Activism Through Storytelling, With Upile Chisala

In our uniqueness, storytelling can be considered one of the traditions Africans share. 

Stories of fallen heroes have been passed on from generation to generation. Stories of how we came to be. Stories of our origin that the world has fought hard to censor. And now, we tell our stories as a form of activism. 

Upile Chisala is a storyteller from Malawi and a graduate of the University of Oxford. She is known for her short and powerful poems. Chisala recently signed a three-book publishing deal with US-based publishing house Andrews McMeel. ‘soft magic’ and ‘nectar’ (2019)  and ‘a fire like you’ (2020) are her collections of poetry and prose. She was among the 2019 Forbes Africa’s 30 under 30 lists. Chisala has been featured in several publications, to name a few Okay Africa, Huffington Post, Elle SA, Essence, Glamour, and more. She lives in Johannesburg.  

  1. Do you consider yourself an activist through your storytelling, and if so, please elaborate on what activism means to you? 

Upile: I think of myself as someone with a voice and a platform, and if I can use both to help raise awareness of some of the world’s ills then I am doing my part. What I do is tiny compared to the hard work of the activists who actively put their lives on the line for their communities to be heard. Activism is doing the difficult work of standing fully behind causes for the betterment of others.

  1. What role does storytelling play in raising awareness against Gender-Based Violence (GBV)?

Upile: Nina Simone brilliantly stated that the duty of an artist is to reflect the times. We are the storytellers and the recordkeepers. With the rates of GBV being as high as they are, I feel my role as a woman and as a storyteller is not only to bring solace but to disrupt, to question, and to shed light.  We should dismantle narratives that place blame on victims of GBV, question our governments and our culture for failing to protect women and children and we should shed light on organizations, communities, and people who are doing the necessary work. Having come from an environment where abuse is no stranger, I know the harm of narratives that encourage women to stay in these cycles of abuse. Womanhood should not be measured in terms of how much suffering you can endure. 

  1. Over time, we have witnessed an increasing number of literary (and visual)  work that addresses this social ill, why do you think we aren’t making as much progress as we would like/expect to see?

Upile: As a society and a people, there are so many things we have to undo and unlearn and unfortunately this is a slow process. What comes instinctively to those who were raised in positive environments doesn’t come as easy to others. I always tell people that I think my job is simply to start conversations be it about toxic masculinity, depression, or generational trauma. If a line or two from my work can be stuck in someone’s head and they take it home and they have a necessary conversation with their loved ones then there is the beginning of some kind of change. Big changes in society often take generations but small changes can happen every day, and so I want to believe we are not lost completely. 

  1. When we speak of abuse, we often leave out the abuse that occurs every day that doesn’t resemble physical violence. In Soft Magic, you write, “Raised in a home of sharp tongues, you know enough words to start a fire with your mouth…” Were you addressing the normalised verbal abuse that happens in homes across the continent?

Upile: As a storyteller, I believe in the power of words. Words can heal or harm and in homes around the world, we often choose to do the latter. The damage of words can shift someone’s life trajectory, ruin their self-esteem, and last a lifetime. Verbal abuse is cruel. On the continent, our obsession with respect fails to extend to how we address children. Children are people too who deserve softness, respect, protection, and to be heard, and in this poem, I wanted to highlight just that.

  1. In a piece in Nectar, you start off with the words, “Here we are, plucking our stories from mouths that have been telling them wrong.” How important is it for survivors of GBV to take charge of the retelling of their stories?

Upile: Storytelling can be a healing practice, but some wounds are far deeper and can’t be healed by just putting words down. I am always ready to hear the stories of any kind of survivor and to honor their voices. I think their first priority must always be to fully care for themselves through therapy or other spaces of recovery and if this goes in tandem with sharing their stories, I support that. When you enter the realm of storytelling you also enter a space that leaves you open to criticism and people’s ugliness. Even if you lived an experience, people will always have something to say, and I think if you are going to share that experience you should be emotionally healthy. GBV survivors have nothing to prove and no one to prove it to, so even if they choose to never tell their stories then I support that too.

  1. What responsibility does our generation of storytellers have in this mandate?

Upile: Whether or not we intend to, storytellers enact change every day be it in a home or in a heart, in a community or in a country. Again, I just think we are recordkeepers, but, I am not sure there’s a mandate. When you share your stories publicly, people often expect you to be an expert on something and invite you to panels and demand you lend your voice to everything. A friend once told me that writing the book was my job, and I can choose whether it is done there or whether I engage with people beyond that. Writers are under no obligation to save our generation.

  1. What change would you like to see in society with regard to our response to GBV?

Upile: I would love to see many more open conversations and less pitting ‘issues against the issue’. As humans, we are so dynamic and able to care for many issues at the very same time. So when light is shed on problems that aren’t faced by our immediate communities or us, our first response should not be “What about us?” I think our first response should be, “How can we help?” I see this a lot in the Twitterverse, especially from men who shockingly take offense every time GBV is brought up. GBV affects us all as a people.

  1. Do you have any words of advice you would like to leave our readers with?

Upile: I am a master of very little. I am ever-learning, and I think more people should adopt a teachable spirit. 

Upile Chisala | A Malawian Graduate of the University of Oxford

Curated by

Anne-Sharlene Murapa
Anne-Sharlene Murapa

People Operations Manager | Campeedia

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