By Gouri Sharma
The impact of British colonialism and religious interventions have erased the history of women in Zambia. But a new museum is working to fill these historical gaps.
Mwenya Mukulu was a 17th-century chieftain who played a significant role in the history of present-day Zambia’s Northern Province.
After travelling from the eastern part of Congo with members of her tribe, Mukulu saw that parts of society in the region were organised, while others were not.
Mukulu took on the task of organising the region into formal governance structures and provinces, and divided the kingdom between her and her three sisters. Her sharp diplomatic skills ensured no blood or love was lost, and as a result, she brought people together and consolidated her power.
Her great, great-granddaughter Lombe Tessie Lusale, told TRT World, “The northern part was established by Mwenya and her sisters. The women connected to the throne today are very strong, socially, politically and academically, because they have strong DNA.”
Strong female leaders like Mukulu are prevalent in pre-colonial Zambian history, with many playing important roles in nation-building, politics and governance. Yet records of what they did, how they ruled and the impact they had were — up until recently — not readily available.
But over the past three years, the Women’s History Museum, an online museum that is the first of its kind for the country, has been seeking to address these gaps and tell the female side of the country’s history.
Since launching in 2016, its founders — media consultant Samba Yonga and historian and cultural activist Mulenga Kapwepwe — have collected thousands of artefacts, various oral histories and images that tell the real-life stories of women in pre- and post-colonial Zambia. Their stated aims include, “wanting to restore African indigenous knowledge ... and to set an agenda of how the African women is learned, how it is consumed and functionalized.”
Kapwepwe, who is based in the capital Lusaka, told TRT World, "The museum came from a feeling that women’s history in this country is very subdued."
"You don’t really hear it, see it or learn it, there is hardly anything," she said. "I come from a political family (her father was once the vice president) and my father is the famous one even though my mother did just as much work. It made me question why.”
MASS co-founders Samba Yonga (left) and Mulenga Kapwepwe. (Courtesy of: Mulenga Kapwepwe)
The arrival and settling of European colonizers and missionaries in the continent meant that areas like present-day Zambia underwent huge political and social changes, particularly after the so-called scramble for Africa in the late 19th century.
Kapwepwe said, “Pre-colonial Zambia was 80 percent matrilineal and matriarchal, but this was changed to patriarchal rule by British colonizers and Christian missionaries. Many women chiefs were either ignored or not recognised by the colonial government, who were now keeping the historical records. The patriarchal biased system continued after the colonial period, and post-colonial historians took up and maintained the male perspective of history. Oral history has kept female history, but little of it made its way to print or schools.”
Among their collections so far are a series of quilts from the 1940s that detail the arrival of the colonialists, and audio recordings of events that took place from before colonialism and after independence in the early 1960s.
Earlier this year, they premiered their first animated web podcast series, "Leading Ladies," which tells the stories of various women who were in positions of power across 10 Zambian provinces between the 17th and 19th century. Alongside the story of Mukulu’s diplomacy, viewers learn about a general named Mwape, who defended her people and her trade routes from the Portuguese, and a secretary of state called the Great Mukwae, who ensured the Europeans respected her land boundary, which is still in place today.
“These stories challenge the idea that, in the past, women were not capable of being leaders or contributing significantly to our societies,'' said Kapwepwe, who co-wrote the series, after the podcast release in March.
Their focus has extended beyond the domestic front. Last year, they trained 40 writers to participate in the WikiGap project, a collaboration with Wikimedia and Wikipedia that increased the number of articles about Zambian women on the site.
Working alongside other researchers and historians, Kapwepwe says huge efforts have been made to dig out and acquire this information. Much time has been spent looking in places where western historians often miss because of language barriers, or because they didn’t know where to look, for example in a village name, in poetry or totems.
“Quite a bit is from national archives from about 1863,” she adds. “We also spoke to female chiefs and the current leader of the throne. There were many more female chiefs — more than 200 chiefs before — but the British changed that and there are only 26 women chiefs today. Some of the women who they didn’t recognise as chiefs were much more powerful than the male chiefs that they did recognise, so it’s kind of turned things upside down.”
Pre-colonial Zambia was 80 per cent matriarchal. Bemba women from the north of Zambia wore traditional ornaments that were made by them. (The Livingstone Museum)
Such was the case for 17th-century chieftain Mukulu and her Lungu tribe.
Lusale said, “The British shifted the headquarters to another city and that place then became a civilisation, with people from surrounding countries moving there. Moving the headquarters created a lot of mixtures and divided the system. It led to the creation of sub-tribes and sub-chiefs who all thought they were heirs to the throne. This was all down to the division that colonialism brought and we are still suffering the side effects of that.”
Amid the positive response nationally and in other parts of the continent, the last three years have been a good start to what the founders see as a long-term project.
The team is now working towards acquiring a permanent physical space to house their growing collections plus a second "Leading Ladies" podcast series. Discussions are also underway on how they can integrate these stories and facts about this side of this country’s history into the education curriculum. Beyond the national narrative, the team is also looking to work with other countries — so far one in the east and one in the west of the continent — about a joint initiative in other African countries where female-focused history has been similarly disrupted by colonialism.
From calls for European nations to return looted objects to former colonies to wider decolonial struggles in places like Germany,
Kapwepwe says there is a strong energy right now for people seeking to reclaim their narratives in a postcolonial context.
“One of our battles is to tell the story from our perspective because a lot of it is not our story,” she says. “It’s what somebody else saw or recorded. Our battles now are to take back our narrative.”
For Lusale, the importance of such a museum is about personal preservation.
“In the face of global change, when the world is becoming a global village, how do you protect your identity. Talking about it rejuvenates where we are coming from. We have a tribal and social responsibility to make sure that we don’t assimilate because once assimilation begins, we begin to lose our identity.”