Zimbabwean engineer and model Renny Chivunga hopes to inspire women in her home country
The dusty villages of Zimbabwe are a long way from the sparkling waters of Newcastle and the thumping metropolis of New York City.
But Renny Chivunga has immersed herself in the culture, sights and sounds of each of those places during her 35 years, as she navigated challenges to pursue her dreams.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Ms Chivunga moved to the New South Wales Hunter region in 2001.
She studied engineering before going on to get her pilot’s licence, model at New York Fashion Week, and appear in films such as The Great Gatsby.
While she has had many different experiences, Ms Chivunga now has her sights set on returning to engineering, and eventually travelling back to her homeland to inspire women to join the profession.
Leaving Zimbabwe for a university education
When she was growing up, Ms Chivunga’s parents were kept busy running their businesses, and, as the oldest child, she was responsible for helping to look after her siblings.
In 2001, Ms Chivunga applied to British universities with the hope of carving out a career for herself.
But one day her father saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for the University of Newcastle, which was keen to attract Zimbabwean students.
She applied and was accepted.
“It was just a whirlwind. Within three weeks, I’d arrived [in Australia],” she said.
Arriving in a foreign country can be a daunting experience for anyone.
But for Ms Chivunga, living in Newcastle helped her mature and learn how to deal with different situations.
“I was really taken aback by how friendly people in Newcastle were,” she said.
“Then at the same time I was shocked by just how few Australians knew about black people.
“If I was walking around or going to get my hair done, people would come and touch my hair … and they would feel my skin.
“In Zimbabwe for instance, if a white person came up to you and did that, that’s a no-no, because automatically there is a lot of black versus white, and that would just be considered racism.
“But I realised very early on that this was a young multicultural culture, in terms of maybe blacks being introduced.
“They knew a lot about other European nations, but not maybe necessarily Africans, and I found that quite surprising.”
Years later, Ms Chivunga said she did not encounter racism as often as she had when she first arrived.
“Being raised in a country where there was a lot of racism, as a black person you just had to push yourself to be even better than you could even imagine,” she said.
“You just keep trying things, you just keep trying to achieve to get out of the box, to do better.”
Dreams of the catwalk
Ms Chivunga had dreamed of being model since she was a child.
“In my country, being a model is almost close to being a prostitute. There isn’t that respect for modelling,” she said.
“You have to be so proper; they’re so strict. So I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do it in Zimbabwe at all.”
She idolised models such as Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, so when in Australia, she eventually decided to pursue the career.
“There were some challenges. Even though I looked young, the fact that I was [older] — it was hard. I always felt like I had to not tell my age,” she said.
“I think you have to have a very tough skin. You fill in a form that says what you won’t do and what you will do.
“When I was in New York, I remember being sent to a photo shoot — [and] one of the men in there was offering me all sorts of cakes filled with drugs, trying to ask me to take off my top. I said ‘I don’t do nude’.”
Despite the challenges, stepping on to the catwalk in New York was a dream come true for Ms Chivunga.
“It feels wonderful … having dreamt about it all those years, and thinking the boat had long since sailed, and here I was finally there. It was just this huge sense of relief,” she said.
“You step on the catwalk and you just know that this is your moment.”
Building a career as an engineer
Having strutted the catwalks and appeared as an extra in films, Ms Chivunga said she was now keen to return to her passion — engineering.
“We need to make an engineering profession something that is as strong as law, something that is as strong as medicine,” she said.
Ms Chivunga is hoping to return to Zimbabwe to inspire young women there to chase their dreams.
“I always knew that engineering was the next step after modelling, so I would love to be a young engineer as I start again,” she said.
“The goal has always been for me to go back to Africa, to help my country rebuild … and then hopefully inspire other women in my country to know that they can study engineering, and that engineering is a worthwhile profession that opens the door to so many avenues.”