Handsome Alice Theatre presents

A Chitenge Story

Written & Performed by Makambe K. Simamba

Directed by Kathryn Smith

March 20-24, Pumphouse Theatre, 7:30 p.m. nightly (plus 2 p.m. matinee March 24).


Story by Stephen Hunt

A half decade ago, when she was a theatre student at the University of Lethbridge, Makambe K. Simamba made a pilgrimage of sorts to her birthplace of Zambia.

It became the template for her solo show A Chitenge Story, which opens March 20 at the Pumphouse Theatre, in which Simamba returns to Zambia to confront her childhood abuser and to reconnect with her Zambian self.

It’s tempting to say Simamba went home to Zambia, but by that stage of her life – after leaving Zambia at seven, living for a decade in the Caribbean with her family, before emigrating on her own to Canada, “where are you from?” wasn’t such an easy question to answer anymore.

For it turned out that the University of Lethbridge – where Simamba traded in journalism for theatre – was as positive an experience as her initial Canadian destination – Prince Edward Island – had been negative.

Even if Simamba looked out of place walking the hallways of the U of Lethbridge, the students and professors she encountered there made her feel very much at home.

“I loved the program,” she says. “It (going to U of Lethbridge) was the best decision I ever made in my life.”

While she fell in love with her school, it didn’t really help her re-connect with her Zambian self.

“I wasn’t validated culturally – in the work we were doing, in the peers that I had,” she says,  “so I was just living in this body, but not really living much of an African existence and then went back to a place where I looked like everybody, (but) I was so different.

“Having left Zambia at seven – I’m still super proud Zambian – (it turns out) I’m also quite Canadian.

“I’ve always straddled two different cultures, and at the time I went back…I wasn’t really sure how to be connected with these two very true parts of myself.”

Once she found her way back to Zambia, the cousins and nephews and nieces looked more like her than her classmates back in Lethbridge – but it turned out a whole lot of Lethbridge had seeped into her sensibility as well.

‘Do you think you’re white?’

That sense of cultural dislocation – and what to do with it – might be described as the subplot of A Chitenge Story.

The main plot – the story of Simamba returning to Zambia to confront her childhood abuser – is harrowing, but a conversation with the Calgary actor and writer reveals that the B story carries every bit the sense of dislocation and isolation that the primary one does.

“They would speak (Lozi) with me and I could sort of understand some, but I don’t practice it,” she says. 

“My first language is English anyway, because my parents are (from) two different tribes, so together they speak English.

“I could sort of connect with my cousins, and other times things would have to be translated for me – I wasn’t used to the way life worked – and so sometimes, I was lovingly made fun of, but other times, it was a bit of a bone of contention because what ends up happening is ‘oh! Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re white?’”

‘Nobody else knew that’s why I was going back’

Partly, that was a challenge with language, and partly, it was a case of Simamba being distracted by the real reason for her trip – to confront her abuser – but that wasn’t information she shared with her Zambian relatives.

“I told one person – a friend, and nobody else knew that’s why I was going back to Zambia,” she says. “I was thrilled to go see family, but while going to all the reunions to see all the aunties and uncles, I was investigating. I had to find this person.

“So A Chitenge Story documents the essence of that trip.”

I was so fixated on this one thing – yeah that was like a difficult thing to hear – but I also had to own (the fact that) I had adopted somewhere along the way,  a very western idea of what Zambia was, of what Africa was – and was still grappling with how to take full ownership of that heritage.”

Lo-fi development process in Lethbridge

After returning from that eventful, life-altering trip, in 2013, Simamba and Kathryn Smith launched an informal, lo-fi, development process of transforming the experience into theatre.

One of the reasons why she went slow, Simamba says, was to gain a measure of distance from her own personal trauma – and subsequent recovery.

“Art about your real life is great, but I have a really specific rule,” she says, “that you can’t still be processing the thing as you’re telling the story.

“You kind of have to be far (away from it) – because otherwise, it gets dangerous, and if someone doesn’t like the show or is offended by or hurt by the show, that messes up your healing.”

‘There’s this gentle balance’

Simamba, with Smith in her corner, presented a workshop production in Lethbridge and also presented the show at the West Village Theatre in Calgary in 2015.

Each time she’s presented it, she’s had audience talkbacks, and included sexual health counselors in those talkbacks so that audience members who feel triggered or traumatized and have questions that she may not be qualified to answer will have someone available to speak to.

At the same time, the process of transforming the experience into art allowed her to develop a vocabulary and understanding of that trauma – and to put a measure of emotional distance between her and her trauma.

“When I play that character, it’s literally as if I’m an actor playing somebody else,” she says. “It’s how I’m able to approach it and also, there’s this gentle balance – when you’re writing about your own life, what is safe and what does that look like?

“Where character Makambe and actor Makambe ends is in such an empowered place of healing, the (traumas experienced by the) character doesn’t actually bother me. It actually has no power, because I know where the story’s going in real life.”

Simamba has been a busy actor –  in Victoria, rehearsing a production of Ruined prior to returning to Calgary to do A Chitenge Story.

She also has written a new solo show, Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers, inspired by Trayvon Martin that she is premiering later this year in Toronto.

But before she roars off to the next chapter of her life, why call it A Chitenge Story?

“Chitenge is the name of this African fabric that is emotional material- every time you see a picture of an African woman, she kind of has a wrap (around her). In Zambia, we call that a Chitenge.

“Whenever I go back to Zambia, everybody has several,” she says,  “and it’s basically the most versatile piece of fabric I have ever seen in my life.

“You see it as a wrapper,” she adds. “You see it in certain homes – it will be a towel, or used as a tablecloth. It can be used to make beautiful, ornate dresses or also what you wrap your baby in, so that intimacy of it – it’s literally anything you can use a piece of fabric for, a Chitenge is used for.

“It’s a metaphor for life,” she says. “Having one purpose one day, and something else the next day.”

Stephen Hunt was commissioned by Handsome Alice Theatre to write this piece. He donated the fee back to Handsome Alice Theatre.