Author: Bwalya Chileya

How language connects us

When asked what my first language is, I often pause because it is not an easy answer. My first language was Chewa.  I spoke it like a native although I wasn’t one, but it has slowly faded away over time from non-use. I then learnt Bemba, English, Kaonde and Nyanja. At the time I didn’t realise that my experience as a child of foreign diplomats living in Malawi was quite unique. I had adopted the language spoken by my nanny, the cook, the driver and their children instead of English.

It was only at school where I came into contact with other children of diplomats that I was made aware of being different. Why didn’t I speak English? English came to me with time – I must’ve been 5 years old – and with it a whole new set of rules and airs. There were strict rules on enunciation and pronunciation, and it became very clear early on that this new language was considered superior to the languages I had spoken before.

I navigated my way through two worlds, speaking each language exclusively in different settings, but I always felt more at home with Chewa. This was likely because it was my first language but also because it connected me deeply to my family and earliest friends. The people I went home to allowed me to speak it without giving me stern looks or pinching their lips in distaste. Speaking it came without judgment.

The realities of the world we live in dictate that fluency in English and a handful of other European languages are required to be successful in our education systems and in the workplace. I can live with that, to a point, but it pains me to see indigenous languages falling by the wayside because they are not regarded as keys to success. I see evidence of this in Zambia where some parents explicitly tell their children that English is the only acceptable language in the home and then banish them from speaking anything else. This decision is made by parents whose own experiences taught them that “proper” English meant access to good jobs and advanced educational opportunities. The intent may be well-meaning but I’ve seen first-hand the alienation it brings when children are unable to communicate with peers or family members who are not fluent in English.

(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)
(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)

By speaking our languages we are doing more than stringing words together; we also learn about the underlying culture and influences. Honorific speech systems that exist in many Bantu languages are reflective of social structure, traditions and respect accorded to elders. These are intrinsic and complementary elements of culture and language. Furthermore, each language carries with it the history of the people who speak it and the areas it is spoken in.

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of those spent at my grandmother’s feet, slowly reading from her KiKaonde Bible and hymn book. In those hours she augmented my reading lessons by teaching me about my maternal family and sharing wisdom through proverbs. Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language; they reflect accumulated knowledge and wisdom from past generations. I’m always in awe of these proverbs because they reinforce the fact that my people had a history before missionaries and colonisers landed on our shores.

This Kaonde proverb encapsulates so well the lessons from my granny: “Fukafuka uja twabakulu talalala wajamo kubulwa.” (Kneeling, you eat with elders; keep standing, you learn nothing.)  It means: “You learn a lot from elders when you are humble but not when you’re rude.”

Wisdom is not exclusive to speakers of foreign languages which continue to enjoy unparalleled dominance. Much of our history remains unwritten and is stubbornly passed down orally, and there is so much to learn and safeguard.

There should be no shame assigned to those who speak indigenous languages. A break from the past is needed; rigid rules in schools that see children punished for speaking their mother tongues only reinforce negative messaging about the hierarchy of languages and assign value to what is considered perfect or acceptable – posh, lightly accented speech.

Language is a key component of our identity and through it we can express our unique worldviews. We should honour multiple language and cultural identities. If we lose our languages we lose a way of life, a way of thought and a means of expression.

Though I often take for granted my fluency in multiple languages, I have come to appreciate the inordinate gift I’ve been given. While language is only one marker of a person’s identity, I consider it to be my most important one. Language ties me to my people and my country, and most importantly allows me to communicate. I miss speaking Chewa. Whenever I can, I spend time practising it or listening to audio. I intend to recapture this language of my childhood and add it to my treasure trove.

Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter

African debut novelists to watch out for

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi are two highly anticipated books by debut novelists. Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “Hitting Budapest” about a group of children navigating life in a Zimbabwe shanty town. Read it here. She turned it into a full-length novel, which I was fortunate to get an advanced reader copy of. The book is scheduled to be released on May 21.

I first encountered Taiye Selasi on a radio interview. She shared her experience of meeting renowned author Toni Morrison who encouraged her to write after she shared her love for the craft with her.  Her first short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” was published in Granta in 2011 and featured in The Best American Short Stories of 2012. Ghana Must Go has generated a lot of hype in the literary world thanks to rave reviews by Morrison and Salman Rushdie.

A common thread in Bulawayo’s and Selasi’s novels is the issue of home. Where in the world do the characters fit in; where do they call home? Both writers show how immigrants fit in (with mixed results) when they move to America, and how they relate to the folks they left the longer they stay away.

We Need New Names


The story is told from the point of view of 10-year-old protagonist, Darling. We first meet her and her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina as they cross a forbidden road which takes them from their shanty into a nice suburb called Budapest. She describes Budapest as having big houses, with satellite dishes on the roofs, neat gravelled yards, tall fences and huge trees heavy with fruit. And for this group of hungry children, it’s the fruit they’re after – guavas. Though they know not to overindulge due to the resulting constipation, they still do because the guavas are the only way to kill the hunger.

As each day passes every one of them shares their dream of leaving for a better place. Times are tough in Zimbabwe; economic and political instability have rocked the foundation of many people’s lives. Jobs and money are scarce, and those with means (or sheer courage) have fled, often leaving behind the elderly and the very young. Darling’s dream is to go to America, to be with her Aunt Fostalina. Her friends mock her, saying this will never happen but she hangs onto it against all odds. They each hang on to the promise of a better future, elsewhere.

Darling eventually gets her chance to move to America but not before bearing witness to some pretty grim happenings that could have been pulled from the front page of Zimbabwean news dailies. These would otherwise be painful encounters to describe but Darling’s naïveté and innocence take away some of the ugliness.

In the second half of the book, Darling is now in America living with Aunt Fostalina and her family. She bears the bitter cold winters and homesickness with a shocking level of maturity for someone her age. She reasons that she can deal with the snow and the absence of her closest friends because at least she has food, lots of it, and all kinds of it. Here, she doesn’t go hungry.

Though she struggles to make friends due to the typical, idiotic behaviour of school children, who make fun of others for looking and sounding different, she remains focused and adjusts quite admirably to her new life.

As time passes, the more she adjusts to America, the further she drifts from Zimbabwe and the people she left behind. This guilt eats away at her, and she becomes exiled in a sense.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book. Bulawayo does a good job of illustrating the effects of poverty on a nation’s psyche, the alienation felt by those who make the difficult decision to leave home, and their longing for home.

I had some minor quibbles. There are some areas of the book, particularly in the second half, that I felt could’ve been touched on better and perhaps even tied up a little neater for better flow. It felt a little disconnected at times and took away some of my enjoyment.

However, if this book and its writer has been on your radar, definitely give it a try.

Ghana Must Go


 “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between the sunroom and garden and considering whether to go back to get them. He won’t.”

These are the opening lines that introduce us to Kweku Sai, “a renowned surgeon and failed husband”. It is through his dying that we learn about him and the family he leaves behind.  In this three-part story, Selasi goes back and forth in time unravelling the tale of the Sai family.

As a young man, Kweku leaves Ghana on a scholarship to attend medical school in the US. In New England, he meets and marries Folasadé (Fola), a young Nigerian émigré. Fola abandons her dream of attending law school with the understanding that supporting Kweku’s dream is enough. Together they have four children – Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadé (Sadie).

Their story is typical of most immigrant families in the country: both parents working extremely hard to make ends meet while demanding academic excellence from their children so as to escape the traps of poverty with which they are all too familiar. Kweku loves his children but he struggles to understand and relate to them. His duty is that of a provider, not a friend or confidant. When the eldest three children are in their teens, an unfortunate situation spirals out of control and Kweku leaves. Fola must regroup, pick up the fragments and forge ahead.

The second part of the novel focuses on how Fola and her children, now adults, react to Kweku’s death. Each of them carries painful personal secrets. These secrets, like boils, are painful and need to be lanced and drained before healing can begin.

In the third part of the book they all agree to travel to Ghana (where Fola is now living) for Kweku’s funeral. Though not easy, their time there allows them to finally deal with the emotional fallout of events that have held them back for so long.  This time is fraught with incredible pain, confusion and mistrust but ultimately they emerge better from it. Kweku’s second and final departure brings his family together again in every sense, in contrast to his earlier exit which fractured familial bonds and sent them all reeling.

Selasi’s writing is enjoyable, poetic and quite dense, but at times the writing gets in the way of telling the story. Since the story unfolds through flashbacks, it’s often hard to follow who the speakers are and what exactly is happening. This is true especially for the first part of the book, which I found to be slower and difficult to read due to the amount of detail the reader has to wade through.

With the added psychological dimensions given to each character, it’s hard not to be affected by their pain and anger. My heart grieved for this family.

Ghana Must Go is definitely worth the read. I look forward to seeing how Selasi’s writing evolves during her career. There is strength in it that begs for more stories.

Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter

For the love of African literature

I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have books around me. My parents and grandparents were all bibliophiles, and it went without saying that I was expected to find similar joy in reading.

As a child I was introduced to the worlds that lay within Mallory Towers, The Famous Five, Secret Seven, Nancy Drew Mysteries and others. When I grew older, I fell in love with Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

African literature barely registered on my radar until about three years ago. Prior to this I had only read a handful of requisite titles by African writers. I just did not make the effort to read more, and hid behind the handy excuse of good African literature being hard to find.

My light bulb moment came after reading Twilight in the Morning by Theresa Lungu, a Zambian writer based in the US. It is a simple story: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they’re separated and endure great personal loss before being reunited. However, what made this book thoroughly enjoyable was the writer’s skill to make this more than a cliché about love and loss. Instead she showed the remarkable resilience of the human spirit even after enduring heartache and pain.

After this I resolved to read more books by Zambian writers and others from the continent. I further decided to share my reading experiences through book reviews to perhaps help others make purchasing decisions and to introduce them to new and old writers. It was the least I could do after years of neglect.

In doing so I’ve found a new meaning in what it means to be an African. The African writer explores the depths of the human condition. In these works we are not merely caricatures or objects to be ridiculed and placed on display. We are fully formed human beings with the capacity to love, hate, laugh and cry. Furthermore the African writer has given voice to many stories that once were only shared through our oral traditions, some of which we have lost with the passing of time. This is why I continue to read and share.

Some of my favourite books to date are:

A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe

acowrieofhopeNasula (mother of Sula) is a young widow struggling to make ends meet for herself and her daughter. Her daughter who recently passed her exams has been accepted into an all-girls’ secondary school but she lacks the money required for fees, supplies, and other things required for Sula to continue with her education. Though illiterate herself, Nasula, understands the need for her daughter to be educated and she feels the burden acutely.

Faced with the dilemma of her daughter possibly dropping out of school because of lack of funds, Nasula faces a seemingly hopeless situation until a friend proposes a solution. If she sells her last bag of Mbala beans, which are on high demand in Lusaka, the money will more than adequately fund Sula’s schooling. Re-energised with this new hope, Nasula sets out to earn this money.

Nasula’s naïveté is touching, and her boldness inspiring. What I really love about this book is that despite the desperate situations Nasula finds herself in, she loses neither her dignity nor her sight of goal. Her daughter exemplifies this too, which speaks well for the strength of both mother and child. We often talk about the indignity of poverty, and how it slowly chips away at the soul but Sinyangwe masterfully crafts characters that transcend that predicament.

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta  


Sefi Atta’s debut novel is set in Lagos, Nigeria. It is the story of Enitan, born on the eve of her country’s independence. Through her eyes we witness the changes the young republic and her citizens go through – military coups, the rise of an indigenous ruling class, political activism and so forth.

As a child Enitan is sheltered, naïve and spoiled; her parents use her as a proxy in their fights, each vying for her undivided loyalty.

We follow her story from childhood to adulthood, and we see her come into her own through her life experiences. Her friendship with a childhood friend, Sherry, is also quite pivotal and through them Atta raises troubling issues such as the role of women in society and the expression of personal freedoms in an increasingly autocratic nation.

Sefi Atta is truly a gifted writer and this work is well worth reading.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga


“I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologising for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling.”

Never have I read such a bold opening to a novel. I paused briefly to check what roller coaster ride I had just committed myself to before launching into the book. It turned out to be intense and thought-provoking.

This is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a young woman in pre-independence Zimbabwe. It’s set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and centres around two female cousins, Tambudzai (Tambu) and Nyasha. The adult Tambu reflects back on her adolescence and in particular the major events that shaped her life.

This is not simply a story about family drama. It is about girls maturing into teens. Women moving up in the world by virtue of their hard work and/or education and not because of advantageous unions. The struggles of a newly educated class as they straddle the “white man’s world” and that of their forefathers. Familial pressures to help less advantaged (and sometimes lazy) siblings. The gradual emancipation of the black man. Social acceptance of outsiders.

It is not an easy read but the gifted Dangarembga does a remarkable job in making it enjoyable.

The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow


The Screaming of the Innocent is a powerful book. A young girl goes missing in the remote village of Gaphala in Botswana. The police rule out a human connection in her disappearance and make the determination that she has been eaten by wild animals. Her family dispute this but have no means to pursue the case, and it is soon closed.

A few years later a young woman assigned to the local clinic as part of her national service comes across a box that reopens the old case and wounds that have barely healed start to bleed again. This sets in motion a quest for the truth about what happened to the little girl.

What follows is the struggle between a community of people who have traditionally been disenfranchised as they go head to head with those who rule and oppress. Dow weaves together a fascinating tale that’s hard to put down and shows that even in the midst of horrific darkness there is hope, and this hope is carried by ordinary men and women.

It’s a tragic story told by a wonderful writer. I absolutely loved it.

Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku


The central character of the book is Pumpkin. We first meet her as a nine-year-old living in  Lusaka, Zambia with her single mother, Totela Ponga. Theirs is a turbulent existence – Totela is a barely functioning drunk who obsesses about her married lover, JS, Pumpkin’s father. Pumpkin slips into the role of caregiver though she understands little of alcoholism and the destructive nature of her parents’ relationship. She also faces the unkind questions from her friends about her absent father which she fights off defiantly.

In the second half of the novel, we encounter an adult Pumpkin. She’s a successful architect and is married with children of her own. She still carries with her the insecurities from her childhood. She’s distrustful and has a knack for telling little lies that slowly chip away at the foundation of her marriage. This culminates in an ugly encounter with a woman she suspects of preying on her husband.

Overall this was an enjoyable book. Having the story told from Pumpkin’s point of view as a child and later as an adult was very well done. Even though she seemingly has it together on the outside, there are many times she wonders “why couldn’t they see the tears I was crying inside?” One can’t help but be thoroughly annoyed at her parents for failing to step back to see what their behaviour had done to their child. They fail to understand the outward expressions of love Pumpkin needs or how she struggles to fit in a world where she constantly feels rejected.

Through Pumpkin’s eyes we are confronted with various themes – polygamy, alcoholism, HIV and Aids, trust and personal insecurities. As the lives of the different characters intersect we see how they respond and evolve. No one comes out of this as he or she went in.

Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She still reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter