Playwright May Sumbwanyambe, Talks Writing, Identity & Cultural Politics

Papatango Theatre Company’s debut of, After Independence is inspired by a decolonised Zimbabwe and the effects of land redistribution from white farmers to Black freedom fighters.

The play’s synopsis reads- After Independence is an unflinching examination of land ownership, dispossession and justice in the postcolonial world. It is inspired by real events in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, when white-owned farms began to be forcibly seized by thousands of war veterans dissatisfied by their corrupt government and desperate for change. 

Multi-award winning writer of After Independence, May Sumbwanyambe, speaks to Be Manzini about writing, identity and cultural politics.

Is it coincidence that your name is May and your play is debuting in May?

[laughs] May’s not my name, it’s my nickname, but everyone’s called me that since I was young. My name is Mwewa Sumbwanyambe – Son of God’. Mwewa, I think, means ‘thank you’. I’m named after my grandmother. The languages are Bemba and Lozi [respectively].

How do you describe yourself culturally?

In some ways it’s how this play started. I’ve always written about Africa and Africans, about my cultural heritage and what it means to live in the Diaspora. How it feels to belong to more than one place. I’ve got multiple identities. I’m African, but I feel very British as well. The way that I would describe it, as a second-generation kid, and I’m sure you can relate to this – the minute you leave home, you are in England; the minute you come back, you may as well be in Africa (or Zambia for me to be more specific). You grow up in Africa and at the same time, in England. It’s only that the border is your doorstep.

Why write this story?

I got this opportunity from Papatango and the BBC when Scotland were about to have a referendum regarding independence, and it coincided with me thinking about what identity means. It brought something home. I’ve always ticked Black British on a census; I was born in Scotland, raised in England, but I don’t feel Scottish or English. I feel British, Black British specifically. Had independence happened, my identity would have been disrupted and I would have had to choose being Scottish or English and potentially changed passports. This wasn’t lost on me. My contemplation on Zimbabwe, and the question was where is the mirror of me in Africa?

These white families, the minorities within Africa who could point towards that nation. Zimbabwe being particularly dramatic compared to Zambia, though South Africa is interesting with what is happening with the ANC – but in terms of the mirror of me culturally it is Zimbabwe. You’ve got these families who are 4 or 5 generations deep within Zimbabwe, they consider themselves Zimbabwean, their children were born in Zimbabwe, their children have never been to any other country, they are culturally Zimbabwean, their children are named Zimbabwean names. Yet after independence, those people were told that they were no longer Zimbabwean; no justice or due process. The stakes there were so much higher than what I was having to contend with. The worst for me is I’m going to have to tick a different box on a form, but the stakes they are having to deal with can be fatal; tragic.

The idea of what right somebody has to call a place their home based on the colour of their skin, I thought was tangible. I’ve grown in all-white communities and been told to go back where you came from. My whole family is split across Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, but my Mum and Dad are first-generation immigrants and feel very Zambian. For me, my brother and my sisters, we take ownership of both; it’s painful and difficult. I come from a small town; growing up, my brother was the only Black person I knew my age. Because of the nature of how I grew up and how I had to form my identity, I had an angle. I could empathise with all parties. I didn’t want to cite a story where these were the ‘good guys’ and these were the ‘bad guys’. That’s what we set out to write; a story that wasn’t reductive.

Tell me about your research process, your impetuses…

after_indpendenceI had already written a play a few years ago about Zimbabwe called Backhand Contemplation. The play is set in 1998 when Tony Blair’s government said to the Zimbabwean government ‘we are going to renege on the Lancaster House Agreement’ [1]. I was in Zimbabwe about 18 months after for the summer. I was 16 years old, you could see how bad things were (not totally because you have the power of the western currency), or would get. So I had a real physical sense of how the country was. One of the tragedies of being born in the west is you see everything in the context of how things are in Britain, especially if you are only going home every summer holiday for 4/5 weeks.

I felt 1988 was important because that was the moment people had to either double down and say ‘I’m Zimbabwean, I’m staying here…I’m going to fight for this’ or do what a lot of people did and leave the country. As my father would say, ‘What is the central cause behind African countries being dubbed the 3rd world?’ If you look at similar countries post-independence, you look at India for example, there’s the growth of China, why has the African continent suffered more so in relative comparative terms?

My father was one of the physicians for the first president of Zambia, Kaunda, he would say that in Zambia and Zimbabwe, 4 or 5 generations of the intellectual infrastructure were sent to the U.K, U.S, Russia to train as doctors, engineers, teachers, etc. They were supposed to come home, that was the promise. They didn’t go home. I’m no hypocrite because I’m not on the phone talking to you, about to have a play opening in London if my father made a different decision. If you took every doctor, every nurse, every teacher, every engineer for 4/5 generations out of the UK we would be in the Stone Age. You do the same thing to a country in its infancy, that’s when you have a 3rd world.

You asked me what my process is, politics has been in my family – my father was in that first government, my grandfather the mayor of Chingola for 11 years through independence. My Mum’s younger brother, is a member of the Zambian parliament. I feel like I look at a lot of these moments in history when it comes to Zambia and Zimbabwe (and to a slightly lesser extent South Africa) and it doesn’t feel like foreign events to me – I feel the pain of it; it feels personal.

What has been gleaned from writing this play?

In the rehearsal room the other day, I was telling my actors a story. You’ve seen The Last King of Scotland with Forest Whitaker? [Yes]. The central performance is so powerful and it gets to you, right? But I watched this with my father and mother, and my father has met some of these politicians. Now he’s not feeling that film as a son you feel your father’s pain and I asked myself why it is psychologically difficult for him. Then you think about what that story is: a young white man from the UK, graduates from university, flies across to Uganda, impregnates the president’s wife, takes the president’s wife for a backstreet abortion, and then saves all of Uganda from the evil dictator. No Black man or woman in that film has any agency. If this white man doesn’t come to Uganda to save the whole of the country, these Africans aren’t going to do it for themselves. That is the story.

I was saying to the actors how preposterous that story is if you turn that on its head. So imagine this film: a Black man from Africa has graduated from university, not even a junior doctor. He comes, has an affair with Princess Diana, impregnates Diana, takes her for a backstreet abortion, joins the Conservative party, and saves all of England from some great evil while every single person in the country just sits waiting and watching hopelessly. If that film gets made, people wouldn’t just be “that’s ridiculous”“that’s preposterous” people would be genuinely offended. But it’s still storytelling, right?

As a society, we are comfortable when it is the other way round, when it’s aimed at Black communities. I’ll put it bluntly, it’s storytelling as a way of voyeurism. You take white liberals, put them in the middle of Africa and tell the story from that perspective. We need stories where Black people have agency, where Black people are making decisions in their own lives. It’s not about saying Black is right and white is wrong, but at the same time it was important for me to tell a story that doesn’t subjugate my people as either caricatures or the foil for some great white hope.

Being so marinated in the politics of Zambia and Zimbabwe, in the Southern region I guess, you learn how the press operate and what they demonstrate. What they report on is the truth, there is corruption and huge poverty – but because they focus on that so much, they represent that as a whole picture. They distort it so much, it is almost not the truth. Any element of the middle class disappears, it’s people with extravagant wealth or flies crawling across their skin living in mud huts. It’s not the full picture. I get it, journalism isn’t without its flaws, and if you are trying to compress detailed complexities into 18 column inches or a five minute news bulletin or a headline of course you have to be reductive for a column or headline. Journalism is important, that’s why what we do as poets and playwrights compliments that, there’s a duty for us to dig deeper.

When I started the play, it was just about identity, but it was an organic process, and it became such an interrogation to what independence means, and it means so many different things to a nation and in terms of the characters in my play…  that balancing act of finding justice for crimes of former governments, and it is just as important as justice for those living today. Look at Mugabe, he committed genocide on the Ndebele, but if you look at reporting in the 80s, excuse my language but the western media didn’t give two shits. We don’t care, turn a blind eye, but when it is convenient, we say this is a bad person. Mugabe was always politically and morally dubious, but what I find shocking is he’s no legislator, no deep philosopher – he is a soldier. The laws he uses to silence his critics, jail people, to take land at will, those laws weren’t written by the Black government, those laws were put in the statute books by the Smith government. Justice didn’t die in Zimbabwe overnight – it was dead a long time ago.

After Independence runs at the Arcola Theatre – 4th-28th May book tickets here.

Playtext available from Bloomsbury


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