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How an ancient rainmaker inspired a quest to nurture female writers

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LITERARY GIANT—Steve Chimombo

‘I was struck by how few authors I could name who are women. With Makewana, the ‘mother’ responsible for rain, as our namesake, my group set out to end the literary drought

BY TIMWA LIPENGA:

I have often tried to imagine what Makewana, the original female rainmaker of ancient Malawi, must have looked like.

There is a statue of her with long hair at Mua Mission in Dedza, since to cut her hair would have signified drought.

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The name means “Mother of Children” – a title passed down through the generations of rainmakers. Once identified as Makewana, a woman would live at Msinja shrine and be deemed responsible for rain.

Makewana is the name we decided to use when, in 2014, Hendrina Kachapila, Ranka Primorac and I were talking about Malawian writers. Ranka was in the country researching women’s writing in southern Africa. She asked, “Where are the Malawian female writers?” We didn’t have a ready answer.

Were there any women writing in Malawi? Oh definitely. There was Walije Gondwe, Emily Mkamanga, Catherine M’bawa, Cecilia Dube. We paused, trying to think. The fact that we had to pause, search and remember, spoke volumes. It was not so challenging to come up with names for male authors. In seconds, I could come up with the names of five: Jack Mapanje, David Rubadiri, Steve Chimombo, Aubrey Kalitera and Ken Lipenga. That day, the three of us decided that we would do more to find out where the women were.

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Hendrina came up with the name Makewana’s Daughters for our online forum, the title of Jessie Sagawa’s PhD thesis, ‘Daughters of Makewana: A study of women in selected Malawian novels in English’.

We thought about Malawi’s history, and the leadership of rainmakers in the 18th century. We could not resist the urge of connecting creation and creativity, and we felt that the rainmaker’s strong image would be inspirational to women seeking to end the country’s literary drought. Our slogan, “Let words rain and reign”, reflected all that Makewana’s Daughters was aiming for.

Literacy levels remain lower among women in Malawi than men. But this does not mean that the women who did not have a formal education do not have a story to tell

We have not found all the answers as to why Malawi does not have as much creative writing by women. I have talked to women and girls who have been writing for a long time, not because of Makewana’s Daughters, but because they felt that urge. For some, their work has been kept hidden in closets. They felt it was enough to write. For others, the work was rejected by publishers.

But there is also the question of literacy levels, which remain lower among women in Malawi than men. But this does not mean that the women who did not have a formal education do not have a story to tell. Makewana’s Daughters has transcribed stories as well as songs composed by rural women: songs are just one way in which women express themselves.

Using our online forum, we publish short stories, poems and songs as well as personal narratives. We have even created a comic strip, Nerdy Niva, which addresses another kind of drought – female protagonists created by female writers in comic strips.

We have managed to visit primary schools and to run two writing competitions in English and Chichewa. We are mainly self-funded, but have had financial help in running the competitions from Asbjørn Eidhammer, Norway’s former ambassador to Malawi, and Asante Mtenje, associate professor in English at the University of Malawi.

Among the many things I am happy about is that we are no longer just an online forum, there have been times when we have been to a school and heard girls clap their hands and shout, “Makewana!”

We are thriving.

We have also taken part in workshops with organisations such as Pepeta Malawi, a feminist platform fighting against gender-based violence, and Wona Collective, which focuses on social advocacy using the arts. Our interactions with the participants have made us even more humbly aware of the stories out there and of the artists in this country, even when publishing opportunities are rare.

I’m impressed by how some Malawian women are embracing trends such as self-publishing. Having searched for outlets for years, they have stepped up, taking back the manuscripts they had put aside, and are getting their work published on their own terms.

Visiting the statue of Makewana at Mua, and seeing her long hair, intrigued me, especially since I had grown up in an era when schoolgirls had to keep their hair short. This is still the case in government schools, and is seen as a form of discipline.

Looking at a time before all this, the image of Makewana makes me wonder how she negotiated the issue of discipline in her time. I hope that I can write without a paralysing sense of self-censorship, and that women writing in the country will continue to let words rain and reign.

Timwa Lipenga is an author and lecturer in French at the University of Malawi and director of Makewana’s Daughters. This article was published on the Guardian UK in January 2022

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