If you walked into any bookshop in Zambia ten years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find more than five books written by a Zambian author, let alone a section solely dedicated to them. These days however, Zambian writers are publishing print and e-books more frequently and winning prestigious local and international awards. Nkwazi examines the factors that have led to the growth of Zambia’s literary scene since independence.
At the time of Zambia’s independence in 1964, Zambia’s literacy rate was only 28.5 percent of the population aged fifteen and above. It increased six years later to 42.3 percent largely due to the establishment of the University of Zambia and free education that was offered at government schools from primary to tertiary level.
Post-independence, educated Zambians began to form writers groups to encourage writing. The New Writers Group was formed in 1964 with members such as the late politician Elias Chipimo Sr, David Simpson, William Saidi and more. The group published a literary journal called New Writing from Zambia, according to A Bibliography of Zambia’s Literature in English, compiled by Ranka Primora.
“Apart from publishing the journal, New Writers Group also ran literary contests and writing workshops, hosted visiting authors and scholars, sent delegates to literary conferences abroad, and helped to launch and sell Zambian books and publications”
In 1968, students from the University of Zambia founded the Mphala Creative Society and published The Jewel of Africa.
According to ‘Mapping Intersections: African Literature and Africa’s Development,’ the aims of both these organisations was to encourage the budding Zambian writer and to create outlets for creative writing in English. In the pre-independence period, perhaps Nshila, a Department of Information general news features magazine, was the only journal that partially fulfilled the literary role that New Writing from Zambia and The Jewel of Africa would now assume. Nshila also carried short stories mostly in English, but sometimes in the four main indigenous languages (Bemba, Lozi, Nyanja and Tonga). It ran from 1958 to 1968 and was succeeded by Z Magazine in 1969.
Both New Writing from Zambia and The Jewel of Africa published mostly short stories and poetry. In addition, the journals carried numerous articles of advice to the aspiring Zambian writer.” New Writing from Zambia in particular published about 150 authors. In 1970, both journals stopped being published due to lack of funds.
A Point Of No Return by Fwanyanga Mulikita became the first Zambian collection of short stories produced in English and was published by the government owned National Educational Company of Zambia (NECZAM ) in 1968. Before Dawn, the first full length Zambian novel in English by Andrew Masiye was published by the same company in 1971. The Tongue of the Dumb by Dominic Mulaisho was published that same year as part of the Heinemann’s African Writers series. This was the first Zambian novel to achieve some inernational recognition.
With Zambia becoming a multi-party democracy in 1991, government-run publishing companies were privatised. There was no deliberate policy to encourage the private sector to play a role in publishing, which led to fewer Zambian books on the shelves. One of the few known writers at the time was Binwell Sinyangwe who in 1993 released Quils of Desire and A Cowrie of Hope in 2000.
In 2004, Ellen Banda- Aaku released her first book titled Wandi’s Little Voice, which won the 2004 Macmillan’s Writers Prize for Africa. She was the first Zambian author to win a regional award. This was followed in 2007 with the Commonwealth Short Story Competition Award for ‘Sozi’s Box.’
Another Zambian writer who was gaining critical acclaim during that time frame was economist Dambisa Moyo who in 2009 became the first Zambian writer to have a book on the New York Times Bestsellers List with Dead Aid. All of her subsequent books have also been New York Times bestsellers.
In 2012, Ellen Banda- Aaku’s Patchwork won the Penguin Prize for African Writing and was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book prize. Two years later, Zambian- Ghanaian writer Efemia Chela was nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing for her first published short story ‘Chicken.’ A year later, US-based Zambian Namwali Serpell was named winner of the same competition for her short story ‘The Sack.’ Her short story ‘Muzungu’ was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2009.
The most recent Zambian author who is making headlines by winning international awards is Zambian-born UK-based Kayo Chingonyi, whose poetry book Kumukanda won the Dylan Thomas Prize in May 2018.
Winning or even being shortlisted for such competitions has put Zambian writers on the literary map and has helped begin the careers of younger Zambian writers. For instance, after winning the Caine Prize, Serpell returned to Zambia in 2016 to facilitate a workshop which featured writers from the continent, including three from Zambia; Chilufya Chilangwa, Kafula Mwila and Bwanga Kapumpa. The participants stories were featured in a 2016 Caine Prize anthology.
Locally, there are other initiatives which have spurned on the literary scene. The Zambia PEN Center, an initiative of PEN International (a worldwide association of writers founded in 1921 to promote friendship and cooperation) host monthly Writers Circle meetings at Alliance Francaise in Lusaka. The meetings serve as a way for writers to gain feedback on their work and discuss the challenges they face.
The Zambia Women Writer’s Association aims to foster creative writing in Zambia. In 2016, they launched the Zambia Writer’s Award Short Story competition. Ukusefya Words launched the annual Kalemba Short Story competition in 2017, which was won by Mali Kambandu. On how she believes the competition is developing Zambia’s literary scene, she stated, “The Kalemba prize received a lot of entries, so it shows that people are interested in writing. Even those who didn’t win should be encouraged by being long-listed. I believe that as the years go by, the competition will receive a whole lot more support.”
Other literary awards include the Tell Your Own Story Literary Awards founded in 2015 and supported by the Concept Developers Initiative, Southern Writers Bureau, UNZA Radio and Zambia Association of Literacy. At the 2018 edition, ten categories were awarded, including Best Fiction and Best Book.
More publishing houses are being formed locally. One of those is Butali House. Formed in 2016 by Chilu Mulundu and Peter Nawa, the company makes it easier for anyone to publish, promote, and distribute professional-quality printed books and e-books. “Some Zambian authors are increasingly choosing to self-publish via platforms like Amazon or under their own companies. Examples include Dario Chongolo whose books are self-help and motivational and Carol Tiyesela Phiri who writes fantasy novels. Chongolo has also created audio books.
Book expos and writer’s festivals are also held on a more frequent basis in Zambia. Examples include the Zed Book Expo, which was held in May in Lusaka and organised by the Concept Developers Initiative and the Southern Writers Bureau. In August, Short Story Day Africa held flow workshops in Zambia. There is also the annual Tilembe Writers Festival. Tilembe is a celebration of Zambian authors and writers. It is three-day event that includes workshops and panel discussions. The 2018 edition will be held from the 5th to 8th September 2018.
It is clear that the Zambian literary scene is developing exponentially despite limited resources. Zambian writers are winning awards at home and in the diaspora and more literary events are being held. The future of Zambian writing is bright.