For some time, South African soap operas have dominated Malawian households. In fact, till now, drama series dominating Malawian households include Rhythm City and Scandal.
Locally, Spouses and Workmates comes close as it has generated interest and cultivated a following during the few years it has been on air.
But still, some drama fans quench their thirst by crossing the borders to Zambia by watching arguably one of most followed soap operas Mpali on Zambezi Magic channel.
Of particular interest to Malawians is 18-year-old resolute, headstrong and expressive Tionenji character. Besides her acting prowess, Tionenji’s Chichewa stands out as it is impeccable while the rest of the characters speak typical Nyanja.
This has left many of her local fans wondering how she learnt speaking the language flawlessly like a Malawian.
Zowa Ngwira was born in Malawi at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. She later lived in Zambia for eight years beforereturning to Malawi for two years then proceeded to South Africa where she completed high school.
While in Malawi, Zowa went to Christian Heritage School in Lilongwe and Namiwawa Private School in Blantyre.
It was while in South Africa that she started acting.
“When I came back to Zambia in 2016, I wanted to continue acting and my chance came when I auditioned for Mpali. I was encouraged by my mum Wally Makwele, who is also my manager,” she said in an interview.
Mpali chronicles the life of Nguzu, a polygamist with seven women and Shupiwe, the fifth wife, is Tionenji’s mother.
At the core of this family is making a living and working hard to remain united in the face of numerous factors working against them.
Tionenji is the only child and was raised by her grandmother in Chipata on the Zambia-Malawi border.
Perhaps, that’s how her immaculate Chichewa fits into the Mpali story.
“I am half Zambian, half Malawian and both countries are close to my heart. I get to visit Malawi when I can plus being in touch with my relatives there,” said Zowa in an interview from Lusaka.
Her dramatic and at times emotional acting keeps Mpali lovers glued to the screen and marvel at the 23-year-old. She believes her acting is diverse able to suit the role of Tionenji.
“There is a lot of differences between me and my character. Acting is purely acting and it has nothing to do with the way I speak in real life. Most people get shocked that I can speak English,” said Zowa.
She said she had to study and understand both her role and character.
“While on the other side, my normal life is just my life, I don’t have to practice anything.
“So, I am not as rude as Tionenji. I might not have gone through what she has gone through, but we are two different people,” she explained.
In real life, the budding actress’ parents went their ways but still enjoy a good relationship.
“They are still good friends as they really get along very well. They are great co-parents,” said Zowa.
Her story, in a way, mirrors that of Tionenji character; the persona never had the chance to grow up under the same roof with both parents.
On top of that, the mother abandoned her and was scared of getting divorced if the new husband knew about her daughter.
However, Zowa believes there are plenty of lessons that people, especially parents can learn from the relationship Tionenji has with Shupiwe her mother.
“Neglecting a child will never be a solution. A child is a gift. As a result, how parents raise a child determines whether they will be an asset to you or not,” she said.
In what is one of the most interesting roles in the soap, Tionenji, a Grade 12 school dropout ungrudgingly shows her dimness in her soft spoken persona. She busks in the glory of a typical villager mentality.
This is in sharp contrast to her real life as Zowa is an intelligent and ambitious young lady.
“Since joining Mpali, life has been very good and interesting as I continue to get a lot of attention. My life has been great. The exposure also works well for me as I am a student.”
“If I am not on set, I am home working on my studies. It’s about balance and though it is not easy, it is the best thing for me right now,” said the University of Lusaka third year procurement student.
She is looking forward to landing an acting opportunity in Malawi.
“I would love to work with Malawian movie makers. I am just waiting for them to contact me and give me a role. That would give me an opportunity to expand more on the Malawian culture,” explained Zowa.
For most of her Malawian fans, Tionenji represents the struggle that most girls face in rural areas.
“Her story is more interesting because of her Malawian connection. Her character in Mpali relates with what so many Malawian girls face like staying in the village with grandparents who are struggling,” said an ardent follower of Mpali, Archangel Tembo.
“This is a girl who has not gone far with education and luckily, is rescued by her stepfather at the verge of her becoming a wife to an old man. Sadly for some Malawian girls, they indeed end up in such marriages. We have to be proud of Ngwira despite the fact that she is half Malawian and half Zambian.”