Mwaka Mugala is on the set of Zuba and taking a short break in between scenes. She tells me we only have ten minutes, which sounds like not nearly enough but we decide to go ahead and discuss as much as we can. At that point the fourth season of Zuba was airing on Zambezi Magic but Mwaka who plays the title role initially didn’t expect the show to continue beyond the first season.
She clinched the role in an organic way. Back in 2017 when Mwaka was a news anchor and presenter for Diamond TV she contacted Becky Ngoma to request an interview with her for a segment she was producing on women in film. Becky was unable to do the interview at the time but let Mwaka know that auditions were taking place for what was being dubbed as “Zambia’s first telenovela” and encouraged her to audition. Mwaka had some reservations but decided to try it out and see.
Becky had trained Mwaka in acting and writing but she hadn’t yet put this training to use yet. Mwaka didn’t want to disappoint Becky but having auditioned for another popular Zambian show, Fever, and not getting the role she wasn’t feeling optimistic. To Mwaka’s surprise she was offered the role of Zuba after two rigorous auditions. She credits Becky for pushing her when she didn’t believe in herself. “Becky really believed in me and I appreciate that. I didn’t think I could do it but she told me I just had to go for it,” says Mwaka.
Seeing negative comments on social media when Zuba started airing, Mwaka was doubtful the show would continue its run. Some of the comments were regarding Mwaka’s Tonga diction. Many people falsely assumed Mwaka’s tribe was Tonga and criticised her for not being able to speak what they thought was her language. During the audition phase she was asked if she would be willing to play a role that required her to speak Tonga. “I said as long as the person training me is really good I could do it. Sometimes I literally had to learn the Tonga lines right there on set. And I really was sceptical because I knew it didn’t sound authentic. Sometimes it sounded good, sometimes it didn’t. I received some backlash on social media from people who said I was Tonga and couldn’t speak my language. Friends and family encouraged me to keep practicing and I got better with time and learned to turn a deaf ear to the hurtful comments.”
Despite Mwaka’s worries, not only was Zuba picked up for more seasons, it blew up beyond anything she imagined and has consistently been Zambezi Magic’s most watched show.
If negative comments on social media were a challenge so too is being a public figure as Mwaka is introverted and loves her alone time. Being an introvert she has to get in character to get the job done not only for working on set but also when she attends the many events and interviews that come with her work. “Whenever I’m in front of a camera or on stage or in front of a microphone on radio I have to be able to switch characters. I’m working and I need to do what I have to do in order to do it right. In this career we’re acting 24/7 both off and on set, until the moment all is done and I go back into my shell.”
For all the sacrifices and challenges that come with her career, Mwaka has always dreamed of working in media. She looked up to the likes of veteran broadcasters such as Doreen Mukanzo, Francis Ndovi, Franklin Tembo and Frank Mutubila. “Growing up I’d watch them on TV and say I wanted to do what they were doing. I want to interview big people. I want to read the news. The fact that I did get to read news on radio and then on TV was a dream come true.”
While Mwaka looked up to veteran broadcasters, she also grew up with one, Alec Mugala. She tells me, “It may be cliché but my father was and is one of my inspirations.” Mwaka says that her father noticed early on that she and her brother were creative and he did his best to nurture their talents. Though she adds that he would’ve supported whatever career path they chose. On the other hand, Mwaka’s mother took a more pragmatic approach. At the time she was worried that the media space in Zambia wasn’t highly developed and encouraged her children to pursue what she deemed as more stable careers that offered greater financial security. Even as Mwaka ventured into acting her mother was proud of her achievements but still maintained some understandable concerns about whether her daughter would be able to maintain a comfortable life.
Growing up with a father known for his work in television has been a mixed blessing. Mwaka was always compared to her father and faced pressure to live up to his legacy. Encouraging as ever, her father told her not to aim to be like him but to aim to be better. It was with Zuba that she finally felt she was getting out from under her father’s shadow. Mwaka adds, “It used to bother me, being compared to him. But after a while I realised it was an honour because he did many great things. To be able to do what he did or to do it better is one of the most satisfying parts of what I do.”
On top of the constant comparisons to her father, at all stages of her career Mwaka had to deal with people who questioned her credibility, assuming that she had gotten to where she was through connections and not hard work. Sounding a little amused, Mwaka noted again that she had to “audition not once, but twice for Zuba.” She goes on to say, “Sure, I was given opportunities but most times I was turned down because I was not good enough. They would hear my surname and automatically assume I’ll be good because of who my father was but I still had a lot of learning to do. I still had a lot of grooming to go through and that was one of the things that motivated me to prove that I could do it without any favours or shortcuts or connections.”
Mwaka remains adamant that she is where she should be but isn’t complacent and has bigger aspirations in media and beyond. She adds however that, “These are things that I want to keep to myself because if I make it known and then it doesn’t happen the disappointment would be much greater for me.” She continues, “I always think that this is just the beginning. I don’t like to be stagnant. I do get bored quite easily. And I want to feel like I’m always doing something big.” Nothing is being left to chance though. Mwaka tells me matter-of-factly that, “I have a five-year plan, obviously.” However, she admits it wasn’t always so obvious to her. It was filmmaker David Kazadi that encouraged Mwaka to put her goals down on paper and plan well ahead of time. Now her five-year plan is a yardstick for which to measure her progress in life.
It is at this point in the conversation that a crew member tells Mwaka it’s time to shoot her next scene. She had said she could only spare ten minutes but I was lucky to have gotten some extra time. Thirty minutes and one costume change later she was back behind the camera, ready to shoot another scene which would no doubt stir up debate among Zuba’s fans and critics alike.