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Winter 2016

An Invitation

Editor-in-Chief, Chiseche Salome Mibenge

Two weeks into my relocation from New York to California, I attended a panel discussion titled ‘Centering Black Voices: On Media, Protest and Everyday Life’. It’s a great title, considering the powerful chorus of black voices in Chicago, in Bujumbura, in Amsterdam, in Capetown, in Bangalore calling out inequality and discrimination. But what really made me tear myself away from my computer and several pressing deadlines to sit through another intellectual debate (I am spoilt for choice working as an educator) was the image of the three panellists on the flyer.

All women.

Of colour.

Panel of experts.

I did not recognize these women’s names, but I recognized the ways their titles and accomplishments reflect the sacrifices and victories of many women elders and peers who raised me and continue to grow with me. I recognized their ownership of industries, universities, socio-economic spaces that were never designed to meet the needs and realities of black women. And in many cases, these entities/fora were created to devalue and crush black women’s progress. I recognized the political-personal decisions they had to make about honouring the kinky in their hair, the black and light in their skin, the rich and full blessings of their bodies, and the home in their accents.

The recurring message from the all woman of colour panel of experts was about creating and nurturing spaces for black voices. Jamilah Lemieux, a millennial and the senior editor for Ebony magazine answered with a resounding ‘yes’ when she was asked to consider whether we still need black owned media. She spoke about some challenging editorial decisions, particularly Ebony’s November 2015 cover which featured a portrait of the Cosby family. The portrait’s shattered glass unmistakably represented the multiple allegations of sexual violence against Bill Cosby and their impact on black communities. And more broadly, the need to own up to sexual violence in the ‘safe black spaces’ of our homes, churches, colleges, etc. In defending the need for black representation of black lives, Jamilah and the other speakers invoked the words of pioneering African American journalists, ‘We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.’

As a member of The Alchemist’s editorial team, I was reminded by this American panel, of my commitment to creating a space for Zambian women’s voices. And a recap of our past editions is a testament that sometimes we do get it right. Alchemist contributors have discussed transactional sex in the workplace, discrimination with respect to inheritance laws, excelling in sporting, media, singing careers, etc. that have been traditionally maligned as just hobbies and not real work, innovating in the world of tech, and so on and so forth. In this edition, we hear the voices of three Millennial leaders: Sithe Ncube is a bright and rising star in the world of STEM and Nathan Sichilongo an e-entrepreneur who is speeding up a cumbersome aspect of the transport industry. As an UNZA fresher I regularly traveled from Lusaka to visit my sisters working at the mines in Mufulira and Luanshya and still remember the chaotic system for buying bus tickets. I’m looking forward to buying my next bus ticket to the Copperbelt online from the comfort of my California home. We also salute Judy Mutumba Siyambango, an UNZA graduate and the Nyamuka business plan prize winner – the economy depends on small sized business owners like Judy, and we are watching the progress of her project with great anticipation.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also known as the Notorious R.B.G. (a distant relation to B.I.G. (wink)) is the second woman to be appointed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. She is often called upon to reminisce about her early career when law was hostile to women in the profession and to consider ‘how far have we really come?’ In her own words, ‘People ask me sometimes, when – when do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.’ Let’s close our eyes and imagine an all female Supreme Court of the United States, of Zambia, of the Universe! They don’t call her Notorious for nothing, and believe me, basking in the wisdom of the all woman of colour panel, I thought of Justice Ginsburg and smiled.

There has been a well-publicised pushback by feminists against ‘manels’ aka ‘all male panels,’ which in many professional sectors are the only panels that appear to be created. Manels reinforce beliefs that, ‘there aren’t any women authorities on this subject,’ ‘women are more comfortable in the background and don’t need public recognition,’ ‘women are bad public speakers,’ or ‘no one wants to listen to a woman anyway.’

‘Congrats on your all male panel!’ This is the sarcastic message feminists are sending to organizations that continue to host manel after manel despite evidence that qualified women speakers exist in abundance. Followers of ‘The All Male Panel Tumblr’ campaign name and shame manel loving organizations with comments such as:

‘A conference, for $300 to listen to all men. No thanks.’

‘Not only are the speakers always male, but so is the audience! This members club doesn’t allow its female members to attend the weekly lectures because they found that having women in the audience was too distracting.’

‘The #FutureOfWork looks pretty much like the present… Four white male panelists and a white male moderator.’

‘The Slow Food USA Panel on the future of food is an all male panel! Because apparently in the future women will not eat food. Hunger = solved.’

‘Dudes, adding a woman moderator is not enough.’

Many of us have been or will be responsible for bringing people to the table. As we progress on our individual career ladders, we increasingly get to make or at least influence decisions authorizing access to resources and platforms that others depend on to boost their brand and livelihood. We should always consider diversity of voice and representation when exercising this power.

I have read (and celebrated) numerous articles about Norway and its mandatory gender quotas which require that at least 40% of public limited company board members are women. This policy has contributed to the enactment of binding gender quotas ranging from 30 to 40% in other European countries including Spain, France, Iceland, Belgium and most recently, Germany. I have never encountered figures around gender and corporate leadership in Africa, and commend Kabinda Kawesha for her valuable contribution to this edition of The Alchemist. She cites an African Development Bank study that found that of twelve countries studied, Zambia has the lowest representation of women board directors at just under 15%. It is exciting to know that studies on corporate leadership in Africa are considering gender and gender gaps, and we hope to see Kabinda continue to keep us informed on developments in our region as they arise and to take us to task when we fail to do our part to narrow the gaps.

My closing note is an invitation to all Alchemist Zambian women in leadership and our allies. Send us your proposal for an interview, a study, a conversation that you need to share. It could be your victory dance or your Waterloo, your swan song or your re-birth. All we ask is that your contribution lets you speak for yourself. We want more of your voice in our shared space.


  1. The Ladies Finger!
  2. Alison Smale & Claire Cain Miller, Germany Sets Gender Quota in Boardrooms, NYT. 6 March 2015

Fall 2015

Flying the Flag

Editor-in-Chief, Chiseche Salome Mibenge

I met a Zimbabwean human rights activist at a mutual friend’s birthday party in a Manhattan apartment a year ago. We immediately connected over our interest in creative writing and reading. We started with the game ‘what three books would you want to have with you if you were detained indefinitely in solitary confinement?’ I started with ‘A Question of Power.’

My University of Zambia literature professor introduced me to Bessie Head (1937-1986), a South African-Tswana writer. Her book A Question of Power describes the frightening mental breakdown of Elizabeth, a schoolteacher who is plagued by the manipulations of a wicked male (hallucinated) figure and rejection by her communities in Apartheid South Africa and rural Botswana, because she is ‘alone’ with her child, she is herself ‘illegitimate’ and of mixed race – the child of a criminalized sexual union between a white woman and a black man, she is an intellectual and individualistic. As a seventeen year old, I fell in love with Elizabeth in spite of the fact that she was all of the things society taught me to despise in a woman: poor, maligned, psychotic, a careless mother and unapologetically powerful. A Question of Power is the most important book I read throughout my four years of college, and in the last two years, all of my motivation letters supporting grant applications for my creative writing project have named Bessie Head as a major influence on my desire to write about my alienation and integration amongst my communities in Europe, Africa and the United States.

My Zimbabwean friend and I identified NoViolet Bulawayo, Alexander Fuller and Yvonne Vera as our favorite Zimbabwean writers. The conversation only stalled when my new literary soul mate asked me to recommend some Zambian literature. I answered honestly, ‘I can’t think of any…which doesn’t mean that there aren’t loads of us out there, crafting stories, in writing or orally.’

It’s my great pleasure to be part of an editorial team that has included an interview with literary giant and University of Berkley professor Dr. Namwali Serpell as our cover feature. I first encountered Namwali’s work, the short story Muzungu, in a Best American Short Stories collection (2009) and was delighted to discover many years later, that we share the same Zambian heritage and are both professors in the United States. Namwali is working on ‘The Great Zambian Novel’, and I cannot wait to read it. Namwali is interviewed by Theresa Lungu, a Harvard student and employee, and the founding mother of Books for Zambia a non profit started in 2003 to provide books for the Helen Kaunda Memorial Library in Luanshya. Theresa is also the author of two books Twilight in the Morning and Torment of an Angel. She has generously shared a sneak peek at Torment of an Angel in our book lover’s section. Both of these Alchemists are lighting the way for Zambian storytellers, publishers, and readers to step up and contribute to expanding the territories within which our words can travel and narrate our familiar yet unique stories.

In a 2010 interview with NY One, the Pulitzer Prize winner, author Junot Diaz raised the question of male privilege. He explained that if he was a woman he would have to be dead before he was ever nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Ofcourse, women of color have won the Pulitzer before (Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, for example), but we get Junot’s point…it is only a teenie weenie little exaggeration about the ways in which women’s work is underrated by the literary world. This edition of the Alchemist celebrates writers, particularly Zambian women writers as Alchemists who are changing the local and global literary landscapes. And thanks to Namwali and Theresa I can expand my list of rich and vibrant African writers into Zambia – we are many!

This edition of the e-zine also celebrates young leaders, Brighton Mukupa Kaoma, and Regina Mtonda whose outstanding commitment to service led to a meeting with and award from Britain’s Queen. Buumba Malambo, the founder of an NGO promoting education for vulnerable children served on the Advisory Panel for the Queens Young Leaders Award (QYLA). Reading about these QYLA Alchemists and our literary Alchemists Namwali and Theresa, it is impossible to miss the impressive span of their transnational networks. Whenever I boast about Zambia I throw in our 1980s tourism mantra ‘Zambia The Real Africa.’ A Sierra Leonean friend once retorted ‘What real Africa? You don’t even have an ocean you landlocked people!’ Inhabitants of the interior should be insular and walled off from the spicy and volatile cross-contamination coming from trade vessels, dhows, and so on. And yet, this edition of the Alchemist captures the diverse ways in which Zambians are recognized abroad for their achievements and the gracious way in which they share their victories with Zambia. This edition also includes a profile of Dawn Close, whose investment in vocational training is transforming the opportunities for women in Ng’ombe compound.   Dawn is proud that she is an American by birth and proudly Zambian by choice – and we are inspired by her project model and outcomes at home and abroad.

I was born in 1975 at Zambia’s University Teaching Hospital to Gen. Benjamin Ndabila Mibenge and Joyce Mibenge. At the age of three I followed my parents to Dar es Salaam, and two years later, to Quebec, Canada. Ultimately, I attended elementary and high school on two continents and in three countries, Canada, Ethiopia and Kenya. I returned to Zambia with my family just in time for my first semester at the University of Zambia. I was seventeen, and I began to retrieve, sound by sound, word by word, the Nyanja I last spoke as a toddler. I graduated and then began my career in a Lusaka law firm. And at the age of twenty-five with the support of my professors, Judge Peter Chitenje, Dr. Alfred Chanda and Dr. Elizabethe Mumba, I left Zambia again, this time unaccompanied by five siblings and parents. And save for holidays, I have never come back. However, during my fifteen year absence I have regularly heard my parents and siblings respond to my achievements abroad with the words, ‘Well done Mama, keep flying the flag.’

Perhaps it is my research interest in violent conflict that makes me connect the words ‘nationalist’ and ‘patriot’ with warmongers and military aggression. However, this idea of ‘flying the flag’ as un-credentialed diplomats serving on transnational platforms promoting diverse crafts, arts and cultures, environmental accountability, equitable access to the worldwide web and empowering forms of education is appealing. Our Alchemists are living proof of the power to grow our passion from a small flicker of light cupped in a palm to a flame that can be fanned back and forth across borders by strong winds.

This edition’s Alchemists are all under 40. It is never too early or too late to find your ingredients for sustainable fulfilment and to raise the heat needed to transform your rusty tin cans into bars of gold.  But believe me when I say,  I am sympathetic to anyone who delays taking a much needed and overdue step towards their calling. I have cowered under a blanket instead of flying a flag too. I am inviting all Alchemist readers to enjoy our stories of special people and their commitment to living their mission and vision, Now and not later. Let us celebrate Zambia (The Real Africa) and appoint ourselves, Alchemists and Allies, as ambassadors, each one with one of a kind credentials that can enlighten our communities.

Spring 2015

 The Transformers

 In 2007 I was in Jesmondine jogging at dawn. A car full of men slowed down and tailed me. There was the usual foolish chortling and whistling but eventually, the car sped off. One of the men screamed at me: ‘Esther Phiri!’ For once, I smiled after sexist street harassment. ‘Esther Phiri’…I liked that.

I’m a natural athlete: I can ice skate, water ski, abseil, control a fast moving hockey ball, cartwheel on a beam and catch anything thrown hard at me so long as I’m given a few pointers by a seasoned player. This doesn’t mean that I’m competitive. In high school I made all the teams because I had a good natured authority and team spirit that helped unify players, but I often lost track of the score and got distracted in the last five minutes of the match when you are supposed to kill it and get that last goal in. I don’t take part in any group sports now, but I still run at dawn throughout the summer months in New York City. I run because I revel in my physical sense of strength and well being, and because it is my way of saying ‘thank you Sis’ to feminists who broke the law, infuriated sports organizers, shamed their parents, and scandalized society because nothing was going to stop them from training their bodies for competition and sporting excellence.

Kathrine Switzer, known as the first woman to ‘officially’ (she concealed her sex on the application form) run the Boston marathon in 1967 writes in her biography that women were banned from long runs because it was feared that their uteruses would fall out. She was determined to compete and she did, but she underestimated the opposition she would face. As she ran she was assaulted by the race manager who tried to drag her out of the race. ‘A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Then he swiped down my front, trying to rip off my bib number, just as I leapt backward from him. He missed the numbers, but I was so surprised and frightened that I slightly wet my pants and turned to run.’ The marathon did not open to women runners for another five years!

Enjoying the right to equality and dignity for women in sport remains a serious gendered battleground. What do these women have in common: Mwenzi Lungu, Deborah Chisanga, Mupopa Kawange, Wendy Kunda, and Emelda Musonda? They have all played for the Zambia National Soccer Team. Football is our national passion, surely every primary school child should recognize these names, radio broadcasters should regularly interview these elite athletes, bookstores should stock their posters and local and international corporations should be vying to sponsor women’s soccer teams.

A cool response to women athletes persists well beyond Zambia. For finishing in third place in the 2003 Women’s World Cup, each U.S. women’s national soccer team member was awarded $25,000. They would have received $58,000 if they had won the Cup. That sounds generous until we consider that, for reaching the quarterfinal of the World Cup in 2002, the U.S. men’s national soccer team members received $200,000 each. And it was not until 2007 that Wimbledon began to provide equal prize purses to male and female athletes. Japanese soccer and Australia’s basketball women’s teams flew economy class while their less successful male counterparts travelled in business class. ‘Never mind that the women’s Australian basketball team has won silver medals in the last three Olympics — and the Aussie men have won none. And it also mattered little that the women’s Japanese soccer team won last year’s World Cup.’ Foolish and insupportable misconceptions about women and sport remain, and I was stupefied to overhear a woman on my morning commute say she wouldn’t let her daughter play sport because it would ruin her breasts.

I have jogged at dawn in Chile, Jerusalem, Tanzania, Puerto Rico, Rwanda, wherever my work has taken me. I sometimes try to talk myself out of running because I’m afraid that I will be sexually harassed. But ultimately, women like Kathrine Switzer, Esther Phiri, and Patricia Jere who have pushed their goals beyond limits set for them by prejudiced societies are my role models and they remind me to get my body out there and into the race. Thank you my Sisters for making me a competitor.

Social and cultural norms are dynamic and this edition of the Alchemist is replete with people I call ‘transformers’: Jessie Chisi’s documentary Between Rings: The Esther Phiri Story will train girls and women to embrace the power of their bodies and Patricia Jere’s professional ascent in institutions that disabled her by failing to make simple accommodation is a powerful antidote to discrimination and prejudice.

Katrina Majkut is a feminist artist with a solo show titled In Control  at Chashama art gallery in Chelsea. The subject of her art is women’s medical, menstrual and contraceptive products. The exhibit is meant in part to commemorate the 66th anniversary of the Pill. Seeing Majkut’s art always reminds me that sexual reproductive autonomy remains a luxury for many women all over the world. As I view her work I recall the names of Sisters whose health was seriously compromised because they had little or no control over their sexual reproductive choices. Many were denied sex education or else given false and harmful information by schools, peers, partners and family. Others were shamed by health providers when they tried to acquire contraception against STIs and pregnancy. In the US, the Center for Disease Control reports distressing trends amongst the youth population. ‘Prevalence estimates suggest that young people aged 15–24 years acquire half of all new STDs and that 1 in 4 sexually active adolescent females have an STD, such as chlamydia or human papillomavirus (HPV). Compared with older adults, sexually active adolescents aged 15–19 years and young adults aged 20–24 years are at higher risk of acquiring STDs for a combination of behavioural, biological, and cultural reasons.

Bearing these dire statistics in mind, it is understandable that I am thrilled by Dr. Suwilanji Situmbeko’s commitment to sexual reproductive healthcare. In his interview with Lwanga Mwilu he stresses the importance of prioritizing comprehensive sex education for adolescents and to correcting misinformation about safe and legal abortion. This is the type of love for women’s health and well-being that Alchemy espouses. I’m delighted to hear that Dr. Situmbeko’s award will bring him to New York City soon. I hope he knows that I will invite him into my human rights classroom as a guest lecturer this Fall semester. I also need to get Jesse Chisi’s documentary into my university library and host a campus wide screening.

This edition’s round up of Alchemists and transformers reminds us that there is so much to be proud of and so much Zambian talent to share. It also calls us to push on and stay competitive in the race.


Madison Park, CNN. Regardless of Wins, Female Athletes Fly Economy, July 20, 2012

Kathrin Switzer (2009). Marathon Woman : Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports.

Center for Disease Control (2012). Sexually Transmitted Diseased Surveillance STDs in Adolescents and Young Adults.

 Winter 2015

Up Your Skirt

I feel compelled to share a recent incident in Japan’s National Assembly that highlights the public scrutiny many working women experience and in particular, the ways in which their reproductive and sexual autonomy is constrained and policed by hostile work cultures.

On June 18 male politicians repeatedly interrupted 35 year old Ayaka Shiomura, a Tokyo Assemblywoman, after she stepped up to the microphone at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and tried to discuss support for women’s issues during a debate on supporting child-rearing women.

 “You better hurry up and get married” one male lawmaker shouted. “Can you even have babies?” yelled another, spurring loud laughter and more taunts by other male lawmakers. Shiomura was visibly shaken, stopped her speech, but nevertheless finished it with tears on eyes. She then cried when she returned to her seat.

This incident occurred on another continent, but I recognize the patriarchal dynamic that makes it acceptable and humorous for a professional woman in a public space to be stripped bare so that her sexual and reproductive credentials can be scrutinized on a national stage. A woman’s excellence in the workplace is judged not only by her professional and academic qualifications, but also by evidence that she is fulfilling idealized gender roles prescribed for women. I say ‘idealized’ because as we well know as Zambians, the traditional stay at home housewife within her nuclear family headed by the breadwinning husband, is far from our norm in Zambia. How many Alchemists grew up with a mother who worked full time in the informal or formal workplace? How many of us had a father who was intermittently unemployed? How many of us had step brothers and sisters? How many of us have separated or divorced from a spouse before the age of 40? How many of us in the age range of 34-50 have never married? How many of us married after the age of 30? How many of us have undergone fertility treatment? How many have adopted children outside of our family/kin networks? How many are childless by choice or other circumstance? There is great diversity in the shape and definition of family for Alchemists.

Whether you are living the patriarchal ideal, i.e. married housewife with four children or else living one or more of the alternatives I have suggested above, if you are a woman, you know that your sexual and reproductive choices, unlike your vote, are not your secret. And this lack of respect for your right to privacy means that many of your choices are constrained. The Tokyo Assembly voted not to punish the lawmakers responsible for the sexist jeers and mockery of their female peer. A clear sign that commentary on women’s relational status and child bearing credentials have a direct and dire impact on our livelihood, earning power and credibility as professionals.

When teaching a human rights course, I illustrate gendered discrimination in this way: I am interviewing two talented students, both 20 years of age, one male and the other female for a position as my research assistant. When George’s phone rings during the interview I see a photograph of a cute 9 month old boy flash on the screen. He apologizes for the interruption, switches off the phone and puts it in his pocket. We continue the interview amicably. In my next interview Anna’s phone rings. I see a photo of a cute 9 month old boy flash. She apologizes, switches off the phone and puts it in her handbag. We resume the interview amicably. I hire George because I determine, in my wisdom, that George is a young father and has responsibilities to his family, and therefore will be a serious worker. As a breadwinner he needs this job. I don’t hire Anna because I determine, in my wisdom, that she is a young Mom and has responsibilities to her family, and therefore will be a distracted worker making excuses about her newborn’s temperature, teething, etc. And anyway, isn’t she a bit young to be already popping out babies? What does this say about her integrity? Will she really make a serious worker? As a young Mom she should face up to her duties and focus on her child’s needs.

 My students are always surprised by this example. Not because they are unaware that women are often punished for their sexual and reproductive realities but because they are not used to people, employers such as myself, a woman and a human rights professor, owning up to widely held biases against women based on gender and sex expectations. The example also highlights to students the fact that the glass ceiling as a metaphor is rather outdated. Women do not thrive in their professional lives for a good decade or more before eventually hitting the ceiling when they come up for partner or director, rather, women at entry level are fighting against getting side-lined into lower paying jobs, part-time work, and exploitative work conditions from day one. This situation is more accurately described as the labyrinth that makes career mobility for women a treacherous trek through a minefield as opposed to a long straight road with a few predictable hurdles.

My colleagues at the City of New York University’s Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies released a report which examines the relationship between parenthood, sex, and personal income in New York City between 1990 and 2010. The study finds that men with children earned higher personal incomes than any other group in New York City, including men without children and women with or without children between 1990 and 2010. In addition, the findings indicate that among New York City’s total population, mothers earned substantially less than fathers between 1990 and 2010. Together, these findings suggest an enduring ‘Daddy Bonus’ and ‘Mommy Tax’ with regard to personal incomes. I was disheartened to learn that among the City’s total population, women with children earned 41 percent less than men with children in 2010. This pattern held across employment status. Employed women with children earned 27 percent less than employed men with children, and unemployed women with children eared 43 percent less than unemployed men with children.

Why aren’t we having this debate? What statistics would a similar gendered study of wage earnings in Zambia reveal? In what ways are your earnings, your leisure time, your personal and professional development potential being taxed on the basis of your sex, and on your perceived gender roles, as a mother, as a wife, as the ‘natural’ caregiver to dependants and ageing parents?

In this issue of The Alchemist, our contributors offer insights into managing our dreams and realities in our private and public lives. Annabelle de Groot urges us to stop doubting ourselves and seize the day. Legal professional Pixie Yangailo addresses the professional’s dreaded ‘second shift’ of nurturing and managing a household. She offers some tried and tested organizational tricks for working parents that love to cook for their children. And Lwanga Mwilu’s interview with Tilka Paljik an elite athlete reminds us that behind every successful woman is a dedicated woman and indeed an army of women sharing the burden of her struggle for recognition and advancement. Leadership starts at home, and Luciano Haambote and Tilka, our young Alchemists, prove that adage each time they lift the bar and push themselves harder. Their stories remind us that sacrifice for a younger generation can demand more than seems humanly possible. But somebody has to do it, come on, Mentor Up Alchemists!

This edition of the Alchemist is dedicated to those whose sacrifices have given us our modern day heroes that we can touch, friend on Facebook and follow on the radio and through their blogs. Chimango’s shout out to Zambian women who have stepped up to lead demonstrates that ‘women in leadership’ is not an empty phrase. The Alchemist celebrates these and many others for their dedication to service through leadership in spite of the realities of a world where law and society try to relegate women to second class citizenship and peep up our skirts.


Catherine Makino, a Tokyo based freelance journalist, broadcaster and producer reported the incident in Women’s enews ‘Sexist Taunts in Japan Hit a Fertility Nerve’

Alice H. Heagly and Alice L. Carli, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (2007).


Hello Old Friend

In this edition of the Alchemist, we are asking the leaders and allies of Alchemy Women in Leadership ‘What advice would you like to give to women and girls out there for 2014?’ I would repeat Chimango’s advice that you should mind the company you keep. However, I would also add that you should ‘keep your company inter-generational’ because this will make you a better person.

In 2000 I left Zambia and all of my hard earned academic, professional and social networks behind. I was 25 years old and searching for my vocation. I believed that god would not allow me to be lonely for long, and that I would find ‘company’: new networks that would support me in my path towards professional and personal growth.

Five years later, I was awarded US$200,000 by the Dutch government to support my doctoral research on women’s right to justice in post-war societies. My parents and my sister Chisala traveled to Holland and proudly stood by me as I received this prestigious Mozaiek award. Their visit meant the world to me as I could finally share my Dutch life and home with them. I especially enjoyed introducing them to all of the beautiful people who had befriended me on my journey. I had to introduce them to my soulmate Kit, at the time 59 years old. After a home cooked meal prepared by Kit’s husband Jack, my mother made a speech in which she thanked Kit for being a mother to me in her (my mother’s) absence. Kit interjected with some indignation, ‘I’m not Chiz’s mother! I’m her bestfriend!’

Later, I thought about the mistake my mother had made and I realised that many of my closest friends in The Netherlands were atleast 25 years older than me. I asked my Mom, ‘Do you think my friends are too old for me?’ And she replied, ‘Yes, your friends are old my daughter. They love you because you are a good person, but knowing them has made you a better person.’

During my decade long residence in Europe, I believed, with the arrogance of youth, that I was singled out by older friends because I was special or mature beyond my years. I was too young to understand the honor of being befriended by an older person: Inside the intimate circle of older friends I was allowed, as a young sister and young friend to be a witness as they experienced widowhood, mental illness of their adult children, early or forced retirement, redundancy at work, bitter divorce proceedings, sad custody battles, the birth of their first grandchildren, caring for frail and ailing parents, returning to school in their sixties, remarriage and reconciliation with estranged family members. My life experiences were limited compared to my older friends, however, they were generous enough to let me listen in on their frank confessions, to comfort them, and witness their perseverance in the face of grief and disappointment. Many times I relied on lessons learned from these ‘old’ friends to overcome my own smaller tragedies and anxieties.

Ofcourse, I had friends within my own peer group, and we depended on one another throughout our separation from our families: I once rounded up a group of African students so that we could spend nights mourning with a student who had lost her brother but could not return to Tanzania for the funeral. Another time I forced a Rwandan friend to buy and wear her first bikini to Scheveningen beach so that she could, as I argued ‘love her body!’ Many times I was a chauffeur, carrying a Bangladeshi housemate to school, on the back of my bike, so she could save money on transport costs. Another time, an Italian friend loaned me $200 so that I could pay the fee for a visa application at the US Embassy in Amsterdam. Without his loan, I would not have been able to travel to the United States for a series of job interviews in New York that ultimately changed my career path beyond my dreams. These are just some of my memories of the big love and sharing that went on between me and my own peer groups. The peers were and continue to be as important as the ‘oldies’ in my life.

The company that you choose to keep close enough to witness your failures and victories should be inter-generational. There is the saying about children who are raised by grandparents – they are better behaved and wiser than their peers raised exclusively by parents. I have come to realise with a bit of a shock that I am now experienced enough to be the ‘old’ friend. On the 1st of January 2014 I started a new tradition. I invited 5 young people that have impressed me with their passion for life and service to their communities to my home for brunch. I know that if I was 20 years old and in college –  these young people would be my bestfriends. I would form study groups with them, hang out in a dorm and talk through the night about the new Beyoncé album and about the ways we were going to change the world, for the better.

I do not want to ‘mother’ these young people. I want to give them what my ‘old’ friends in Holland gave to me. It is now my turn to foster fun and respectful relationships, despite the age gap, with these young people.  I can do this by introducing them into my circle of ‘old’ friends. On New Years day, I invited young people, but also ‘old’ friends who I know have overcome all of the odds in order to become respected professionals in New York City and who are willing to reach out to my young friends and help them through the challenges ahead.  As an ‘old’ friend I can also promise to be honest with them and not present myself as a flawless idol they must emulate. I can admit to being overconfident and blowing a job interview, to my self absorption that made me blind to the request of someone in great need, or to my regret over my neglect of a family member.

I have only lived in New York City for four years now, so, my first experience of New York City in mourning came with the announcement that Nelson Mandela had died. The Empire State Building, NYC’s iconic skyscraper was illuminated by the colors of the South African flag and all over the City, flags flew at half mast. I celebrated Madiba’s life in Harlem’s Mother Africa Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and cannot recall a more exuberant gathering of humanity, singing  and dancing in honor of a resting elder. New York in mourning for Mandela was a breathtaking sight. In this issue we ask you to consider, ‘What lesson did you learn from Madiba’s life?’ My answer does not lie in the great State and community responses to his death, but it lies in the iconic image of Winnie Mandela and Graca Machel, in their funeral black, comforting one another by exchanging a kiss. This moment at the funeral of Madiba, reminded me that empathy and solidarity should be at the heart of every milestone in our relationships: it may be a death or a birth, but we must always be able to ‘kiss’ our sisters and brothers and clearly state that we are there, beside them, to share in the joy and the pain.

I wish us all more solidarity and more ‘old’ and more ‘young’ friends in our lives in 2014.

Young Love

I celebrated a birthday in August and enjoyed the moment of reflection on the year ahead and the one past. The birthday coincided with the publication of my first academic book ‘Sex and International Tribunals’. A joyful occasion that I celebrated on my college campus wth faculty and students at a book launch at the start of the fall semester. The publication of a book is an ‘exhale moment’ in the academic slog to tenure for life, so I won’t underplay my feeling of accomplishment at this moment.

However, my feelings are heightened by the start of a new writing project, this time a creative writing project. Writing African women’s lives into literature was always my childhood dream – and as I near my 40th year I know I am finally ready to sit down and write my ‘real’ book. Why now and not before? I feel safe: I have a good measure of career stability and I’ve bought my first home here in New York. Knitting and laying down my safety net allows me to leap up and over towards my creative self.

Speaking of birthdays. Ten today! We’ve entered the double digits of Alchemy publications. And ‘we can’t stop’ to exhale until we hit the 100th edition of The Alchemist. Mark my words there will be fireworks all over the globe commemorating that milestone. But for now, we will celebrate with our own homegrown fireworks: Chisenga Muyoya, Catherine Phiri and Chaka Nyantando aka Pompi. A warning: You are going to have to be a savant with new media/technologies such as twitter, vimeo, facebook, youtube, instagram, the blogosphere, and itunes in order to enjoy full access to this crew of youthful revolutionaries. Get with the program.

It is the new technologies that allow me to edit this magazine from my apartment in the US, and that has, more importantly, got me hooked on Love Games, a breathtakingly familiar series that captures…how else can I put it? The Story of Us. If you are not already watching Love Games, you should if only to see the reflection of your supportive husband, your girlfriend-remember that one who was nice only after you gave her some pocket money?, your disloyal lover-that one your friends warned you about, your anxiety over the results of your HIV tests after dumping the disloyal lover, your loving circle of friends, your cold feet on your wedding day, your secret half brother – it’s all there! Art imitating life, or is it the other way around? And we speak with our Alchemist Cathy Phiri the executive producer of this provocative and timely series. Cathy, a Zambian professional relaunching her professional career in Lusaka after making her mark abroad with MTV International, provides some personal-political reflections about everything from the role of the media in the empowerment of women, to gender politics in relationships and cowardly trolls who hide beyond anonymity when posting libelous and bullying comments on the World Wide Web.

An email from a leading feminist network for women in development about the new African leaders in ICT alerted me to the star potential of Chisenga Muyoya. She had just been named as a 2013 Moremi Initiative Leadership and Empowerment Development Fellow (MILEAD). Her leadership at Asikana Network, a youth led technology organization to empower young women in Zambia distinguished her from more than 200 applicants all over the continent. Chisenga’s calender, which I came across on her facebook page and twitter feed, includes: an appointment with Asikana Network to train Grade 8 pupils in  computer skills in 21 schools across Lusaka; and  exploring the tech scene at the Accra MEST tech hub and discovering  a start up working on a health app with great potential.  How does one accomplish so much at such an early age? Chisenga provides us with a glimpse into her day job, night job and everything in between and believe me you’ll be breathless by the end of the reading. Breathless and inspired to be more and give more.

My favorite book store, lounge and restaurant, is Busboys and Poets in Washington DC. They are famous for their thrilling poetry slams, advocacy for the marginalised and un-politically correct commentary by guest speakers, invited from all corners of the the US and the world. When I grow up I want to be invited to do a book reading at BB&P! So, imagine my pride, but not surprise to see Pompi via youtube, bringing the BB&P house right down. He opened his rhyme/rap with the words “Bill Gates I’ll be coming soon, caviar will be served” and then moved smoothly on to lyrics about police brutality in Zambia. The DC audience didn’t seem to miss a beat when the Zambian rapper, poet, entrepreuner, singer switched between english and nyanja. What a performer! Pompi, our third Alchemist joins Cathy and Chisenga in taking his talent across borders, beyond divisive poles such as rural and urban, old and young, global North and South, elite and working class, Zambians and foreigners, chinyanja and english, conservative and hip.

The Alchemist is thrilled with our conversations with these young revolutionaries who didn’t wait to buy the first and then the second house, or to attain job security, fill up the retirement fund, or to put the kids through college, before venturing off the beaten path. They share the sources of their faith in their capabilities, their formal and more importantly, informal learning/training processes and their desire to be change agents against unequal relations but also against dated ideas of what is a real or valued career path.  Their bold choices in their professional and personal lives are a testament to their alchemist spirit.

This and past issues of Alchemy WiL could not be realised without a generous group of contributors representing different sectors of professional life. It’s not possible to name all of them here, but I will extend a welcome to our newest contributor Lwango Mwilu, a journalist whose contributions on the lobola calculator in the previous edition tickled but also challenged many of us to rethink the role of culture in our relationships. In this issue, Lwango reminds us that nothing is black or white, especially not sex as a form of currency in the work place. She strikes down the notion of paradigms such as sugar daddy and victim,  hard work and lying on one’s back. She reveals  that there are many gray areas for men and women in transactional relationships, especially when our society is complicit in shaping what behaviors come to be considered business as usual.

We have come a long way since the 1960s when our mothers entered the work force: school teachers could not wear trousers in the classroom, women were prohibited from mining and other industrial labor, women could not add a child to their passport without a husband’s authorization, employers could deny married women access to loans and mortgages, and the state taxed the wages of married women more than those of married men. We can celebrate the fact that we have legal protections against discrimination, and choices. Our contributors Linda Kasonde and Alisha Patel refer to the contribution and limits of some of these formal or legal reforms in our society.

We must remember however, that choices are made in a cultural and political context: Entering into a transactional relationship in the work place; choosing a degree program in ICT and not in law or engineering; postponing marriage into your thirties or forties; repatriating from abroad to the Zambian workplace, can be inevitable or optional choices – our contributors elaborate very helpfully in this respect. And ofcourse, not all choices are luxury choices where you come out a winner whichever road you take. Oftentimes, we are faced by an extensive range of bad choices, and I hint at this in my reflection piece on gender based violence in ‘Night Life’.

However, Nankhonde van den Broek uses the term ‘driving without a seatbelt’, and it is something we all must do, from time to time, as we navigate on the path to that elusive feeling of fulfillment in the most important spaces and relationships in our lives. There are 101 gurus selling books prescribing your formula for love in your romantic life, respect from superiors and subordinates and admiration from your peers. I have a strong suspicion that our alchemists, Chisenga, Cathy and Pompi have not read the 101 books – I believe that this is part of their success. They are ‘writing their own revolutions’, being their own ‘personal legend’, and valuing their worth with their individual set of scales.

 Truth or Dare?

Zambians do it too. When it comes to gender relations we can be provocative, progressive and yes, we can lead the pack. 30 percent of first year admission and 25 percent of bursaries are reserved for female candidates applying for higher education at the University of Zambia. This policy illustrates the government’s recognition that the inferior status of the girl child in our society cripples her motivation and intellectual development. Early marriage, early pregnancy, unwanted sexual attention from teachers and male peers at school, and putting aside homework in order to fetch and serve alongside her mother for her father and brothers are not conducive to acing exams.

Amongst advocates for women’s empowerment in Europe and America our regional standards in the area of sexual reproductive rights are often cited as a model for new legislation: In 2003 representatives of African peoples met in Mozambique to adopt the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women. They acknowledged that despite numerous international and regional human rights treaties, women in Africa continued to be victims of discrimination and harmful practices because they were women. The Maputo Protocol protects women’s sexual reproductive rights, and this includes the human right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, the right to choose to have children or not, the right to choose any form of contraception, the right to be protected from HIV/AIDS, and the right to be informed of one’s partners STI status, particularly, HIV status. The rights of widows, poor women, the girl child, sex workers and women in rural areas are specifically emphasized because they are particularly vulnerable to economic exploitation, violence, sexual violence and other abuses.  Zambia ratified this treaty and is bound to honor its legal obligations to all Zambian women.

Sexual reproductive health is a core theme in this edition of the Alchemist. Our reality is that cervical cancer is a major killer of Zambian women; maternal deaths, neonatal and under-five mortality rates are unacceptably high; and for the past decades, long before international experts told us the bad news, we all knew that HIV/AIDS was a woman’s burden. Which girl, which woman hasn’t prepared that basket of food for the family member hospitalized because of a long illness? As we face our reality squarely in the face I would like you to privately answer each of these five questions with a single answer: True or false; (i) I have had unprotected sex without my consent; (ii) I have not been for a pap smear in more than three years (iii) I have had an STI in the past decade; (iv) I do not know my current or last sexual partner’s HIV status; (v) I have had sex in exchange for money, gifts, or other favors; and (vi) I have had sex without my consent.

I want to remind us that sexual reproductive health is about sexual autonomy and about sexual pleasure. Many of our contributors allude or speak directly to this important element of women’s enjoyment of the right to sexual reproductive health. If I sound like a teacher, it is because I am a teacher. Let’s try that multiple choice once more, this time with pleasure and autonomy on our minds: True or false; (i) I enjoy sex with my partner(s); (ii) I am sexually attracted to my partner(s); (iii) I masturbate; (iv) I initiate sex with my partner(s); (v) I choose the form of contraception in my sexual relation(s). Think about your feelings as you responded to those questions. Proud, comfortable, ashamed, anxious, confident, uncomfortable? Sexual reproductive health is about feelings and I hope that the multiple choice exercise opened you up to your feelings about your empowerment with respect to making healthy and pleasurable sexual and reproductive choices.

Empowerment is at the heart of sexual autonomy and indeed any form of freedom. We can all draw from early childhood a memory of that adult who first spoke empowering words to us. As a ten year old I was sharply rebuked by my uncle when I told him I wanted to be a stewardess: ‘No! You will be the pilot!’ Recently, I sat in my office with a young African student, a new immigrant to the United States. She told me that she wanted to study nursing. As the ‘pilot’ I asked her, ‘Don’t you want to be a doctor?’ The young student began to weep and then sob uncontrollably. After a few minutes I grew exasperated and shouted ‘What is wrong with you!’ She composed herself and said ‘Thank you professor. Nobody has ever told me that I could be a medical doctor.’

We cannot all grow up to pilot fighter jets or space ships to the moon, or treat cancer patients and save thousands of lives. That is not the point of my sharing my uncle’s edict or the story of the young woman sobbing in my office. The point is about awakening our power, and even more importantly, about those moments when we are called on to empower others.

Chiseche Salome Mibenge