Columnists Features

A museum to house narratives of women in history

LOOK around Lusaka city and there is hardly a resourceful library to point at from where one can discover the unknown.
And apart from the Lusaka National Museum that exists as a repository of cultural and political history, there are no other museums in the city to serve the local public and to inform the outsider.
This is a sad picture of course because in order to get to where you are going, you need knowledge of where you are coming from, yet the generational knowledge gap is only getting wider in Zambia.
For a long time, Samba Yonga has had particular interest in Zambia’s social and political history. Her chief concern has been the poor documentation of this history.
This passion was fuelled as she pursued her Master’s degree in Transnational Communications and Global Media, during which time she dug into a lot of Zambia’s social and political history.
In the same period, she also met a lot of historians who had started documenting alternative history. What she realised was that not a single Zambian was doing this kind of thing and it bothered her.
“I thought to myself, this is ridiculous, we need more Zambians doing this. Anything that was done by a Zambian was a memoir and you know memoirs are very biased,” she says.
Samba was convinced there just had to be another way to document contemporary and past political history and so she got in touch with Marja Hinfelaar, director of research and programmes at the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR).
For a couple of years, they organised lectures under SAIPAR called the Goma Lectures where different speakers would talk about alternative histories not just in Zambia but in Africa too.
Last year when a Swedish delegation travelled to Zambia, Samba sensed an opportunity to collaborate with the organisation which works on cultural and minority projects in history.
“I met with somebody from the delegation who also did cultural work and I thought, maybe there is a way we could spin this,” she says. “They had the funds to promote women’s issues, issues of democracy and fair representation.”
She considered researching a topic on exploring the narratives of women in history as she felt that out of all undocumented history, women’s history was the most overlooked.
Around the same time, she also met National Arts Council (NAC) chairperson Mulenga Kapwepwe and was publishing a lot of her articles in Nkwazi magazine where Samba was deputy editor.
She found Mulenga’s articles on female traditional leaders of the past fascinating. And she was not the only one.
Samba recalls: “The response we got from that was really good because readers loved her articles which she did as private talks, and because it went in a magazine a lot of people had access to them and read them.”
The readers wrote to the magazine and shared just how much they enjoyed the articles, having no previous knowledge that Zambia had such great stories.
Their responses are partly what led Samba and Mulenga to consider what else they could do to make up for the lack of stories or narratives on Zambia from the past.
Samba prepared a proposal whose essence was captured in its title: Narratives of Silenced Voices. Through the proposal, she aimed to explore the unsung stories of women in history.
The proposal was presented to the Swedish cultural organisation, Region Västerbotten that came on board as partners, and this partnership made it possible for an organisation called the Swedish Institute to fund research towards the proposal.
As part of the research, Samba and Mulenga met with key figures such as Senior Chief Mukuni of the Toka Leya people of Southern Province and director of Copperbelt Museum, Charity Salasini.
This research enabled them gather a lot of information on the gaps that exist in Zambian history and how history impacts contemporary life.
One of the things that most struck Samba during the process was how the abandonment of some cultural practices over the years has actually taken away from the enrichment of contemporary life.
When she eventually travelled to Sweden last year and met with communities there, she discovered to her surprise, that even there, narratives of prominent female figures are not documented.
“Then we decided that with the information we gathered we would do exhibitions here in Zambia and in Sweden,” she shares.
What they had received was seed funding for research but they needed to apply for funding towards a planned exhibition to really pull off what they had in mind.
Despite applying for funds, they were unsuccessful in acquiring them due to not meeting the conditions of the Swedish Institute that had sponsored the research.
Disappointed that it fell through, Samba and Mulenga regrouped and considered taking the next step.
They decided to create a museum in Zambia using their already established partnership with the Museum of Women’s History in Umeå and the Region Västerbotten in Sweden.
The museum would act as an institution where the narratives of women in history that had impacted and contributed significantly to Zambia’s development would be restored.
Researchers attached to the museum would also explore, document and disseminate information uncovered along the way.
“There is so much that we talked about,” Samba says. “For example,we discussed the history of food, the history of education and not just the history of women. It is across all sectors because at the centre of it all is women.”
As it is the first such museum to exist in Zambia, there is much enthusiasm about its establishment.
The museum called the Women’s History Museum of Zambia, will have its physical base in Lusaka and is presently operating as a virtual one but an official website for the museum will go up in January 2017.
It is set up as a cooperative comprising 10 women from different sectors that will be contributing their expertise to the growth of the museum.
“It’s not just us, but more people can come and join. We want to make it open so people can come and share their stories and donate whatever artifacts they may have to build up the museum,” Samba says.
The first step was to launch it virtually by setting up a Facebook and a Twitter page and introducing the museum that way.
Digital content which includes podcasts and short videos of stories that require documentation will also be created for the museum.
Since the launch of its Facebook page, the museum has attracted great interest online.
Its first collection and collaboration was shared publicly via Facebook last week. It is a donation from Malambo Grassroots, run by Jocelyn Banyard whose family lived in Zambia’s Southern Province. Over the decades the family collected stories of women in rural Monze, depicting the life and culture in the area.
The five quilts are original Zambian stories collected by the women who have sequenced them out and decorated them collaboratively. Each square of the quilts is made by a different woman. The museum was informed that originally the quilt squares were oral stories and when they were collected, the women did not have sewing machines. As a result they were put together by Marylee Banyard between 1992 and 2001.
“Another more important aspect of the museum I would like to include is that we intend to create modules of education so that we can eventually lobby to get them included in school curricula,” Samba says. “We want to put the information in a relevant, contemporary way so that it can be compulsory learning for everybody.”
She highlights this as the main goal of the museum: to inform and inspire younger generations.
Mulenga says the museum is important because there is no dedicated place promoting women’s history in Zambia.
“I think it’s a place where women’s issues, contributions and iconic personalities can be discussed, written about, communicated and researched,” she says in acknowledgement of the contribution of women to Zambia’s cultural, economic and political landscape.
Some of the finest museums in the world are women’s museums and the Women’s Museum in Zambia is to act as an affirmative space where a significant aspect of the country’s history will be preserved.
Leaving out this space means ignoring a huge chunk of Zambia’s history and this ultimately means breeding a generation ignorant of who they are and unfamiliar about where they are from.

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