as a woman in pageantry?
First and foremost, every skin colour is beautiful! l personally don’t care about skin colour, because the truth is beneath every skin colour, you bleed red, and we are all human beings. However, we can’t avoid the fact that there is discrimination among African people based on skin colour, which is very disheartening. I always ask people, “How do you expect to fight against racism and win, when you are busy promoting colourism, tribalism and all that?”
In order to fight against related issues like racism, Africans should unite! We should embrace our beauty, our cultures, and be confident enough to show the world how beautiful and amazing all shades of our melanin skin are. An African proverb says, ‘In order to fight an Alien and an oppressive culture, you must first embrace your own.’ We need women to rise, take up space, and accept their unique and beautiful skin colour.
It definitely is a time of development and change within the pageantry world; the Miss SA pageant announced this year that the competition would be open to transsexual participants. What’s your take on such change and what it means for the industry?
First of all, instead of calling it change, I think I would prefer to call it progress, because really when we look at South Africa’s modelling industry, it has been developing quite well. From acknowledging that curvy women are also women who deserve a shot at being Miss SA, to crowning a queen with short natural hair who has inspired thousands of African women around the globe to feel secure about having natural short hair, and now also accepting transsexual individuals… that is a whole lot of progress.
I think it is great that they are using pageantry to promote equality, unity and peace in Africa, because for a long time and up till now, the LGBTQ community struggles to fight against societal discrimination, and it is because people are too ignorant. Just because someone is different from you doesn’t make them any less human. I applaud South Africa for taking a stand against discrimination.
Where can we go to show our love and support of you as you vye for the Miss Eloquent crown?
Those who would like to know more and be a part of my projects can reach out on those platforms, also for sponsorship. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
We are rooting for you Cocoa!
Interviewed by Hazel Lifa
Paxwear – Contemporary Swimwear Made in Kenya by Idah Aluoch
I wanted to make something that people could relate to; fitting, comfortable, and stylish enough bikinis, using vibrant colors.
It has always been Idah Aluoch’s dream to start a swimwear brand. After many years of hard work, her dream has finally come true, and she is designing and supplying contemporary, high-quality and high-end swimwear across Kenya and East Africa.
This is Idah’s story of how and why she started designing swimwear.
You earned the name Pax as a nickname from your mother. What does it mean, and what is the significance of giving your brand the same name?
Pax means ‘Peace’ in Latin. Pax was the Roman goddess whose symbol was used for peace after the Greek wars. I decided to name my brand Paxwear to make all the girls and women feel empowered and allow them to show their inner beauty and confidence through the vibrant, timeless, and fashionable bikinis, regardless of the labels put on us by society. I believe it takes confidence to wear bright colors and stand out; Paxwear gives exactly that!
What inspired your decision to start designing swimwear?
I always loved fashion and dressing up at a very young age, from about ten years old. Growing up around the Lake Victoria region in Kenya, we used to swim bare, with no swimwear. Having moved towns, we now owned a TV and I could see people wearing bikinis, and I got intrigued in not only wanting to own one, but also to make one. At that point, knew I wanted to make something that people could relate to; fitting, comfortable, and stylish enough bikinis, using vibrant colors.
Paxwear designs are inspired by the rising sun and just like it radiates through the skin and brings out the brighter and powerful side of you, Paxwear is designed to ignite the fun, vitalise and beam the confidence in you by focusing on fabric, fit, and functionality.
Did you attend any classes to learn how to design?
Not at all, everything I am doing now is all self-taught and done with passion.
Coming from a culture and society where skimpy clothes were not really allowed, you struggled for a while with the decision to tell your family and friends about your dream to design swimwear. How did you finally gather up the courage to tell them and to start designing?
Yes I did, and I am against some of the labels put on women regarding clothing by society. I was worried about how I would tell this to my parents and what society would think of me, but I was wrong. During my final year in University, I told my parents about the idea and they were all in to support me, as well as my friends. At this time, I was also doing modeling part-time, so they knew about my strong interest in fashion. This made it easier for them to understand, and gave me the courage and confidence to start strong. I also had a vision and some sketches drawn for the designs I wanted to come to life as my first collection, which did very well.
How did they react to your announcement, especially your family?
They were so happy and very proud of me for confiding in them and starting Paxwear. I am very fortunate to have the most supportive family I could ever ask for and they have been there for me ever since.
You started modeling and participating in fashion shows when you were still in high school. What was it that interested you so much about the fashion industry, and was your family supportive about your modeling career?
I loved dressing at a young age and I remember having fashion shows with my sisters in our house corridors at the age of around 10. I wanted to become an inspiring and empowering woman to others through fashion and my parents supported me by encouraging me to keep going and often changed my wardrobe. I also contested to be the face of both my high school and University and they reacted positively to the news.
Where did you attend university, and why did you choose to do a degree program in nutrition?
I studied at the Technical University of Kenya and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Nutrition and Dietetics. I loved sciences, especially Biology, and performed well in them. Having a passion for modeling made it an easier choice for the program since I knew it would help me understand my body and health in the fashion industry better.
During your studies, you gained a lot of knowledge about fitness. How did that impact your career in fashion design and modeling?
Yes, that’s correct, and that has helped me to incorporate the knowledge of fitness and most importantly understanding one’s body, to make athleisure wear; a lifestyle that everyone dreams of when you wear Paxwear for all types of women.
There is a pandemic around the world of models not eating much at all to stay skinny, in some cases leading to life-threatening disorders like anorexia and bulimia. How are you spreading the knowledge gained from your studies in nutrition and fitness to other models to help them stay healthy?
This is a sad truth and I have gone through the same to ‘fit in’ the modeling world. I use the Paxwear platform to showcase body positivity, empowerment, and aim to be as inclusive as I can to make every woman belong and not to allow themselves to be victims of the societal beauty standards.
You live in a coastal country which for the most part is always sunny, and I can imagine that is good for your swimwear business. How are you managing to keep up with orders coming in from all over Kenya, and from some other East African countries too?
The weather here favours my brand and also inspires me to create more. I do ship the bikinis worldwide on order with Aramex and DHL services and even better, I have a Paxwear size chart that helps my customers in getting their right fit. All orders are done online on the Paxwear page, and sometimes by email at email@example.com.
Do you have a team that assists you with producing the swimwear, or you are the ultimate ‘sole trader’?
I am a solopreneur; however, I always reach out for help if need be.
As orders are increasing, how do you maintain the quality of your products?
By ensuring customer satisfaction, I listen to their needs and also ensure Paxwear is ethically produced and delivers exactly as promised.
What makes your products stand out from the rest, and what principles do you use in business to retain your customers?
Paxwear is a contemporary made in Kenya swimwear brand showcasing women’s confidence and empowerment using vibrant colors. The bikinis are designed to beam and ignite the fun in you by focusing on fabric, fit, and functionality. My passion for Paxwear lives by integrity, perseverance, and being innovative to make a relatable brand for all the women and girls out there.
What are your words of advice to a young African who is inspired by you and might want to pursue a career in fashion and/or modeling?
If you cannot stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it and trust the process, always.
Check out Paxwear designs on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, @paxwear.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
How Anne Kiwia Started Making Headbands & Empowering Tanzanian Women: Every Queen Deserves A Crown!
…our Headband became a Crown to symbolise that sisterhood can not just create a beautiful product, but can also overcome anything, together.
Her Tanzanian father was one of the very first Africans to travel to Romania in the 70s to enhance his studies in Medicine on an exchange programme. He settled well there and fell in love with a Romanian woman, and they soon had a daughter named Annemarie.
Growing up in Romania as a mixed-race child and also being one of the very first Afro-Romanian people born there was not easy for young Anne.
“I remember Trevor Noah’s Biography with the title “Born A Crime”. I could say that I carried the same stamp, being the first generation of African-Romanians. My family and friends used to hide my identity, saying I got a good tan and perm. Most importantly though, I received so much love from my Grandma and parents, that nothing really mattered to me,” says Anne.
Anne spent her first years with her Nanna (maternal grandmother), as both of her parents had to work. “She really knew how to paint my world bright and colorful. We used to sit together in the kitchen and sing along to radio, and stitch table runners with cross-stitched figures. Our house was a museum of handstitched crafts. We lived a simple life, and the little we had was shared with the community and friends. I remember queuing in the early hours (3am) for bread and meat. Sometimes we would go home empty-handed, but there was always someone who could help us out. We would commute between the city block apartment and my grandmother’s village house which had no electricity or running water. At the village house we used to plant our own vegetables and sell them at the markets,” smiles Anne, who vividly remembers her early years.
Due to some unforeseen events, her father soon had to return to Tanzania, and left Anne to be raised by her mother and her grandmother. Read on to find out how Anne ended up as an entrepreneur in the country of her father’s birth.
Your maternal grandmother taught you how to hold a needle, sew and stitch at the age of three. Would you say that that is what made you gravitate towards a career in Fashion Design?
I believe that she created an early awareness of different textures, patterns and colours. I was encouraged to create something beautiful on my own, even if it was a little table runner. I also had a little blanket called Nana to fall asleep with. I remember how the texture felt like in my hands, and the washed out pinkish colour.
Many a time as Africans, we assume that Europeans have it good and easy, but that was not the case for you in your early years. You went through quite a lot of hardship with your mother and grandmother and survived on very little. How did you manage to get through that tough period, and did it shape who you are now as a person?
I believe difficult circumstances shape people to become more innovative. Believe it or not but with the little my Nanna had, she could make a feast like Jesus did. I even remember eating pure garlic on a piece of bread by the age of 4. That’s something kids of today have never heard of. But the quality of the homemade bread and the homegrown garlic had a magnificent taste.
Today I’m living in Tanzania which is considered a third-world country, and I witness poverty on every corner. When I share stories with my home team (staff at our home) about my poor childhood, they start giggling. It’s funny to imagine that you can be poor and eat apples and grapes all day (available in Romania on homegrown trees) but you could not get hold of a banana, besides the fact that you don’t even know what it looks like. I remember the smell of the first oranges that my African dad brought home. It filled the rooms with an unknown sweet fruity fragrance.
All in all, I can say that no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, it’s the decisions you make that will determine your destination. Poor decisions are worse than being poor.
Leaving Romania and moving to Germany with your mum and stepfather was a blessing for you in terms of educational opportunities. How was your schooling experience in Germany compared to Romania?
For sure I was blessed to be able to gain my education in a country like Germany. As of today, many people argue about race and discrimination in Germany. But as for me, I can only say I was welcomed like any other. I could visit public schools and gain the same quality education as rich kids. My parents were able to make a living and start a new life there. No country is perfect, but I believe Germany is trying its best. In Romania we would have no future in those times as corruption was rife.
Being in Tanzania reminds me of the unbalanced society. There is such a gap in education. If I could be an ambassador for something, I would choose to lighten the education sector with an ‘international standard’ to set up a basic quality education for everybody.
After completing high school, your parents wanted you to get a ‘normal’ job in a bank or as a hotel manager. How did you handle the pressure of being told what to do and trying to live up to their expectations?
I basically failed every bank interview and test I went to. Nevertheless, I never got too upset as I didn’t desire it. Therefore there was no way I could work in those fields
Once I did my Bachelor’s in my chosen field, they could hardly divert me.
At university, you chose to do a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphics and Fashion Design. How do you merge the two, seeing as designing graphics on a computer and fashion design seem so different to a layman?
I was a bit naïve when I subscribed to the programme, thinking that it would be mainly designing fashion. To my big surprise, graphic design played a bigger role, and I had to just go with it. It was only later on that I discovered the benefit of it. Being able to design my own adverts and develop my own branding and have an idea of marketing and PR is worth gold in this field.
As hard it is for me to sit down on a computer, I do appreciate this combination.
What career options were you looking at after attaining your qualification which could encapsulate both aspects of your skills?
I looked at graphic design at the start, as there was a higher chance to get employment. But at the back of my mind I always kept the door open for Fashion and entrepreneurship. Doing internships in Fashion was really more interesting, but to climb up the ladder was also much harder. It was only when I got to work for German Vogue Magazine that I felt I had reached a platform that could set me up for the Fashion industry.
After graduating, your parents gave you some money to get started in life, with the choice to start a business start a business, and instead, you decided to use the money to travel the world. Can you tell us a bit about your world journey? Which countries or cities did you enjoy being in the most, and which ones were the most disappointing in terms of your expectations?
Yes, to the biggest disappointment of my parents, I chose to travel the world as a Backpacker. When I first reunited with my biological Dad in Tanzania I felt so encouraged to travel, as it was my first time in Africa. After my Bachelor’s, it seemed the best time to minimalize my life into a 13kg backpack and explore the world. I purchased a round-the-world ticket from STA Travel, which took me to South Africa – Australia – New Zealand – Indonesia – Singapore – Malaysia – Thailand – Laos.
I was not prepared for South Africa as a friend of mine had invited me to her wedding in Pretoria, and my plans were made around the wedding. I really didn’t expect to see such a diverse and beautiful spot of the world like SA. I immediately fell in love with Cape Town. The culture mix and the individual touch made SA so unique, never mind the breathtaking landscape that never gets boring. It was the perfect place in my identify search, I would say.
The other countries also had their charm, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make them a home. Laos was very original, and quite an adventurous place to travel. Their France-influenced dishes and traditions were inspiring.
What did you learn from your trip, and how did it impact the direction of your career?
My English improved immensely, and I really got inspired culturally. But the biggest impact it had was that I had the courage to do it on my own, despite all the doubts and fears of friends and family. It gave me a ‘courage-vaccine’ that would set me up for life, without listening to much of what other people think or say. Despite that, my travel year didn’t lead me to miss out on any employment opportunities at all. It actually set the barrier to understand that an opportunity will arise at the right time, at the right place.
On returning home, you managed to land your dream job at Vogue Magazine Germany, thanks to your recently spruced up portfolio after travelling the world. Can you tell us about your experience working at one of the best magazines in the world?
I remember how nervous I was on my first days at Vogue. The environment was so professional and accurate. Despite the picture that most people would paint about Vogue, I felt it had a very driven and passionate environment that would not fall into the cheap gossip image. I got to know different departments and to see and taste a wide range of luxury products. I loved going to the beauty department to look through the latest fragrance and cosmetics. It was a mind-blowing experience to be behind the scenes of fashion, and another step towards creating my own brand.
Getting engaged to your then-fiancee whom you had met in Australia during your world journey meant that a few years after you started working in Germany, you had to move to England where he is from, and living in a small town outside of London meant that you had to put all your dreams on hold. How did you handle having to compromise or sacrifice your career for love?
Well, we had been in a long-distance relationship for almost 3 years, and so it was about the right time that one of us would sacrifice. I felt privileged that I was able to gain those experiences in the high fashion industry through Vogue Magazine and luxury online store mytheresa.com. But I also knew that I needed to move on in order to find my calling or purpose.
Besides having recently found your biological dad after not seeing him or being in touch for 20 years, and having connected with his side of the family for the first time, what else motivated your decision to move to Tanzania?
I united with my dad 20 years ago and came occasionally to visit. I think a sense of freedom called me to stay permanently in Tanzania in 2012. Freedom to make choices even if they were bad. I felt I lived in a vacuum of restrictions and rules that could not unfold my potential. My love for community and relationship were above business, and so there was a desire to see if I could find it in Tanzania.
How did you convince your husband to move to Tanzania with you?
Just before we got married I expressed my desire to live in my father’s country, and if he would consider it once we were married. As we both met while traveling the world, we were soon unexpectedly in for the unknown chapter of a new life in Tanzania.
What pushed you to become an entrepreneur, and what gave you the idea to start the high fashion brand, Anne Kiwia Headbands?
Starting out my new life in Tanzania, I really saw a chance of becoming an entrepreneur. Besides that, I wanted to inspire a nation with my skills and work experience gained in Germany, and set an example of diversity and working together to create.
My research of high-quality fabrics led me to the Mitumba Markets (vintage markets). From there I started a little shop with upcycled fashion, with only one tailor and a sewing machine. But soon with my first kid, I didn’t have the time that I needed to make it work. There was a lack of good tailors in the country and that made me shift to one product, working with unskilled people but with great potential.
Having seen a headband that a friend brought along, I made the decision to focus on one product. With the inspiration of an article in Vogue Magazine about a Pocket Square tissue for $30, I had a vision. We tested the headband at local craft markets, and the international and local response was amazing. When I first thought of a brand name I considered our poor copyright laws, and thought it might be the best to use my own name. It’s not easy to pretend to be Anne Kiwia.
How is the quality of life for you in Tanzania compared to being in Europe? What do you appreciate most about life in Africa?
Well, we kind of established ourselves here in Tanzania, and having family helped a lot. It hasn’t always been easy, but we made it work. I appreciate the opportunity to work with people not just outside home but also inside my home. I have a great team at home helping me with the household and raising my kids. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do.
Here, I appreciate that time doesn’t matter. There are no deadlines, but we work to our best potential.
Perfectionism exists only in your mind, and if you can see the beauty in a beautiful chaos, you can definitely step ahead.
How has your business journey been like in Tanzania so far? What are your biggest wins, and what challenges do you face?
Growing a brand in Tanzania is a slow process and requires lots of patience and belief in oneself. Even when we face difficulties we always find a way to work around it. The biggest win is that I gained so much trust and respect in the last three years from my team. I started with ‘my’ vision and it became ‘our’ vision. I have no doubts that the people that work with me are so inspired and empowered by my work that they now have the confidence to start their own business if they needed to.
Secondly, I’m proud that Tanzania is slowly adapting to my mixed race identity. I just recently got elected for the first time to join a Tanzanian women’s platform of talented local Designers that have made it in Tanzania. (Check https://makeitmatter.org/).
Lastly, I’m extremely proud to state that our product was selected as the first Tanzanian accessory to be featured in Vogue Magazine.
How do you juggle being a wife, a mother, and an entrepreneur who is contributing towards women empowerment in Tanzania?
I’ve built a little empire at home and put talented and passionate people in the right positions. Salama loves to cook. She joins different cooking classes that I sponsor. We are thankful for having her looking after our health and wellbeing, while we support her with a fair salary and a team-spirit-led work environment.
Saidi our security man is also the solution finder. His way of thinking around problems helps me often to unlock my brain and find better solutions for local problems. All in all, we work together and they know that I can be hands-on on everything they do.
A few years ago you had to look after your father who was dying from cancer. How did the headband studio team contribute to your healing, and what impact did this partnership have on the overall meaning of creating headbands?
I believe it was the hardest season I have ever faced in my life. Despite looking after my dad, I had several other challenges that were overwhelming and threatening my mental health. I really don’t remember having to deal with so many challenges all at once. In this time I used to seek shelter at my workshop and listen to the ladies singing so joyfully, despite their brutal and violent stories of their neighborhood. When we matched the fabrics of the headbands, It felt like a healing process and a safe place to be, a place to rest my heavy soul for a bit.
At the same time, Salama my right-hand at home looked after me. I had lost 8kg in a period of two months and despite her marriage breaking up around that time, she kept looking after me like a caring sister.
Surrounded by this kind of warrior, I got out of the darkness and got back on my feet, but I needed to share this wonderful experience that was shared with me.
“Every Queen deserves a Crown” was born and the queens that inspired me the most were my very own people I was surrounded by. Suddenly our Headband became a Crown to symbolise that sisterhood can not just create a beautiful product, but can also overcome anything, together.
How do you want women to feel when they wear Anne Kiwia Headbands?
Like a queen! They should celebrate their uniqueness and feel empowered and inspired by the sisterhood that creates them. We are ordinary heroes!
It makes me proud to see the receptionist at my son’s school and many other teachers and parents wearing our headband. Every time my team spots a lady on the street or at church with our headbands, they know they have a special gift, and they are proud to be part of this mission.
What are your parting words to young African women who are free-spirited like you and would like to chart their own journeys in life, yet parents or society may be pushing them in other directions?
Don’t be afraid to fail as there is growth to come out of failing. Fear is the worst enemy of finding your path and passion. Sometimes the unknown can lead you to find out what your gifts are. Be patient, and don’t drive for fast money.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Connect with us via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @asanteafrikamag
Neka Malone – From Wrongfully Convicted & Homeless Mum of 6, To Trailblazing Entrepreneur in Ghana
I even considered suicide once, and what stopped me was the thought of “Who will love my children unconditionally, and who will teach them the foundation of faith?”
Providing a stable and comfortable home for your children is every parent’s dream, but for many years, that was something that Taneka Kahilia Malone was not able to do for her children. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States, the mum of six went through a most challenging period in her life. Heartbreaking as the experience was, read on to find out how Neka and her kids managed to get through some of life’s greatest challenges.
What motivated your decision to study Psychology at university?
I studied in Dallas Texas, and I was very intrigued with how the mind works and the behavior of people. My mission in life is to help people heal from past challenges and struggles, and identify with who they are.
Around 2011, as a single mother of five boys and one girl living in Dallas, Texas, you went through a lot of challenges, the biggest one being homelessness. Can you briefly tell us about those challenges which you faced? What led to you becoming homeless?
Watching my children make pallets on people’s floors was heartbreaking for me. I used that pain to push myself to become financially stable. I was wrongfully convicted of a felony in 2006, which put a huge strain on me professionally, hence I was not able to find sustainable income. I was forced to take jobs that did not pay me enough to maintain housing.
What gave you the strength to get up each day and do odd jobs, while also continuing to look for better jobs to look after your children?
My children were my motivation, the fact that they smiled and laughed through the storm. Some nights we stayed up all night just talking and thinking about the future, and that gave us all hope. My children managed to still graduate high school and build their athletic careers. It was imperative that I kept my faith and continued to rise, even if it was just a few steps at a time.
I can imagine that at times it got so difficult that so many things would go through your mind. Did you ever get angry at God during your lowest moments, and did you ever give up and think you would never get out of the misery?
I’m only human, and for a long time I thought I had angered God, and that God was not hearing my cry for help. I never stopped praying, and even with all the anger and resentment of life in my heart, I still prayed and believed that there had to be an opposite to my struggle. I even considered suicide once, and what stopped me was the thought of “Who will love my children unconditionally, and who will teach them the foundation of faith?” By God’s grace, I’m still here.
From moving across homeless shelters, motels, and friends and family’s places, sleeping on the floor and surviving on government support, what inspired all your children to stay in school, stay humble, stay smiling, and stay well-behaved and finish school?
They have never seen me give up in life. The countless sacrifices I made to make sure they attended school motivated them to want to provide a better life not only for themselves but for me also, and my children encouraged and motivated each other.
After moving back to Minnesota and staying with family for about a year, finally in July of 2017, your prayers were answered and you and your family got approved for a four-bedroomed family home. Reminiscing on everything you had been through, how did you and the kids feel when you first moved into your new home?
One word – Peaceful!!!
God has been gracious to you and your family, the kids finished school and now almost everyone has a place of their own. How does that make you feel?
As a mother of six, this parenting thing was not easy. I’m beyond proud that they have been taught that no matter the depth of the sea, keep swimming, because greater things lie ahead. I’m very much humbled and blessed, and the love and admiration my children and I have for each other is incredible. They are my biggest cheerleaders, as I am theirs.
You also co-authored two books, one of which made you an Amazon No.1 Best-Selling Author. Can you tell us about the books?
‘Echoes in the Darkness’ was a joint collaboration of women who are domestic violence survivors. Amazon Best-Seller ‘Women Who Inspire Greatness’ was targeted towards the youth, and young women in particular, to help them learn about different women who overcame various obstacles while building their careers. Both books allowed me to be authentic, genuine, motivational, and inspiring, and contributing to them was so much fun!
When was Fire on the Runway born, and what was the inspiration behind starting it?
I started the Traveling Fashion Production ‘Fire on the Runway’ in 2015. Our first show was in Dallas Texas, U.S. in 2016. After becoming triumphant over my journey of homelessness and joblessness, I felt I had a deeper calling, so I started my entrepreneurial journey in mid-2014. My family was led by my Aunt Liz Adams, and we started Diamond Girls Fashion, an online clothing store with a focus on providing nice affordable wear to women in the military.
Fire on the Runway has now grown internationally, and will be touring Africa with our ‘All Eyes on Us Fashion Tour #RefocusAfrica’.
What are your biggest achievements so far as CEO of Fire on the Runway?
Changing the lives of others around me, growing my brand internationally, and now owning an all-black organisation!
After all your kids had left home, you decided to move to Ghana. What made you decide to pack up all your belongings and move to West Africa?
I started visiting Ghana in April of 2018, and from the first day I fell in love with the culture. Later on learning about the growing economy here and opportunities to build several businesses was very interesting to me, so I stepped out on faith, and the rest is history!
In 2020 you started an online store. Can you tell us about your business and how it is doing?
The store is called Kahilia’s Kollection and we sell sophisticated everyday wear for women. A year later we are still maintaining and growing our clientele.
You’ve been in Ghana for nearly six months now. How is it going there, and is it everything you imagined it would be?
I totally love Ghana, there is a very peaceful vibe. It’s not what I imagined, to be honest, it’s more than I could have even thought of. The beauty of the country alone is captivating. One month after arriving I was appointed Social Media and Marketing Manager for the Tourism Society of Ghana, which for me was a huge accomplishment.
What are you enjoying most about being in Africa, which you could never get or experience in America?
Freedom! I do not feel afraid because of my skin colour. People respect you more, you’re acknowledged as a woman entrepreneur, not just being a black woman entrepreneur. I can’t leave out the food; my favorite is Jollof Rice and Groundnut Soup with Red Snapper fish.
In most countries in Africa, we take for granted that someone can own an all-black company or organisation, but in the United States that is such a big deal, and opportunities like that are celebrated. What is the significance to you of now owning an all-black organisation?
I feel very accomplished and honoured that I achieved something that most people in America can only dream of.
What are your plans for the next five to ten years?
I will continue building Fire on the Runway and writing books, including my own story in fullness. I also will develop a mentorship program for the youth who are interested in the fashion industry.
What would you say to a single mother who is facing similar challenges to those which you faced, and all hope seems lost to them?
Keep going, It’s all part of the process! Stay strong in faith, never give up, and remember you are doing your best. Remember to love you as well!
Connect with Neka through her Instagram, @fireontherunwayllc, or visit her website, www.fireontherunway.org.
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