Canada News

Lilly Maks: A life of hard work and diligence

15 August 2007 at 23:26 | 5052 views

By Gibril Koroma, Vancouver, Canada.

Lillian Makweja O’brien is the president of the Great Zimbabwe Cultural Association of British Columbia. But she is better known as a fashion designer and arts dealer.

But let’s go back to the beginning, shall we? When did it all begin? Who is this elegant African lady with the British accent and infectious laugh?

Well, Lillian Makweja(as she was known before she got married) was born in Kabwe, Zambia, of Zimbabwean parents. She spent most of her childhood in England where she attended a private boarding school in Bristol (this is apparently the source of her British accent).

Her parents actually wanted her to be a doctor and she was gladly working hard to fulfill that mission when her teachers called her aside and advised her to consider a career in fashion and design as she was doing so well along that path. “I was very artistic, even at a very young age. I started sewing at the age of five,” she told me recently at her sedate home in a quiet Surrey, BC, neighbourhood.

At school in England, she organized fashion shows with her schoolmates and her talents were so eye-catching that her teachers were left in no doubt that she had discovered her calling. So they recommended advanced study in a professional fashion and design school.

She was subsequently admitted at Bath Technical College where she studied fine arts and design. While on vacation in Zambia, Lillian met the wife of a former Zambian diplomat, Bina Kamana who was also a fashion designer.

“She taught me a lot of things. She became my mentor,” she recollects, with apparent gratitude. From that encounter her professional career went through dramatic changes as she started meeting entrepreneurs and business managers interested in her fashion designs and communication skills. She did some work for a textile company and was asked to promote Cheeseborough Ponds products (cosmetics) on Zambian television. She quickly became a national celebrity in Zambia. Lilly Maks (from Lillian Makweja) became a household name. It was around this time that she met her husband Jerry O’brien, a Canadian citizen then working as an aircraft engineer with the Zambia Air Force.

In 1996, the couple moved to Zimbabwe, Lillian’s country of origin, where she quietly continued her work. At that time African fashion products were not common among that country’s political and economic elites. Lillian, who already had a lot of experience in that niche, rapidly established a business in African fashion and design in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. With little or no competition, she immediately got noticed. Her work started appearing in the storefronts of the posh business districts of Eastgate Shopping Mall- Limited Editions, Cloth for Africa along Joson Moyo Ave and her showroom and factory in Avondale.

In no time she was producing elegant and beautiful African dresses for the city’s fashion-conscious women, some of them the wives of the rich and powerful.

Always a media person, Lillian quickly got her designs on the AM Zimbabwe television show where she showcased her creations. “When my fashion show comes up, the telephone lines get jammed in no time,” she told me with amusement and nostalgia.

In 2003, however, Lillian decided to move to Canada with her two daughters Elizabeth and Carol. Her husband is still working in Africa with Avient, an air freight aviation company.

In the Lower Mainland, she continued doing what she does best: fashion and design.She calls her business “AfriCouture.” One step at a time, she began taking part in fashion shows and to participate in Black History Month. She established a store in Richmond and later downtown on Thurlow Street. She has now created an online store where she sells her products.

As she slowly integrated into Canadian society with her daughters, Lillian looked around her and discovered that she needs to help bring together members of the Zimbabwean community here by not only playing a more prominent role in their activities but to also help strengthen and consolidate the newly formed Great Zimbabwe Cultural Association. She was recently elected its president.

“One of the objectives of the Great Zimbabwe Cultural Association is to bring our people together, and show the glamour and beauty of Africa. There is a lot of different cultures in Africa, and a lot of history to be proud of, she said.

Albertina Sisulu wife of South African freedom fighter once said:

“In life we each require to walk our own road...........And then we stop, assess what we have learned and hopefully we choose to share it with others. It is only in this way that the next generation can learn from those who have walked before them, so that they in turn can continue the journey forward after we can no longer go on. We can do no more than tell them our story - it is up to them to make of it what they will.”

Lillian admires Albertina Sisulu and also has loves her people.

“We are now in Canada; it’s time to forget our differences and speak with one voice,” she told me with a twinkle in her eyes. I knew she meant every word of that statement.

Photo: Lillian,(top)and some of her creations, centre.