The architect who travelled 7,000 miles to live his dream

Architect Joe Bvumburai moved from Zambia to Hull in 1982. His remarkable life story is one of huge ambition and dogged determination in his quest for success, as Lizzie Murphy reports.

Joe Bvumburai the Chief Executive of Eznat Architects. Picture by Simon Hulme

From the moment his parents built a study room on to their modest house in the Zambian capital Lusaka, Joe Bvumburai decided he wanted to become an architect.

He was the eldest of six children and his parents – a truck driver and a maid – had instilled in him the importance of education.

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However, with a constant stream of visiting relatives from rural villages, he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on his studies so his parents asked a local man to add a small extension onto the house,

From that moment Bvumburai says he became aware of the value of space and the benefits of architecture. “The difference that extension made to my life, explains why I’m probably here today,” says Bvumburai. “It enabled me to study, albeit by candlelight.”

Today, Bvumburai, 61, is the director of his architecture and project management business, Eznat – the name a tribute to his late mother – based in Hull.

The company, which has three members of staff, was set up in 2010 as a specialist in designing UK social housing projects. It is now expanding into the commercial and industrial sector, recently completing Hull Blast, Yorkshire’s first indoor foam dart battle arena.

Dressed in casual trousers, checked shirt and a gillet, and working from a trading estate on the edge of the city centre, Bvumburai breaks the mould of the archetypal city architect.

He also has a huge smile and a deep chuckle which he sprinkles throughout the interview. However, underneath his cheery demeanour lies a steely determination to succeed.

Born in 1957 – he doesn’t know the exact date as he doesn’t have a birth certificate – when racial segregation was prevalent, he had to fight to achieve his dream of becoming an architect.

After secondary school, he gained a diploma in architectural technology at the Zambia Institute of Technology with the intention of setting up his own architectural practice, but he soon got a shock.

“Unbeknown to me, most of the practices in Zambia were owned by British architects, who were part of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and there was no chance I could set up a practice because I wasn’t one of them,” he says.

The only way he could achieve his dream was to sit further exams. He handwrote 150 letters to universities across the world to gain a place on an accredited degree course and the first one to reply was the Hull School of Architecture at Humberside Polytechnic, which offered him a scholarship.

Bvumburai was delighted but his family didn’t have the money to fund his flight to England and living costs. For three days he went from embassy to embassy in Lusaka, knocking on doors and asking for sponsorship. Just as he was about to give up, the Swedish Embassy gave him £7,000 and bought him a plane ticket. “I’ve never been so happy in my life,” he says. “It looked like a million pounds to me.”

Arriving in England for the first time, at Heathrow Airport, in 1982, the first thing that struck Bvumburai was the terrace houses. “I couldn’t comprehend it because where we lived in Lusaka all the white people had huge houses with huge gardens. I thought the ones in England would be even bigger,” he says.

The second thing that struck him was the cold. “I was wearing a safari suit on a September morning. The first thing I did was buy the heaviest coat I could find and scarves and gloves that I saw people wearing. I’d only ever seen them in films.”

When he arrived in Hull, where there were very few people of ethnic minority, he became an object of curiosity. “People would stare at you. Initially it was quite hard. I would go for a run and people would shout things.”

Bvumburai also had to make a number of cultural adaptations, swapping caterpillars and grasshoppers for fish and seafood. “Zambia is a landlocked country so I had never seen seafood before. When I first came, I went to the fish market and there were all kinds of strange looking things. I took photos and showed my mother.”

After his first year, he returned to Zambia for the summer where he met a girl on the bus. “I immediately fell in love with her,” he says. “I proposed after the first date and we married four weeks later.”

The pair returned to Hull so he could finish his studies. The economic situation in Zambia, meanwhile, was rapidly deteriorating, with people having to wait hours to buy basics, such as cooking oil and soap.

“By time I’d finished my studies, I had two children and all of a sudden my dreams of setting up a practice in Zambia had disappeared,” says Bvumburai.

Instead, he set up a company in Hull, Extra Design.

His first jobs were for the first McDonald’s in Birmingham and Moscow.

However, in 1989 the company folded as the country slid into recession.

Bvumburai became a stay-at-home father for four years to look after his second baby daughter while his wife went back to work. He also had a stint as a peeler in a pickled onion factory in Hull.

“It was so hard at the time but it’s nice to look back on spending the time with my daughters,” he said.

In 1993 he completed his final architecture exams and began to work in the social housing sector, initially for Sanctuary Group followed by stints at Anchor Trust and Yorkshire Housing.

“They called me the ‘super development manager at Anchor”, he says. “I quadrupled the amount of houses they were building.”

When the 2009 recession came, Bvumburai once again found himself unemployed. “I was stressed, my confidence was at rock bottom and for nine months I was living on bread and toast,” he admits. “All the contacts I knew had nothing to offer.” He set up Eznat after managing some projects for a friend on a freelance basis. “After that, work came flooding in and I was back in the swing of it.”

Bvumburai says he rarely goes back to Zambia now. However, his African roots still prevail. “My mother used to say ‘never give up. However bad things are, just keep going’, and ‘if you can’t be bothered to do something right, don’t do it at all’. I’d like to think I have managed to do these things.”

Fact File

Title: Director of Eznat

Date of birth: February 20, 1957 (I don’t have a birth certificate so this was a date I made up when I moved to England)

Education: Matero Boys Secondary School, Lusaka, Zambia; architecture degree and postgraduate diploma from Humberside Polytechnic; member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

First job: Labourer on a building site.

Favourite holiday destination: Barbados

Favourite film: Men of Honour

Favourite song: Kwela, by Soweto String Quartet

Car driven: Mercedes GLC

Most proud of: Having my children