ArtsTheatre

Makambe Simamba explores culture and self awareness in her search for answers in A Chitenge Story

As any artist will tell you, creation takes time. Numerous things are incorporated into the process and have an influence on the outcome – past and current events, personal experiences, personal traumas – with the act of creation often leading to a personal catharsis in its production. Factors such as these can be dealt with indirectly, or, in the case of playwright and actor Makambe Simamba, tackled head on. A Chitenge Story, created and performed by Simamba, is a testament to her own strength, determination and character: a young Zambian woman returns to her homeland to find and confront the man who had assaulted her in her childhood – a telling that came from her own personal experience and which took Simamba time to figure out how exactly to tell it.

Getting to the point where her story of past abuse would take shape came slowly, four to five years in the creation, but one which started forming when she was much younger. Simamba explains “I had taken a trip back home to Zambia with this single mission to locate this man who had abused me. We left Zambia when I was about seven years old and you know how memory is fuzzy, (but) I remember it was an isolated incident. I remember being weirded out and knowing that something wrong had happened, but because I was involved in it I thought I would be in trouble, so I didn’t tell anybody. Other than that my childhood was abundant and colourful and loving, but there was this one thing.”

Shortly after, Simamba’s family moved from Zambia to the Caribbean and then eventually to Canada where her mother went back to school and became a social worker — an event which inadvertently brought some light to Simamba’s previous trauma. “I was in her office one day and I was reading a pamphlet (on abuse), and I went, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ Then I finally had a name for this thing: did I remember it? Did I not? And then I named it and that was really challenging … we had moved away from Zambia so I wasn’t in imminent danger, and I could not for the life of me remember this person’s name or face, I just sort of knew some details about him.”

Some years passed and it wasn’t until Simamba was in university that another traumatic event triggered both her memories and her exploration into tackling the issue. She changed gears, changed schools, and decided to study drama — the beginnings of her tale starting to take shape in one of her classes.

“I didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary or the maturity that I have now (to deal with it) … How many times have you felt that something that has happened and you feel shitty about it or you don’t speak about it, but when you finally do, you whisper it? So a few years later as I started owning this experience, truly starting to now feel the pain and trying to figure it out. I had a really hard time with counsellors, (and) I just said you know I guess I’ll just work on this on my own and if I find the right person to talk to about this then great, but just thinking about it, writing, just journalling a lot … It was sort of sitting within me and so when it came out in this particular class I just said, ‘Huh, maybe there’s something here,’ and then felt like I was ready to kind of go there.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got this great handle on interpretive text, but can I tell a story through just movement?’ That was sort of my central question, and I wanted to explore culture, so I just started creating this dance movement piece that told the story of this African woman who was assaulted and sort of what that did to her body. I just wanted to see how clear that would be without any speech. After I did that (I thought), ‘Maybe there’s more to this,’ and in the really supportive environment that I was in I was really encouraged.”

Simamba started to collaborate with Katherine Smith, who would be the director for A Chitenge Story, and who was also another U of L grad and an ally to Simamba. “I just said to Katherine, ‘I kind of have this thing that I want to explore, but I’d like a witness and I don’t really know what it is but I’m starting to think that it might be about me.’ We just started exploring, and throughout this process we had eyes on it, we got a little bit of feedback and quickly identified that it was a story about me, and my experiences.”

Traveling back to Zambia, Simamba had been surprised by what she experienced and how it affected her. “I don’t know if I found what I was looking for, it’s like I did and I didn’t, but somehow through that series of events – the magic of touching homeland, and also having now grown up in a very Western culture, there’s something about that switch that kind of cracked me open. I didn’t have very much privilege there, I mean I did and I didn’t, because I couldn’t speak, or I didn’t know where I was half the time, so that vulnerability made it a really interesting space, so I was just following these little breadcrumbs until the next thing I know I felt healed. ”

Although the assault affected her life in many ways, Simamba chooses to be constructive about it. “I can authentically own this experience that’s so a part of me, but I am not defined by it if I don’t choose to be. And I haven’t really lived my life defined by it all the time, I know sometimes with different types of trauma, and we don’t even know that it ends up informing every single decision and I’m sure (for me) it did to an extent. I see more ownership and the respect that I have for those roots that I have, but I feel like I’m here for a reason and I feel really connected and I feel like this story is now coming out at the exact right time.

Like many performances that touch on deep and often triggering subject matter, Simamba took the audience into consideration when fine-tuning the show. “Every time we would do the show,” she explains, “we would do a talk back afterwards, just because it’s heavy subject matter. We would talk about it directly and wanted people to feel safe in the room. So we had a counsellor or a social worker, somebody we knew, who could be there in case anybody needed to talk.”

Simamba also had to be ready herself to present this autobiographical work to audiences, considering the opening up of herself and presenting her experience to the world could itself be extremely difficult. “I think it’s dangerous to share and create and speak about our trauma, and create it before we actually have reached a certain point in the healing. So (for me) taking that four to five years, inadvertently that’s how it just happened, but I see that that’s how it had to happen. When I go out (on stage), the character’s name is Makambe, and in the rehearsal we call her Character Makambe, so then I can really approach it with some sense of removal. It’s very important to me that we honour our truth.”

Sharing this story now is exciting for Simamba, not only because she herself feels ready, but the timing of her telling it, it’s coinciding with the #metoo movement and a surge of people telling their own stories. “Regardless of socioeconomic status … I feel like it’s an exciting time to be alive because people are really waking up, so when I look at this anger, people are now being forced to think critically on either side of these arguments. It’s also a scary time to be alive, but I find that sometimes we get nostalgic for a time that never existed. When I think about A Chitenge Story and having this conversation I feel so blessed that the time that I have been led to share this story is the time when you can see women of all different shapes, colour, women in Hollywood, (some of the) richest people you might come across and people of completely different cultures telling theirs.”

(Photo: Makambe Simamba courtesy of Citrus Photography)

A Chitenge Story runs March 20-24 at The Pumphouse Theatres and is presented by Handsome Alice Theatre. Tickets and information available at handsomealice.com.

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Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at kari@theyyscene.com.

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