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Immobility couldn’t stop Zena from pursuing career as chef

Tuesday July 13 2021
Zena pic

Chef Zena Akua. PHOTO | COURTESY

By Diana Elinam

People who are born without certain abilities find a way to adapt and adjust earlier on in life, but for people who suddenly lose their ability; the adjustment stage becomes very difficult for them. During a recent TEDx Oysterbay talk, Chef Zena Akua - the founder of Parachefs Tanzania - left the crowd in tears after she shared her inspiring journey.

Chef Zena was invited to TEDx Oysterbay that ran under the theme “The bigger picture”. This opportunity came by when she ran into Catherine-Rose Barretto, one of the organizers of the event, during international women’s day where she had introduced herself and her business. Catherine found Zena’s story to be very moving and intriguing and nominated her for TEDx Oysterbay.

Zena Akua was born in Mlimba, Kilombero and is the last born in a family of six. She is now 28 years old, but at the age of 4, Zena’s life changed completely when she got severely sick from fever one night as she was sleeping.

This fever led to the paralysis of her entire body. The doctors failed to figure out what the problem was and as days went on, the situation worsened. At some point, she lost her eyesight and speech. “This situation was hectic for my family, but they fought for me and eventually I got better but my limbs were still paralyzed. I failed to continue visiting hospitals because the costs were too high. My life changed abruptly from there on,” she said.

Chef Zena slipped into a six-month-long coma when she first fell ill. She regained consciousness and was slightly better for about two years. On the third year however, she fell sick once again but this time around, they were able to get treatment from the Muhimbili Orthopaedic Institute (MOI) in Dar es Salaam.

She then chose to stay in Dar es Salaam for the rest of her life because the city offered more opportunities for her to find medical aid as well as support.

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Chef Zena managed to study until form four and her passion for cooking grew because of the inspiration she got from her mother’s cooking. “My mother was a great chef and before I got sick, I would often tell her that I wanted to become like her. When I woke up from the 6-month long coma, the first thing I said was ‘mom I need your food’. Despite being sick, when I got out, I still helped her when she cooked. I love cooking and whenever I do so, my brain and limbs connect and I feel my limbs regaining life.”

Life moved on and Zena’s parents still took a great care of her until her mother died in 2016. “My mother and I were best friends; life was not easy when she passed on. She had suffered for six years before she died,” narrates Zena.

Losing her mother was the hardest thing to ever happen after her illness. “I could not do anything other than stay indoors and cry, but one day I decided I will live the last words my mother said to me.”

Her mother reminded her of how beautiful she was and encouraged her to get out of the house, go into the world and live her life fully. “Immediately I made the decision to follow this advice, I never turned back,” she said.

Life went on well until again she lost her father in 2019 to diabetes; this was like an unhealed wound being torn open once again. “My mom left me under the care of my father but unfortunately, my father left me under the watchful eye of people who did not accept me for whom I am,” she reveals.

This situation forced Chef Zena to begin fending for herself even more. At the time of her father’s passing, she was taking cooking courses through an initiative under CCBRT that was sponsored by the Italian organization CEFA.

Contrary to her belief, it was not easy for her to penetrate the work field. Not only did she struggle to get a job but even finding an internship opportunity was hard for her. At this point she had no help; her parents were not around so she had to figure out how to navigate life.

Zena decided to start a small-scale sea-food business; she would wake up early in the morning to go to the fish auction, prepare the fish and go door to door selling them. Chef Zena’s business started blooming until a global pandemic hit and she had to be innovative.

In April 2020, she set up a business social media account and began selling online. She expanded her business by adding cooked food. She focused on Tanzanian dishes, fresh sea-food, cooked sea-food and Italian dishes. She then decided to open doors to fellow chefs with disabilities and that was when Parachef Tanzania was born.

Chef Zena, put together her savings to start the business and she says the purpose of this business is not only to generate income for her but to support other chefs with disabilities to get a platform for work. They are hopeful that the community will see their effort and support them.

Parachef Tanzania has now grown to more than a small take-out restaurant. It is a place where those with disabilities come and learn different culinary skills. The platform is determined to go against the societal beliefs that people with disabilities cannot succeed.

Chef Zena does not only practically teach and encourage entrepreneurship among her colleagues; she also holds talks with them so as to untwist their minds from the beliefs that they are incapable of achieving greatness or finding something in life that they are good at.

Chef Zena believes that all human beings are equal and she has refused to be identified by her challenges. Instead, she prefers to be known for her capabilities.

Her hard work has not gone in vain; Chef Zena has won the WIMA abilities award from the Women in Management Institution and she has also been named as one of the ‘Sheroes’ in the 100 outstanding women of Tanzania.

The business she started alone has a total of 4 employees now. Being able to employ them is a tremendous success. They have erased the perspective that they are societal burdens. Together they learn more about business and advise one another on how best to tackle challenges. Chef Zena calls for the community’s support for people with disabilities. She believes that her initiatives could be a solution for employment amongst people with disabilities.

“I am not my legs; I am capable of thinking and working hard - and, as President Samia Suluhu Hassan says, ‘Kazi na Iendelee...’ The hard work must continue!”