by Esther Mulders
For the past two years, I’ve been volunteering in Zambia with Studio Zambia, a Dutch non-profit organisation that I co-founded in 2016 and currently co-run. The purpose of Studio Zambia is to provide creative means of self-expression to high school students in Mfuwe, Zambia.
Studio Zambia is led by me and Annoek Snip, whom I met at university in Belgium. A group of approximately 5-7 volunteers helps us out throughout the year, and their work ranges from administrative assistance and social media work to co-creating and delivering our programmes in Zambia. Annoek and I share an interest in theatre as a means of self-expression: Annoek, currently finishing her psychology degree, has worked with our method (see below) for over 5 years, and is herself an actress. I am a creative therapist with dance experience currently learning more about how theatre can help making social change happen.
Studio Zambia collaborates with SEKA, a group of local actors, Project Luangwa, an organisation that supports diﬀerent educational and social projects in the Mfuwe area, and Mfuwe Day Secondary School.
Mfuwe is an area in the Luanga Valley bounded by the South Luangwa National Park. The people living in the Luangwa Valley face many challenges: there is hardly any industry, very few natural resources and almost no livestock. Tourism provides employment for some, but for the majority there is little hope of employment, and opportunities for young people are even more limited. Beside the presence of HIV/AIDS, malaria and malnutrition, wild animals in the area are a major threat for the local population, as they frequently come into the village where they destroy houses and attack and kill people.
Another important issue in Mfuwe is gender inequality. There is still a certain division of male and female tasks. Let’s take, for example, the fact that the five-year-old daughter of one of the actors already is taught how to be a good cook. Her father told me that she has to be a good cook in order for her to find a decent husband. Also, girls are usually not encouraged to go to school, because their families expect them to take care of the family and their home, while these expectations are not put on the boys.
One of the male students I worked with, named Given, when asked about the relationship between men and women, stated that men ‘have power to control [women], because these people [women] are made for us [men]’. Another student thought that ‘girls can easily be controlled by men, they [girls] cannot manage to control themselves’. Girls have often struggled to challenge boys on these matters.
The girls in Mfuwe expressed an interest in using creative ways to address and challenge these gender roles and expectations. Project Luangwa, one of our partners, already did some creative work with the girls: they made poetry together. The organisation lacked the resources to further explore these topics through creative arts, and that’s when Studio Zambia was founded. In 2016, at Mfuwe Day Secondary School, both girls and boys, aged 16 – 22 were invited to write plays based on the question: what is it like to grow up as a boy or girl in Mfuwe? They gave their answers to this question in the form of a written plays by all fourteen of them that were collected in ‘Grow Up!’, a performance piece acted in Mfuwe by SEKA, a group of Zambian actors who make educational theatre pieces. The performance was a big success, as students, teachers, local NGOs and business owners came to see it. Even the district chief, Chief Kakumbi, came to the performance (even though that same day he had been busy welcoming the president of Zambia in Mfuwe!).
Because of the positive responses to the piece, Annoek and I decided to expand the work of Studio Zambia. We continued to work on this project after we returned to our university in Belgium, this time with a group of international volunteers who were all studying at our university: we wrote evaluations both for our studies and our sponsors, we organised new fund-raising events and looked for other ways of financial support, translated the manuals we work with, adjusted the play-writing programme and started the preparation for a radio-making programme! Together, we all went back to Mfuwe last summer.
The method that we use in these classes stems from the 52nd Street Project in New York and Amsterdam, but it has been adapted to the local context in Zambia. This method uses collaborative playwriting to give students a platform to make their voices heard on topics with societal relevance. When the play is being performed, students are given the chance to see their own work acted out by professional actors, an experience which builds their self-esteem and conﬁdence. It is built around the concept of growth through the means of applause, which refers to the idea that, when the play-writers take a bow after their play is performed, they come up taller: they ‘grow’ with the applause they receive.
In the workshops, one group worked on playwriting and a second group worked on radio-making; in this second group the students got introduced to how to prepare and execute a radio show. The skills that students gain are developed with the use of ‘golden tips’: easy guidelines that the students can fall back onto when they get stuck in their writing or radio-making. For example, one of the golden tips in the playwriting program is: details make your character more interesting and your story more exciting. The golden tips are ‘gold’ not only because they are of utmost importance, but also because they are written with shining golden pens in the students’ notebooks.
We organised drama and movement games to stimulate self-expression and creativity among the students. A special session was organised to discuss relationships, the topic chosen for their final play and radio-show, which were to be performed and broadcast in August 2017. It was about both romantic relationships and kinship. The group discussed what healthy relationships are like, how the students feel, and how couples should behave with each other. The group talked about how to respond if your partner crosses a line, how they can protect themselves in such a situation and, with the metaphor of an iceberg: what is ‘under the water’ in relationships? Just as we do not see the biggest part of an iceberg, what is hidden under the surface in relationships?
While the students were preparing for their exams, the Studio Zambia team started the production period together with the actors of SEKA. In the following weeks, we rehearsed the scenes, added a choir and sent out invitations and posters to promote the performance, titled ‘CONNECT’. At the same time, the radio programme was being edited and finalised.
All the students who took part in playwriting workshops wrote individual plays. These were not necessarily autobiographical, but were always full of personal elements nonetheless. The stories that emerged from our sessions together were honest and powerful, on topics ranging from domestic abuse in romantic relationships, to jealousy and forgiveness between brothers, to long searches for love and attacks on one’s virginity. One girl wrote a play about a young flower over which bees fight for her sweet nectar, in the end the flower successfully stands up for herself.
Jessy, one of the girls in the programme, wrote a play about a girl who is looking for love, but is also afraid. She meets a boy but he might be a questionable character: he wants to marry her, but the girl just wants to be friends. Jessy’s play opens with the girl’s fear: ‘I want to get married but I am fearing boys. I think they are as lions.’
Another student, Moses, wrote a monologue about a blind hunter, who was born in very unfortunate circumstances, and longs to make friends with other people. CONNECT’s final scene consisted of the blind hunter’s monologue, in which he says the following:
‘I was born far away from people, in mountainous areas and caves where people cannot manage to get. It is only for the ones who have strong hearts. My biggest wish is to have good friends. I always kill animals and no one whom I can share the meat with. My eyes are filled with tears. I indeed have everything on my own, but I’m lacking friends to interact with’
CONNECT was performed at the last day of the students’ exams in Mfuwe Day’s yard. A large crowd showed up to watch the play and in the weeks after, the radio show was broadcast. The show was live on a regional radio station that could reach 1.2 million listeners!
By addressing issues that are otherwise not widely talked about, Studio Zambia aims to open up these discussions and shed light on controversial social issues, such as gender inequalities, domestic violence and abortion. It is difficult to quantify the impact Studio Zambia had on the larger community, but there is no doubt that the students’ confidence grew throughout the project. The team witnessed some of the very shy students become more open, and some of the girls started to question openly boys’ attitudes towards women.
After the performance, it was time to leave Mfuwe again. It was difficult to wave goodbye to the students I worked with, but hopefully we will meet each other again. Some will be graduating or leaving school for other reasons, and at the time I did not know if I would be able to return the following year.
I worked with the actors of SEKA for two summers in a row, and it was difficult to say goodbye to all of them because the whole group came to be close friends. On my last night in Mfuwe, some of the male actors and I went to collect firewood in the bushes. One of the youngest actors and I started talking about how collecting firewood traditionally is considered to be a woman’s job. He explained that nowadays men collect firewood too and there is no longer a clear division between male and female tasks. According to him, this was an indication of a step towards gender equality. Although there are still many steps to take, it was interesting to hear a young man publicly reflecting on gender issues and equality.
Currently, Studio Zambia is busy working on a sustainable financial plan for the coming years and searching for funding. A priority continues to be preparing and delivering our programme, which will happen again this year. We are looking at ways to transfer our programme in the near future, so that is locally supported, also when we are not at location. On the long term, we would love to expand both within and outside of Zambia.
Esther Mulders is studying for an MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. Her undergraduate degree was in Creative Therapy and she hopes to work and do research in global mental healthcare.