Makambe Simamba calls coming from Zambia to Canada, “a bit of an interesting journey.”
She left Zambia, a rugged landlocked country in southern Africa, with her family when she was two-years-old. The family then lived in Guyana, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, before arriving in Canada when Simamba was 18.
The now 26-year-old attended university in PEI for 18 months before moving to Alberta. It was while she was in university that she experienced something that would change her life.
Inspired by true events, Simamba’s play A Chitenge Story follows a young woman attending university. While living in residence, she’s threatened with rape and violence. The girl is then plagued by nightmares stemming from a suppressed memory of molestation at age five in her native Zambia. She plunges into depression and begins to isolate herself. Later, she emerges with a determination to travel back to Zambia and confront her abuser.
Simamba turned the experience into a movement piece for a university class, and then began exploring it outside the classroom.
“When I created the movement piece I didn’t know it would be the structure for the piece it is today,” she says.
She worked with designer and director Kathryn Smith to bring words to the movement. “What ended up being Chitenge started as us just messing around in university,” Simamba says.
“It talks about my journey, the character called Makambe is me. Retelling my story, my journey back to Zambia; taking a bit of creative licence to get the timing and emotion right.”
Simamba says it took her a long time to own what happened to her and an even longer time to share her story.
She began writing A Chitenge Story as she researched the life of Billie Holiday. “It was just an exploration, I thought I could take parallels from her life and draw parallels to my own, or parallels as I see them.”
It wasn’t until she began to delve deeper into the story that the fear she had about telling it began to drop away. “I was more scared to tell Makambe’s story than Billie Holiday’s. But as I put the words down it began to get easier and I felt like I was speaking for someone else. Billie Holiday just eventually floated away. “
Using the jazz singer’s life experiences as a conduit to her own was a great way to access her emotions says Simamba.
Smith and Simamba shelved the story as they graduated and life took over, but she still felt compelled to share her story with others who might be suffering from sexualized violence.
“I wanted to create something, I wanted to produce something and I wanted to challenge people and invite them to see it.”
A chitenge is a piece of brightly coloured African fabric with bold prints. “It’s a strong symbol for Africa,” says Simamba. “When you see African fabric or African inspired prints you recognize them. For me it’s a way to hang on to my African roots and heritage.”
The strength of the fabric is a metaphor, she says. “It’s the idea of the fabric and the story the fabric can tell. The way it retains smells or stains … and it can be anything from a baby sling to a table cloth to a towel or a skirt – its versatility makes me think of the fabric of life.”
Simamba is bringing A Chitenge Story to Intrepid Theatre’s UNO Fest on May 28. The show includes a Q&A session with counsellors.
“It’s important for me that we’re supportive of someone who is experiencing the different themes we tackle in the play. We have counsellors who can say here are the resources in the area so we can deal with the issues.
“I want people to see through my story what I went through, but that I’m OK and you can be OK too.”
A Chitenge Story