Posted by: Dave | October 3, 2010

Escape from Zimbabwe: Lessons in Life from a Tile Layer

Nick, showing off his handiwork in our new shower


          During a recent bathroom renovation project that could have served as a feature story on HGTV’s “In Over Your Head,” I learned a lot from Nick the Tile Guy, who came to my rescue.  Nick has a story that he will gladly share while he expertly cuts and measures tile. His story is one of loss, renewal, and inspiration.  

               Nick was born in South Africa and spent the summers of his youth in Zimbabwe on his grandfather’s 12,000 acre farm.    “ The farm was located near the famous Victoria Falls.  It included a natural spring that guaranteed abundant game year round,” he said. ” Tourists came from all  over the world.  The farm had  chalets with thatched roofs and swimming pools.  We had large kitchens and cooked for the tourists, and we would lead hunting safaris.  Zimbabwe was a beautiful country, ”  he remembers.  “Meanwhile, my father did missionary work in villages all over the country.  We built hospitals and schools and helped the villagers.”  He was home schooled for much of his life.  Nick’s family eventually left South Africa and moved to Zimbabwe, living in Goramonzi  (about 45 min from the capital of Harare) where he finished the seventh grade.    

            But seeds of unrest had been sewn decades before Nick’s idyllic childhood.   Rhodesia, as the country was called until 1979, had been locked in conflict as it struggled to throw off the yoke of British colonialism.   After decades of fighting, the country gained its independence in 1979, and was later renamed Zimbabwe.  Robert Mugabe, a hero of the wars for independence, was elected president in 1980.     

            Initially, the country became the African success story of the 1980’s with a vibrant economy and functioning schools and hospitals.  But during the 1990’s, in an effort to maintain power, Mugabe took measures that strangled the country’s economy and destroyed its social structure.        

            Because of its colonial history, most of the land in Zimbabwe was owned by white landowners. Blacks did not have the resources to purchase the land, which was generally held in extremely large tracts.  In order to gain favor and votes, Mugabe promised black war veterans the land, and later simply allowed them to take it from the white landowners.      

            In 1993, war veterans seized Nick’s family farm.  They destroyed everything, including the outbuildings. They burned the beautiful chalets with the thatched roofs.  “Our pride and joy was taken from us,” says Nick. But it was worse for others.  Thugs burned the owner of the neighboring farm to death, and his wife was beaten to death with a metal chair.  The deaths were celebrated, and no one punished the perpetrators.  Nick’s father knew they had to leave.     

          Nick isn’t sure of the details of how his family landed here in Tidewater Virginia, except that they were sponsored by Bethel Temple Church in Hampton.    “God got us here, and I’m not sure how,” is all he will say.      

            His family moved into student housing at Regent University.  His father attended Regent with the goal of earning a Masters Degree in Communications and continuing his ministerial work.  His mother was a secretary for Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcast Network.  “My parents tell me that we were really poor, but I didn’t know it.  We lived on credit cards and the kindness of others.  We had borrowed furniture in our apartment,” he says. “But amazing things happened here. People were kind, and they would walk up to my Dad and give him cash.”      

            Meanwhile Zimbabwe continued to disintegrate.  The war veterans that took over the land had no farming or organizational skills. Agricultural and economic production ceased. Out of control hyperinflation set in.  The Zimbabwe Dollar is so worthless that the government printed a one hundred trillion dollar bill.  In  2007, the inflation rate was 66,212%.  According to Nick, “mechanics used their pocket change as washers by drilling holes in the middle of coins.”  Civil law also collapsed, and bands of thugs roamed the countryside committing atrocities.        

Zimbabwe One Hundred Trillion Dollar Note (from Wikipedia)


              Back in the United States, Nick’s family’s situation improved enough for them to move into a house.  Nick’s father laid some tile, and decided he was pretty good at it. Soon, he became a free-lance tiler, running his business from the trunk of his car.  Nick’s family now owns Versatile, a thriving kitchen and bathroom renovation business in York County, which is how I met Nick when I got in over my head with my bathroom project.     

            Nick graduated high school in 2005, and spends his time tiling and surfing.  His family returns to Zimbabwe every year to continue their ministry of building hospitals and schools and teaching the locals how to operate them.  Nick’s father runs the Touching People of Africa ministry, which is linked on this page.      

          Although Nick is sad to see what has happened to Zimbabwe, he doesn’t blame the people-he blames their president.     

          “The people of Zimbabwe are beautiful and kind, but the president gave the war veterans the opportunity to take something that wasn’t theirs,” he says. 



  1. hello!This was a really terrific blog!
    I come from roma, I was luck to come cross your topic in wordpress
    Also I get a lot in your Topics really thank your very much i will come later

    • thank you for reading

  2. Dave,

    Great story!

  3. Nice story! It’s people like this that made and make our nation better and stronger!

  4. Having been to South Africa twice and having friends there I can relate to the story about Nick’s family.

    Well done. Go cocks

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