I have often tried to imagine what Makewana, the original rainmaker of ancient Malawi, must have looked like.
There is a statue of her with long hair at Mua Mission in Dedza, as cutting her hair would have meant dryness.
The name means “Mother of Children” – a title passed down through generations of rainmakers. Once identified as Makewana, a woman would live at the Msinja shrine and would be considered responsible for the rain.
Makewana is the name we decided to use when, in 2014, Hendrina Kachapila, Ranka Primorac and I were talking about Malawian writers. Ranka was in the country to research women’s writing in southern Africa. She asked, “Where are the Malawian women writers? We didn’t have a ready-made answer.
Were there women writing in Malawi? Oh definitely. There was Walije Gondwe, Emily Mkamanga, Catherine M’bawa, Cecilia Dube. We stopped, trying to think. The fact that we had to pause, search and remember speaks volumes. It wasn’t that hard to come up with names for male authors. Within seconds, I was able to find the names of five: Jack Mapanje, David Rubadiri, Steve Chimombo, Aubrey Kalitera and Ken Lipenga. That day, the three of us decided to do more to find out where the women were.
Hendrina proposed the name Makewana’s Daughters for our online forum, the title of Jessie Sagawa’s doctoral thesis, Daughters of Makewana: A study of women in selected Malawian novels in English. We thought about the history of Malawi and the leadership of the rainmakers in the 18th century. We could not resist the urge to link creation and creativity, and we felt that the strong image of the rainmaker would be a source of inspiration for women seeking to end the country’s literary drought. . Our slogan, “Let words rain and reign”, reflected everything the Makewana’s Daughters were aiming for.
We haven’t found all the answers as to why Malawi doesn’t have so much creative writing by women. I spoke to women and girls who have been writing for a long time, not because of the Girls of Makewana, but because they felt the need. For some, their work has been hidden away in cupboards. They thought it was enough to write. For others, the work was rejected by publishers.
But there is also the issue of literacy levels, which remain lower among women in Malawi than among men. But that doesn’t mean that women who haven’t had a formal education don’t have a story to tell. Makewana’s Daughters transcribed stories as well as songs composed by rural women: songs are only one of the ways in which women express themselves.
Through our online forum we post short stories, poems and songs as well as personal stories. We even created a comic strip, Nerdy Niva, which deals with a different kind of dryness: female protagonists created by female writers in comic strips.
We managed to visit primary schools and organize two writing competitions in English and Chichewa. We are mostly self-funded, but have received financial support from Asbjørn Eidhammer, former Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi, and Asante Mtenje, Associate Professor of English at the University of Malawi.
One of the many things I’m happy about is that we’re not just an online forum anymore, there have been times when we’ve been to a school and heard girls clapping and shouting “Makewana!”
We have also participated in workshops with organizations such as Pepeta Malawi, a feminist platform fighting against gender-based violence, and Wona Collective, which focuses on social advocacy using the arts. Our interactions with participants have made us even more humbly aware of the stories that exist and the artists of this country, even when publishing opportunities are scarce.
I’m impressed with how some women in Malawi are embracing trends like self-publishing. After years of looking for outlets, they stepped up, salvaging the manuscripts they had shelved, and getting their work published as they pleased.
Visiting the Makewana statue in Mua and seeing her long hair intrigued me, especially since I had grown up in a time when schoolgirls had to keep their hair short. This is still the case in public schools and is considered a form of discipline.
Looking back to a time before all of this, the image of Makewana makes me wonder how she negotiated the issue of discipline in her time. I hope I can write without a crippling sense of self-censorship, and that the women who write in the country will continue to let the words rain down and reign.
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