By Linda Ng’ombe and Chikondi Phiri
Rashida Nyirongo is a busy woman. She juggles studio commitments, which take up around 3 hours most weekdays, with a life full of advocacy and community-oriented engagements. Her regular work on Radio Maria Zambia, Feel Free Radio, Breeze FM and Smooth Radio have helped ensure that the woman known as the Drama Queen of Chipata is a familiar voice for millions of listeners in eastern Zambia. She is also a voice for the downtrodden.
Nyirongo’s current work seems a far cry from her early childhood dream of getting an education and working in a bank. But her parents, who have since passed away, had to work and study abroad and Nyirongo grew up primarily in the care of her grandmother. While her grandmother’s home was a nurturing environment, Nyirongo’s academic journey took a different direction from what she had initially expected.
“As I started my academic journey in grade one at Mpezeni Primary School, I discovered a deep passion for the performing arts,” Nyirongo shared.
That passion would soon eclipse her original dreams. Fascinated with the world of drama, Nyirongo immersed herself in her school’s drama group, a decision that shifted her focus away from academic pursuits. As time went on, her dedication to the stage grew stronger, and this passion led her to join a then multi-award-winning community drama group known as Mwananga Theatre.
“My academic dreams of working in a bank were put aside when I joined one of Chipata’s most prominent drama groups, Mwananga, under the leadership of Musatelo Mwale,” she said.
It was here that she found her calling as a charming dancer, and her talent began to blossom.
The decision, however, was met with mixed feelings from her family, as sometimes she bared her body to entertain. Her departure from traditional academics to the world of arts was a source of confusion and disappointment for her family, who wanted her to get a formal education.
Nyirongo’s journey took a new direction as she continuously skipped school. It all came to a head when she finally dropped out of school at age 13.
Even as a grade seven dropout, however, financial stability came early for Nyirongo. Her newfound independence allowed her to work odd jobs which allowed her to buy what she needed, and she felt mature and in control of her life.
“My contentment with my achievements allowed me to focus on honing my acting skills,” she shared.
However, this early independence quickly devolved into dangerous and risky behaviour. Due to a growing lack of funding at the Mwananga Theatre, she turned to commercial sex work.
“It was a challenging chapter in my life, but it was also a period of growth and transformation and it came when HIV was ravaging cities,” she disclosed.
During this difficult time, a women and youth organisation named Kwacha Kummawa played a pivotal role in Nyirongo’s life. The organisation’s mission was to help sex workers transform their lives and find a path to other work fields. The organisation encouraged Nyirongo and her peers to break free from the cycle of sex work.
Nyirongo embraced the opportunity wholeheartedly, getting involved with the organisation and working to help other sex workers. The initiative changed not only her life but that of many of her co-workers, too and is one that she has supported until the present day.
Florence Zimba, programme manager at Kwacha Kummawa described Nyirongo as one of the few women adopters who work tirelessly to change the landscape of Chipata.
“Her commitment to transforming her life and that of her friends made a difference in the nightlife industry of Chipata City,” Zimba said.
Kwacha Kummawa founder Josephine Chitalu explained that Nyirongo’s leadership was vital to their drive to have sex workers attend training programs.
“Under the banner of ‘Chipata After Dark’ we aimed at raising awareness and bringing about change in the lives of sex workers,” Chitalu said.
Nyirongo also discovered that her passion for drama, combined with a determination to make things happen meant she was able to use the arts as a means of educating and inspiring her community. She performed skits, engaged in educative dance dramas, and conducted outreach activities in the low-income neighbourhoods of Chipata, a journey that soon made her a popular figure.
Life took another significant turn for her when she got married and started a family. But once again, fate intervened.
“It was all rosy until my husband started drinking heavily. It led to misunderstandings in our marriage and we decided to mutually separate,” Nyirongo shared.
Criticism from family members, echoed by childhood friends and neighbours, led Nyirongo into depression. This gave birth to negative thoughts that affected her drama career. It led her to abuse alcohol.
“Those horrible days seemed so long and not promising but I still believed in myself to make a difference despite my experiences,” she said.
In her late 30s, Nyirongo made the courageous decision to return to school, enrolling in an adult literacy class.
During her time at Mwananga Theatre, Nyirongo had been introduced to the production of community radio shows under USAID’s Zambia Community Radio Program and Let’s Read Project. Once again, past experiences helped to turn her life around.
“I was encouraged to enrol in adult literacy lessons at a school run by a pastor,” she said.
She welcomed the idea and was instantly enrolled in Grade 5. In just a few weeks, she was moved to Grade 7 and registered for external examinations. When she sat for the Grade 7 composite exams that year, she passed with flying colours and was selected for Grade 8.
“I completed my education and managed to obtain a good GCE certificate in 2014. I have been hired by different organisations and I am currently working part-time with BBC Media Africa and conducting adverts for various firms and people,” she shared.
Nyirongo has also remarried to a “more understanding and caring man.” The new love of her life also supported and accepted her without any conditions.
Currently, Nyirongo is a board member of Tikondane Drama Group, a theatre group that was recognized as an upcoming group at the 2019 Ngoma Awards, Zambia’s premier creative arts awards. She has also starred in a popular local soap opera, Kabanana.
Nyirongo also continues to educate sex workers in Chipata through dance and theatre work.
“The problem with the commercial sex trade is that even the people we help counsel sometimes do not want to talk about their old lives. We can only learn from others if they are open to talking about their adversities. Chipata has changed tremendously because of the actions of women like me who are open about the change we want,” she explained.
Nyirongo hopes to own a theatre and studio to help youths survive in the future.
Her Drama Queen status has also appeared to have been cemented, as she is in the running for the Most Outstanding Community Theatre – Female category at the 2023 Ngoma Awards to be held on 9 December 2023.
bird story agency