Text and Photographs Nina van Schalkwyk
Text and Photographs Nina van Schalkwyk
One of the best things about being in the tourism industry is seeing the positive effects that come out of it. Simple things. Conservation. Employment. Development. The thing is, tourism is inherently positive. And in a way it is the type of industry that will always attract positive people, a specific kind of person, people who put others before themselves, who believe in the bigger picture, who take pride in their country and are in essence ambassadors for their nation.
I had the good fortune to meet one such person. Mika Shapwanale, manager of the Mushara Collection east of Etosha.
On a recent visit to Mushara, Mika and I sat down in the shade of the trees and chatted about his journey in tourism. But it wasn’t merely an exchange of the usual what do you do’s. Mika is an exceptional person. The reason I had organised the meeting was that I had heard so much about him, about how he had worked his way up from starting out as a gardener at Ghaub Guestfarm. How he taught himself Afrikaans and German and improved his English. His big heart.
Andre Compion, the previous owner of Ghaub Guestfarm, describes Mika as one of the most exceptional people he’s ever met. “He got up at three in the morning and drove to my father’s funeral in Swakopmund, and afterwards drove over 1000 km back to Mushara. He loved my father and didn’t think twice about the cost and effort involved in showing him this last honour. That should say enough about him.”
Meeting Mika in person I ask him what set him apart from other young people who start out in the industry with entry-level jobs. “I was dedicated from the start”, he says.
He has enough self-awareness to realise that his warmth and friendliness went a long way in clearing his path. But as with most success stories, there had to be a few challenges along the way. Can you imagine going from gardener to waiter to manager? From working alongside your peers to being placed above them? Of course there were a few co-workers who couldn’t quite accept his authority, but how did he deal with that? Mika comes straight to the point: “To be a good manager you need to be fair but firm with your staff, treat them with respect.” Going as far back as his childhood, Mika couldn’t help himself stepping into leadership roles with ease. Commander during playground games, class captain and a leader in Sunday school. But there are class captains in every class, every school, all around the world. That’s not unheard of. Being a leader in school isn’t necessarily the hardest thing on earth. It’s what comes after the security of school that one’s true colours get tested. Mika’s humble beginnings meant that for him, as for many Namibians, tertiary education was out of the question. His childhood dream was to become a farmer, which is pretty much the status quo for most in a country where the majority of the population live off the land.
That didn’t happen though, because as a young man seeking work, Mika found himself at Ghaub Guestfarm, working hard and being helpful. What is his secret? His smile? No doubt. He has a very warm smile, the kind of face that makes you feel comfortable immediately, a body language that is relaxed and yet always professional. So then, is that it?
Perhaps the answer lies in his very nature. His helpfulness, his awareness that his actions can create a pleasant experience for his guests. André relates that when the chefs were unable to come to work, Mika would step in and take over the kitchen and start cooking the food himself. During his time as the manager of Ghaub Guestfarm, Mika dealt with the bookkeeping after learning how to work with Pastel. He managed the staff, the unions, the orders and the bookings. “Basically everything,” says André.
What is it that makes someone get so involved in the success of the company they work for? I mean, why don’t all employees care so much? Mika tells me that the best advice he ever received was to enjoy his work. And I sense that for him that doesn’t mean floating around for years trying to find his inner passion. For him it means enjoying the thing that he is doing, finding the joy in his job. Perhaps that’s why his smile is so warm.
This article was published in the Winter 2018 edition of Travel News Namibia.