When people talk about the dwindling reading culture in the country, they do not mentioning the writers. In the words of Nancy Phiri, chairperson of the Women’s Desk at Malawi Writers Union (Mawu), one cannot talk about the declining reading culture when writers are no longer writing and publishing their works.
“We are talking about stories that Malawians can easily relate to. What will people be reading? The same old scripts that were written God knows when?” Phiri wonders.
Her frustrations echo those of many others in the country who are worried about the lack of new books by women.
Malawi is endowed with many female academics, activists, writers and entrepreneurs who have rich experiences to tell through books. It is not only fiction writing that women are asked to write. They can write books ranging from all sorts of genres—fiction, non-fiction, business or religion.
According to Alfred Msadala, president of Book Publishers Association of Malawi (Bpam), “women in Malawi have faced a lot of challenges to assert themselves because of our cultural background. They have all along been stereotyped.” This, to a greater extent, has led to women shying away from writing prolifically,’’ he says.
However, there are a few courageous women who have been publishing works throughout the years in spite of the general cultural constraints prevailing in society.
Msadala says there is Janet Karim who can be traced through all the ages as a writer. She has had her stories and poems collected and anthologised since the late 1970s. Eunice Gumbi came up with TiliTonse in 1983. WalijeGondwe is probably the most prolific female writer in this country and her partnership with Macmillan Group paid dividends.
“She has been a regular on both the Pacesetters and Maltracks series. The only challenge here is that the books are now restricted on the African market because of the challenge that Macmillan is facing with the global powers. MathaboChautsi and Stella Chipasula have had the Malawi flag hoisted abroad,” recounts Msadala.
This group of women writers represents the old generation. This was a time that was generally marked by prolific writing and publishing of books. There were publishers like Popular Publications at Montfort in Limbe, Blantyre who published fiction works.
As early as 1970, women have had their works collected in anthologies and published. Some, like Walije, used to publish with Macmillan. All was rosy for the Malawian women writers until the fall of the 12th century.
From this period, only a handful of women have had their works published. Veronica Maele is one of such writers. Her participation in fiction writing is through the gathering of folktales which she has published both in the country and England. Emily Mkamanga and Gertrude Kabwazi have also been successful writers.
Coming closer to the present, Phiri as a story-teller, has more than six volumes of story collections. Another writer, Rhoda Zulu, has been publishing both regionally and internationally.
“The woman of the season could probably be Cecilia HashaDube. She has written children stories; has had her short stories collected and anthologised locally and internationally; her poems are in several anthologies and just last year, she has issued a Christian poetry collection title,” says the president of Bpam.
EkariMbvundula’s story Montague’s Last is on Amazon.com and others on her blog. And according to Bvundula, UpileChisala, has published two poetry books within the past two years, titled Soft Magic and Nectar, respectively.
Mbvundula says: “There is also Tiseke Chilima who contributed a very good story titled Women are from Venus to the science fiction anthology Imagine Africa 500 adapted in part by ShadreckChikoti. She was the only female Malawian writer in the anthology.”
These are the women writers whose works are known to have been published, locally and internationally. The publications have been coming in dribs and drabs, like water from a tap feeding from seasonal wells.
As chairperson of Women’s Desk at Mawu, Phiri says lack of funds hamper women from publishing their works.
“Some are keeping manuscripts from way back in time. They are failing to have them published as it is very costly to publish a book in Malawi,” she says.
While Phiri attributes the lack of new books by women writers to financial challenges, Bvundula thinks the main challenge comes from the fact that women do not think of writing as something they could be doing.
“Maybe they [women] believe they won’t be published. I would encourage female writers to show that they can write,” Bvundula says.
Despite whatever challenges women may be facing in the quest of publishing their works, it is important for a nation to have women writers produce books.
“It is very important that women write their own stories. There are many issues that affect women which can best be described by women themselves,” says Phiri.