Ilizwi Photo Club at Greenpop’s Zambia Festival of Action 2016

Written by: Liam Brickhill
Photography can be a powerful tool to tell one’s own story in pictures. Uniquely, through the camera lens, individuals and communities can also raise awareness and share their experiences. Similarly, they can prompt conversation and dialogue and, together with their own communities can focus on issues that truly matter to them. This was the motivation behind the creation of Ilizwi Photography Club. This is a youth-led organisation that facilitates photographic storytelling in and around Cape Town — and also at Greenpop’s Festival of Action in Zambia.
Ilizwi’s method focuses on the concept of ‘photovoice’ (ilizwi is an isiXhosa word meaning ‘voice’). This is, consequently, aimed at interrogating that method with questions such as: whose words are being spoken? And, who gets to tell the story? These questions have, accordingly, been put to groundbreaking use in Southern Africa for the last five years by the club. Notably, Greenpop’s Zambia Festival of Action has something of a shared history with Ilizwi. In particular, the project was launched in 2011, and following this, multiple collaborations have thus been made. This, therefore, allows young Zambians to share their own photographic stories from their communities amid the festival programme.

“It’s not just a photo club because we’re a group of storytellers,” explains Ilizwi coordinator Sibu Mpanza. “And that’s what we were, specifically, here to facilitate in the first place. It is important to realise that we can, as a result, help them tell their stories. That’s something we, certainly, feel very strongly about. So that, because of this, we can be able to tell our own stories and not have other people from the outside tell them. For one thing we can stop other people from deciding what about us they will write about. We’re, by all means, a group of storytellers and it’s an amazing thing that we get to share our own stories. The most unique and genuine stories come from the people who are living in them. And, moreover, these guys are definitely living in their own stories. It’s, especially, beautiful to see this first hand.”

Family at the Hogsback Festival of Trees
Ilizwi’s workshops provide an opportunity to get the story right, and therefore add further depth to Greenpop’s holistic approach to sustainability at the Zambian Festival of Action. This year, they were part of a programme that included 145 participants from 20 countries planting more than 400 trees. With these trees we were able, for example; firstly, establish six new community forest gardens. Secondly, planting an orchard, and lastly, painting five new murals around Livingstone. On the final weekend of the three-week event, Ilizwi then hosted an exhibition of the work of the talented 14 young Zambian photographers. These photographers had, for this reason, been working at the Greenpop Village at Livingstone Guest Farm. The passion that went into that exhibition was without a doubt, evident in each person.

Zambia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. In reality, not only widespread dependence on charcoal as fuel for cooking and heating but also the current drought in the region, are exacerbating the country’s environmental challenges. In this context, the stories that Zambians tell about themselves and their environment are important. Though often overlooked these stories are, of course, instrumental in the fight against climate change. It really matters who tells that story, and how that story is hence told. The stories we tell create our reality, as novelist Paul Kingsnorth commented in The Guardian:

“That the world is a machine is one story; that the world is alive and aware is another. The latter story has probably been taken for granted by the majority of human societies throughout history. The former has only really taken root in ours: post-Enlightenment, industrial western culture. The results of it – climate change, mass extinction, factory farming – should be enough to make us wonder if this story is badly constructed, badly told, or just plain wrong.”

“Ilizwi’s workshops provide an opportunity to get the story right, and add further depth to Greenpop’s holistic approach to sustainability at the Zambian Festival of Action.”
“Passion wins over everything,” says Ngosa Musenga, an 18-year-old Zambian who joined Ilizwi’s workshops this year. “I’m here and I joined the crew. I joined the photoclub late, but then I did manage to catch up and I’m so glad because I saw my photos at the exhibition.

“There are very few [Zambian] females involved with photography, but okay I’m a female and I’m 18, I’m Zambian and I’m here for the first time. I’ve never done this,” added Ngosa. “I was so glad, I did take good pictures that tell stories and will influence one’s mind to do that as a girl. Where I come from, girls are known to just not do much and, granted, do lesser jobs. Photography is just one of the things that I’ve always had passion about and having you guys come to Zambia and teach us all about it was a life experience that I will never forget. I’ll never forget this moment. This is my first time learning and achieving. I’m, of course, really grateful.”

Ngosa’s achievement is a fine example of the work Ilizwi is doing within the Festival of Action. As a teenage Zambian woman, she is finally able to fully express her own story. Ilizwi founder Meghan Daniels stresses that Ilizwi does not just facilitate storytelling, moreover, the context in which those stories are told is a crucial factor.

“It’s not just storytellers,” she said, “it’s specifically storytellers in an African context for this workshop, and for most of our workshops. In one of the sessions we looked at Chimamanda Adichie’s TedTalk about the dangers of a single story. We looked at how outsiders create single stories about Africa and people who live on this continent. They sometimes show stereotypes of people living in poverty with HIV/AIDS and that everyone is a victim. It’s not that there aren’t social issues, but that becomes the only representation. This has by and large, been happening for years and years in this continent. Ilizwi is saying that’s not okay, and these photographers that we’re working with are the storytellers. They are going to challenge those single stories that have been created and perpetuated within this continent. Illizwi is looking at storytelling in this African context.”

Hands planting a tree.
As well as bringing context and voice to the forefront, Ilizwi’s workshops at the Festival of Action have now also opened new avenues for expression among Livingstone’s youth.

“I like music, I really do,” says workshop participant Mwaba Chanda. “I thought music was the only way you can really let what you’re feeling come out. But when I was invited to the Ilizwi workshop, it really inspired me. Seriously. And the fact that it’s not just taking a picture, but also, in effect, creating a chemistry and story behind that picture. It captures you in the moment once you freeze that moment. And that moment will be remembered over and over and over again. And that’s, indeed, the power of photography.”

As exciting as Ilizwi and Greenpop’s work in Livingstone has been, it can also be said that the true test of success will be the growth of sustainable and homegrown solutions to Zambia’s challenges. Ultimately, it is the telling of a Zambian story by Zambians.

“We’ve decided even when you guys leave and this workshop is done we’re not going to leave it there,” adds Mwaba. “We’re going to open a publishing house or something, explicitly so that we can start telling our own stories to the people out there in Zambia, Africa and worldwide if we’re lucky. That’s just part of the stuff that Ilizwi has done for us. It really opened our eyes to things, teaching us to look further into the future and not just this moment. Thank you guys.”

Excited to see Ilizwi’s work for yourself? Check out their Facebook and Instagram pages and join Greenpop at the Zambia Festival of Action, June 25 – July 17, 2017!

Greenpop Foundation NPC is a registered non-profit organisation. Registration Number (NPO): 151-411 NPO.