Zambian female writers, where art thou?

Female hands writing

I am neither a writer nor a woman. But on March 16th I found myself attending, for the first time, a forum of Zambian women writers at Lusaka city main library, located in the city’s busy central business district. Amid the frenetic mid-morning noises outside, created by an endless flow of pedestrians and motor vehicles, the round-table meeting was as animated as it was a revelation of sorts for me.

I’m an active consumer of literary works, including books written by Zambian authors. At this meeting, however, I was reminded that although I have read some local books, very few of them are by female authors. So, what is the problem? Why isn’t there a prodigious production of books written by Zambian women? Is this an indication that Zambian women are not interested enough to write?

An environment not conducive to writing
To start with, it was clear that although there is a huge interest among Zambian women to express themselves through writing, the environment is not conducive enough to support their efforts. All the women who attended the forum are part-time writers. The local environment does not support writing as a full-time career from which one can earn a decent living. In addition, for women with family responsibilities, as wives or mothers, the burden of writing on a full-time basis is far too heavy to carry.

Religious and cultural barriers in a male dominated publishing industry
You cannot write in a vacuum. A writer’s creative juices tend to be influenced by the nature of one’s environment. The more liberal the environment, the higher the creative and critical thinking. However, in a socially conservative climate such as Zambia’s, it is difficult to get wide public support for views that challenge deeply entrenched cultural or religious beliefs. Traditional and religious values often set rigid restrictions especially against women.

For example, it’s tricky for a woman to write a book that critically questions male dominance, and expect to have the book enthusiastically promoted by a nascent publishing industry dominated by the same men likely to be offended by the book’s subject matter.

In theory, there are no taboos that Zambian women cannot write about. Women can explore any subject that they feel will appeal to their target readers and about which they are passionate. In reality, however, it remains a challenge to find a local publisher that would take the risk by accepting to publish culturally or religiously controversial views.

This point is not meant to discourage women writers from controversial subjects. Women should still dare to publish and be damned, should that be the consequence. But it is important that they first understand these challenges so they can plan how to deal with them.

The language conundrum
Moreover, Zambian female writers should not restrict themselves by writing only in English. Elsewhere, some authors have made bold attempts to write in ‘broken’ English and their books have become very good reads. Think of Palmwine Drinkard, a ‘badly’ written in English (just see the title!), but widely popular novel by Nigeria’s Amos Tutuola. Zambian writers can take similar risks.

However, writing in their mother tongue should make it easier for Zambian women writers to better express themselves and, possibly, appeal to a wider local market. But it is vital to recognise that Zambia does not have an official policy that promotes teaching and reading in local languages. As a result, a whole generation of Zamian youth is growing up without passable skills or knowledge of their own indigenous languages. Their English skills are not much better, either. This is reflected by poor basic English writing and reading among school pupils. This ought to be rectified through a combination of actions:

  • The starting point, perhaps, is reforming the public school curriculum to promote teaching and learning of local languages at early age.
  • Current school curriculum tends to encourage reading solely for passing school examinations. So parents of school-attending children should not abdicate their parenting responsibilities to teachers. Instead, they should play their part, organising programs that can enhance their children’s reading and writing skills, in addition to formal school lessons. Such extra-curricular programs would help to improve reading and writing standards, encouraging young Zambians to take up writing.
  • Female writers can support the emergence of such young talent by exploring local themes that appeal to this particular group.
  • Parents, supportive of their children’s writing and reading development, will likely create a market by purchasing such works.
  • In addition, Zambian writers could also capture young readers by utilising social media platforms mostly preferred by youths.

Women, social media and publishing in Zambia
Although the question was not raised at the meeting, it is apparent that few female writers have personal accounts on social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Writers are not using this medium to promote their literary works.

In fact, on-line publishing is an effective counter against the cultural or religious barriers that women writers are facing. The relative freedom from official control and the ubiquity of the Internet means that women writers can utilise this platform to capture both local and international markets. Internet-based publishing further provides an alternative to traditional publishing, a financially prohibitive exercise in Zambia.

There are many challenges for female writers in Zambia. But the emergence of new media has clearly increased opportunities for female writers. Opportunities will not be handed out on a copper platter. Women writers must increase their networking if they are to reap benefits. The Zambia Women Writers Association, which promotes writing by women, should play a facilitating role. It should be proactively identifying strategic partners and organising regular communication and networking meetings for their members. The March 16th forum demonstrated that such potential strategic partners exist and that these are keen to support the association to succeed.

We’re interested in your views on this topic. Agree or disagree? Would you buy books by Zambian women that challenged the religious and cultural boundaries set by society? Are there in fact many other topics Zambian women could write about? Are you an aspiring female writer in Zambia? Do you face these challenges? What do you feel about a man writing about a problem women are facing? Questions, questions, questions! Share your comments below.

Image credit:

This entry was posted in Contributors, Lifestyle Essentials. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Zambian female writers, where art thou?

  1. I would indeed buy books by Zambian women that challenge the whole persona of what a Zambian woman should be but actually is!the cookie cutter approach does not work for any group,person or society.
    Zambian women could write about anything and everything they want to..but must not be afraid!
    I am an aspiring female writer,Zambian,but not living there at the moment.
    The challenge I face is being afraid that I will be shunned for expressing my views..however radical they may be.
    A man writing about problems women are facing?If they write it as an observer then sure,but they cannot express exactly how we feel.

    • Hey bookwormgiraffe I would love for you to expand on what you define as the cookie cutter approach. I think you mean you want to see more Zambian female writers, take up the call and write. This will enable us to discuss them as they are, and not what they should be. A deep concept but I think I get you. If not, please correct me…

      As you are an aspiring Zambian female writer, we looked you up and found this link to your blog via your Twitter account @bookwormgiraffe. I think that when anyone takes a stand for a certain view, some will support it and some will shun it. As a writer you will never please everyone, and must surely be prepared for some negative press?

      Agree with your point that Thomas, as the author, can observe, as he has done, but he cannot and should not try and express how you may feel. Do you think Thomas has done that successfully?

      • Twaambo says:

        Hi Sarah,
        Reading the blog post again I see that there are many valid points and us as women CAN write about many issues.But WILL we?
        You are right in that a writer should be ready for criticism,and I think the acceptance of this is what makes great writers.Thanks for helping to clarify that in my mind!
        The questions is not can we but WILL we?

        • Sara says:

          Well, you and I are writing via the blogs we write. Let us continue to do that. I have dreams of writing a book. I have no idea of how with regard to publishing and all that, but I believe I will. Till then I must make more time to write online and take a strong stand, writing original material. More Zambian women can do that and we can all connect via social media to encourage, advise and direct each other. Let us do that. Look forward to more pieces from you on your blog, and your piece on Travelling roots: Twaambo’s journey to Kasama, Zambia deserves a follow up once you have made it to Shiwa, so we look forward to more from you on this blog :-) Sara,

  2. A deep but short piece by Africa Review which some may find of relevance to this blog and discussion: “Achebe’s best legacy lies in helping African writers tell their own stories”

  3. catherine muuka says:

    definately i would buy and promote feloow women. we used to Zambian women writers association. i dont know what happened.

  4. David Radcliffe says:

    I write as a former teacher who worked at Chipembi GS and Kafue SS “many years” ago……… answer to the original question, I believe one Zambian writer, Kekela Nyaywa is in the USA. Does anyone have contact with her? My wife and I would love to catch up with her news.

  5. Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story:

    I am a Scottish writer with strong ties to Zambia. On Tuesday evening I was asked to speak at a World Book Night event in the Scottish town of Oban. I used Chimamanda Adichie’s title ‘The danger of the single story’ as the theme of my talk. My little NGO has enouraged the reading of African literature in Zambia because our own literature grounds us in our own cultures – necessary for giving our young people roots. But there is too little writing from Zambia, yet so many stories to be told. If you get the chance, watch this Adichie clip on Youtube and be encouraged to write your own stories in whatever language you choose – there will be an audience.

  6. hillary says:

    i love writing.

  7. Perpetual says:

    I’m here! I’m a female Zambian writer, and I am proud to say that I am here!

    I can relate to everything that the contributors to this post are saying. I was born and lived in Zambia until I was an adult, but I didn’t know where to go to learn how to write, creatively, that is. Even when I thought I knew a thing or two about writing, I couldn’t write because I wasn’t emotionally or psychologically free to write about things that would otherwise go against my culture. So I remained silent.

    It was only after I left Zambia and came into contact with writers from all over the world that I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Writers, women, especially, from all over the world, writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and many others have had to come to a place where they’ve had to muster up some courage and write! It’s the only way we are going to raise a generation of female writers.

    I’m not yet a published author, but I have been hard at work on a novel and some short stories. I have also gone to creative writing school. I believe that if we are to build a lasting literary landscape in Zambia, we have to begin by producing solid, good quality work. And this only comes through education –reading other published authors’ work and practicing.

    After I’ve learned all I can about writing and my work can sit side by side with women like Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi or Edwidge Danticat, then I will go back to Zambia and teach others.

    Write, fellow Zambian women, learn all you can. Before I enrolled in a formal creative writing class, I learned everything online and at the library.

    I am with you 100% and look forward to seeing your work in print. I’m getting there.

    • Sara says:

      Thank you for such a heartfelt comment. We hear you. Please share your work with us if you have a blog or when you get published. The day will come because you sound like you really believe it and you are taking action. Thank you for the tips and we look forward to the day that you return to Zambia and teach others. “Write, fellow Zambian women, learn all you can.”

  8. Gloria hajanika says:

    my frist love is writing and readingj.. does anyone have an idea of which publishers I can take my work to?

  9. This is such an encouraging article. Indeed women writers in Zambia face a lot of challenges especially in the rural areas where technology and gender issues are still a big problem. I started writing when I was about ten years, in my early twenties I wrote three children Bemba stories that I took to the Curriculum Development Center for review, two were passed to be used for grade 1 but I had to make a few spelling corrections. Unfortunately, I could not find editors that could assist me with language and artists to depict my stories. Being a working mother, I packed the books in a box and carried on with other things, yet my heart yearned to write. Last year, I just finished compiling a book about the environment which i have been writing for 3 years, when i finally had a chance to travel to Lusaka as am currently in Luapula, I was met by very discouraging remarks from the CDC personnel as to why I didn’t involve them in writing this important publication. Having just one day in Lusaka, I couldn’t make it back to the center to meet the person in charge of science and again my book is in the box.
    This just shows how many hurdles you have to jump before you become a published writer in Zambia. If you don’t have the finances and opportunities to network, its like chasing the wind. However, I will not give up on my dream and am currently working with the Provincial Arts Committee in Luapula to try and strengthen the Women Writers Association in our province. Thanks for the good review and congrats to all female writers who have broken the barrier.

  10. I am a young, up-coming Zambian writer. Suffice it to say, I am male and I can literally write about anything I fancy.

    I have books by female Zambian Writers. ‘I nearly Killed a President’, ‘Deflowered’ and ‘Behind Closed Doors’ are the ones which left quite an impression on my mind.

    While it may be true that female authors feel restrained from expressing their views, I think that is not the main reason they seem to be absent. As you have clearly elaborated, the environment is too hostile for us writers, and most of the time, we have to have stubborn guts to write something. Check this article I wrote here:

    Despite the difficulties, I have seen a young crop of writers, both male and female, who are rising up; and they are determined to make sure their voice is heard! May we encourage them to come out from hiding by encouraging them.

Leave a Reply