Seeing the Rainbow: A personal essay

A Zambian author reflects on finding power through creativity and perseverance

By Fiske S. Nyirongo

The first time I ever let people into my ‘closet’, I was fifteen years old. I was a new high school student in a school I liked. I was now on the side of the building with one of the rowdiest high school classes our school had ever seen.

When I saw her, the first girl I had ever looked at and felt like I had to get attention from, it wasn’t met with disgust. In fact, my friends helped me to get her attention. With childish intention, I bought her chocolate and a note which basically asked if she wanted to be my friend. A note appeared on my school desk days later with a phone number scribbled on it and her nickname at the end of it. Perhaps I was naïve to think that the world (in particular, Zambia) that we lived in would be kind to girls like us. But it wasn’t. It still isn’t.

I wasn’t traumatized for my so-called ‘girl crush,’ but the trauma was on its way. It came in regular intervals, from family, from church, from politicians, and from friends. It came in words calling same-sex attraction abominations, against God’s will, ‘kill them!’ chants from politicians, or changing the channel when a same-sex couple came on. So we minimized ourselves out of fear and shame. Because these feelings we were having were not right. Where did we learn them from anyway? We went to church, asked for deliverance, and got it in the laying of hands on our heads. We believed we were cured of the sin and when we had an attraction to boys throughout our late teens. Then we would backslide again and catch ourselves looking at a woman who reminded us of our first crush. We would pray more fervently each time this happened. And it happened so many times while some of us went on to date and marry men, men we were attracted to.

Some of us didn’t date much, we started to read. Feminism was our first stop, then we discovered intersectional feminism. We saw the identities we had tried to hide in there. We met women like us. We met them in chatrooms and other social media. We felt safe again, like in the school that had insulated us. But outside, it was still the same. Like when we had the first convention in a hotel ballroom and the organizer told us we had to leave because the police had been alerted and we would get arrested. So we stopped going for unsafe public events, just in case a politician wanted to make an example out of us.

In the mess of all this, most of us found solace in the creative world. Mine was writing down my thoughts, in diaries, kept safely locked away from prying eyes. Always burnt when ink touched each page. Then I started to write stories, stories of us in worlds were I could be who I am without fear or shame.

When others discovered the words I wrote, like in grade eleven, they praised my creativity. An idea started to form in my head, maybe we could do this. Maybe I could make a career out of it. So I joined classes like English Literature. I read books to study the art of writing.

The first time I entered into a writing contest, the reply came back weeks later, my first rejection letter, with a note which said ‘keep writing. You have potential’ so I kept on writing. On my third try, I got a reply which said I had been shortlisted for a writing workshop, this was a  boost like no other. It propelled me to be much bolder. I started to look for contests and writing opportunities. I entered contest after contest. I won some and got told no often. One opportunity you came through a mere 10 months after my first ever rejection. It was an opportunity in another country. I was going to South Africa, six months after my first writing workshop there.

This workshop was different, organized by the same institution which had invited me for my first writing workshop. We had activities outside of the writing event planned. We had a tour bus to take us around Johannesburg.

The first tour was a walk around Makers Valley, the second was of Johannesburg on a red tour bus. The tour guide gave us the story of each building and landmark we saw. When an old colonial building was in front of us, the tour guide called it Constitution Hill. This was where Winnie Madikizeka-Mandela and Nelson Mandela spent some time during their trials and imprisonment, the guide said. It was now a heritage site.

In front of the building was a flag. Standing tall and proud. A flag I had only been familiar with on my phone or computer screen. A rainbow swaying in the wind proudly. The guide said, Happy Pride. I wanted to cry. I didn’t, instead, I let the surprise and joy fill me from head to toe.

This was Africa, not Europe or America. The flag was so close, I let myself feel hope again. I felt insulated again. I hoped again for my country, a place in Southern Africa, a country so close to that flag.