Singalilwe Chilemba wears many hats. The Malawian writer, activist, and development professional is also the founder of Utawaleza, a community project that promotes reading and creative development in young Malawians. She is currently based in the capital Lilongwe where she works on a number of projects to increase visibility of women creatives, establish spaces for creative expression, and promote art as activism.
A lifelong reader and passionate writer, Chilemba remembers wanting to join a book club in Lilongwe back in 2016, but was disappointed when she couldn’t find one. She decided to start her own, and established Utawaleza (the Chichewa word for rainbow) which organises book clubs in four cities across Malawi: Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Zomba and Blantyre. What began as a monthly meeting to discuss African literature with other avid readers has expanded into sharing sessions where young creatives can present and discuss their work while getting to know others in creative industries.
“So much comes out of those conversations and it’s not just about the books,” says Chilemba. “It’s such a rich experience … we don’t really have a lot of platforms [in Malawi] for young creatives to express themselves.”
Another important aspect of her work is bridging creative approaches with development challenges and social issues. As a programme officer with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Chilemba works on a number of projects related to public health, education and governance. Last year, she was commissioned to work on a project about safer abortion with Positive Negatives, an organisation founded by SOAS senior fellow Benjamin Dix, that combines ethnographic research with illustrations of contemporary social and humanitarian issues. Chilemba wrote the script for an animation called ‘Mphatso’s Story’ about a young Malawian girl trying to end her unintended pregnancy.
The law in Malawi states that abortion is illegal in all cases except if the mother’s health is in danger. As a result, many women and girls are forced to use unsafe methods that can lead to complications or even death. Research from the the Guttmacher Institute and the University of Malawi College of Medicine, the most recent of its kind, estimated that 141,000 women in Malawi had an abortion in 2015, and that 60% of these resulted in complications that required treatment. Chilemba says one of the challenges she faced in writing Mphatso’s Story was being able to share enough information for young women and girls to access safe abortion, while staying within the confines of Malawian law.
“It’s a very delicate conversation,” she says. “It was striking a balance between sharing information on what the options are to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but also, in the event that [women] do get an unsafe abortion, they should know that health centres are liable to help with post-abortion care.”
Chilemba has further incorporated her creative approach to addressing development challenges and social issues through her work as a volunteer with the feminist collective Pepeta Malawi. The organisation aims to empower young feminists through consciousness raising, solidarity building, grassroots activism and promoting women’s leadership and collective action. The platform recently published a collection of stories, poetry, essays and artwork from young women in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia called Our Voices. The project was based on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration for Independence, a United Nations resolution adopted in 1995 to achieve gender equality.
“We tried to unpack that in a way that young people can relate to because not a lot of people really know what it was about and the issues that it was trying to address. So to break it down [through] poetry, written work … I think that’s one of the ways that we can try to advocate for issues using creative outlets,” she says.
Chilemba acknowledges the importance of targeting different communities and in reaching rural and peri-urban youth that don’t necessarily have access to digital media. She hopes to expand Utawaleza into schools across the country and facilitate reading clubs that focus on creative expression and social education.
For this year’s International Women’s Day, Chilemba says she encourages other creatives to challenge the system by taking up space.
“If you’re not finding the platform, then create the platform. We can’t sit around and wait for opportunities to find us. Sometimes it’s just a matter of challenging ourselves and making sure that we’re getting our voices heard, in whatever form we can.”
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes