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“I came out of prison a reformed man”: Onius Nzeve Makes a Living Crafting Miniature Trucks & Tractors

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Onius Nzeve

After 4 years in jail, Onius Nzeve needed a job to support his wife and children. A lucky meeting gave him that – along with a new skill, and a mentor. Meet the man who crafts tractors and trucks for a livelihood.

Arrested for committing a crime on the premises where he worked as a security man, Onius Nzeve, 30, spent four years atoning for his crime. After his release, he needed a job. He couldn’t find one.

“I came out of prison a reformed man, but society did not accept me. I could not get a job. I ended up selling vegetables and firewood to make a living,” he said.

For a while, the firewood-and-vegetables business seemed like an option but it was not sufficiently profitable. With a wife and three kids to support, Nzeve began to get desperate. It would have been easy to slip up and turn to a life of crime. Then, one day, his luck turned.

“I met this certain guy, who was making these car miniatures, using old tires, wood and wires. I wanted to learn a lot, but as a result of my past history, he did not trust me at first. He was sceptical and feared I might end up being a bad influence on him,” he said.

Nzeve persevered. Eventually, the “stranger”, Ezra Zigora, agreed to teach him how to create miniature cars, trucks and tractors from recycled wood, plastics and old car tyres, to sell to local residents and tourists on the roadside.

Ezra Zigora (L) and Onius Nzeve (R)

It wasn’t easy, at first. Zigora remained suspicious of Nzeve. It took Nzeve about four months to master the craft. He stuck with it, eventually managing to craft the tractors and trucks from start to finish.

Today, Nzeve and his mentor Ezra Zigora are best of friends. Working side by side, they have become a permanent feature at Goromonzi, along the busy Mutare – Harare highway, providing artistic solace to many sore-eyed, long-distance travellers.

The highway is a key route across Zimbabwe, from Mozambique in the east, to Botswana in the west and is popular with tourists. Nzeve and Zigora settled on the location after searching for a spot where they could work together.

“We had to find a suitable place for our business and Goromonzi was perfect,” explained Zigora.

Each morning the two men chisel, saw and glue together pieces of wood to create miniatures at their “base”, a makeshift workshop they built from plastic paper, cardboards and sticks. The workshop is surrounded by a myriad of recyclable materials such as old tires, tins, plastics, strings and paint cans.

“To make these miniatures we use wood, cut from Jacaranda trees, that we craft into various shapes to form the parts of a truck such as tractors and haulage trucks. We use worn-out vehicle tires, wire and scrap metal,” Nzeve explained.

The miniatures sell for anywhere between 10 and 30 US dollars each, depending on the piece – and the amount of haggling. On a good day, when the highway is busy, Nzeve can go home with 30 US dollars or more – a decent day’s wages in this part of the country.

Seated on the ground with traffic zooming past, Nzeve explained that many Zimbabwean customers buy the miniatures to decorate their homes and offices. Tourists buy them as souvenirs and presents, to take back home.

He said he is now able to care for his family with the money he makes from selling the miniatures. However, he bemoaned the impact of COVID-19 on the business.

“The main challenge now is the global pandemic COVID-19 that has resulted in restrictive travel bans, severely affecting business because there are no longer any tourists to buy the miniatures at competitive rates,” he said.

Despite COVID-19, Nzeve however said he has managed to save some money from the business as a deposit for a piece of land for a new residence.

He has even bigger dreams. He hopes that the miniatures that he and Zigora create will one day find their way to international markets.

“I hope… I can make many truck miniatures that can be sold regionally and internationally at competitive market rates so that my business becomes more sustainable and profitable,” he said, putting the finishing touches to a “John Deere” model tractor.

bird is Africa No Filter (ANF)'s story agency designed to shift narratives about and in Africa, away from dangerous stereotypes.

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