Those who know him describe Zahnio Simmeries as a deep thinking, positive person with a near mythical work ethic. Though best known for depicting the menacing looking, tattooed gangster in the LifeXchange Wash Away commercial, many may be surprised to learn that he is often mentioned with great enthusiasm and respect at our workplace. Having experienced our mentoring process first hand, he continues to be a regular feature in the comings and goings at our office.
Curious to know more, I arranged to meet up where he is currently working; a BP petrol station off Irene Way in Sun Valley. His small frame had nothing menacing about it, though he had a serious stare that would make you think twice before messing with him. I soon learned that this was a common first impression. “A lot of people recognize me from the commercial”, he says after remarking on its success. “They say I’m too young to look so serious. But that used to help in Ocean View because people wouldn’t pick on me then.”
Being bullied is only one of many struggles Zahnio faced growing up in Ocean View. This small and heavy populated township in the Southern Peninsula of Cape Town is a priority area for action against crime and drug abuse. High levels of gang violence, unemployment, addiction and teen pregnancies suffuse the culture. Yet It turns out that Zahnio’s life, marked by much suffering and disappointment, only serves to highlight the strength of his spirit.
Often working late and permanently early for a shift, I was initially impressed to hear about the entrepreneurial zeal he possessed. “He always works himself up into a better position”, says LifeXchange founder Cobus Oosthuizen. “He’ll start out as a line packer and the next thing you know, he’s a supervisor. He’s just got that kind of inner drive”. Zahnio himself doesn’t seem to know where this drive comes from, often stating that he’s “just that kind of person’”.
However, listening to him talk about growing up makes it apparent that an early mentor had an immense impact on his life. He credits his grandfather (an unrelated, disabled elderly man) as having inspired him to dream bigger. “I started helping him at his shop when I was only seven. I didn’t have a dad and there was a lot of fighting going on at home because my mom drank all the time, so he took me in. He taught me how to run a business.” Though his ‘grandfather’ didn’t trust him to run the shop at first, Zahnio didn’t give up on his dream of running his own business one day. He often skipped homework to do ‘research’ for the shop at the other stores by asking them what their customers bought the most. He often had to go the extra mile to get his grandfather’s favour, saying “it took years to win him over, not paying me for the work I did or even saying thanks for the help. But I just kept at it.”
His next mentor, Dave Coleman, came later through the LifeXchange programme. “He was awesome and real. If he saw something wrong, he’d immediately bring it up. He’d say I’m living in a dream world and I hated him for it in the beginning. But his honesty made me realized I was always saying things and never doing them, so I started to listen.” The nature of our holistic mentoring approach takes a person through a two year process of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. The mark of a successful match can thus be identified through the character development of the mentee in these key areas.
However, what sets the good matches apart from the best, is when a mentee naturally takes up the role of mentoring in another young persons life, thereby successfully passing on the baton. When I asked Zahnio if he had any plans in this area of his life, he replied “I’m already mentoring a young boy now, Preston. He’s helping out at my place. I want to give back what my mentors taught me.”
When asked how his most recent mentoring relationship has affected him, he says “I do things for real now instead of just halfway”. True enough, despite already being qualified to work at an oil rig and geard for the next opportunity to present itself, he’s not keeping idle. In the meantime, Zahnio has started his own business at the Rasta camp where he stays. He sells slap chips and salad to the vegetarians, having cleverly already identified a market. “It’s slow at the moment, but once they start to get to know me, it’ll pick up”. Given his history, I have absolutely no doubt about that.
by Esther Hamman