At the end of one of my last posts I mentioned my interest in investigating a bit more about women and nightlife in Zambia. At that time, I hadn’t really made any female friends who were interested and able to explore Ndola’s bar and club scene, whose culture I have been researching to understand better youth music culture in the Copperbelt. A few weeks later, however, I had the pleasure of tagging along on a night out with a group of young women I met at Sun FM, a local radio station where I now regularly co-host an hour long show with Steve or “So Sick” three days a week. (And the graveyard shift (12-4am) on Thursdays.)
Before heading out to any clubs, we took about a five minute walk to an area of bars called Kabwata. We had become new regulars at a bar called Casino Royale, but which we call Ruth’s, after our favorite bartender. The bar is small with wooden walls that are always crawling with cockroaches and cheaply tiled floors coated in beer caps and dust. One long high wooden table surrounded by bar stools is the only furniture in the room aside from three dusty slot machines, which clearly have been out of order for the last decade or two. The same 70’s and 80’s oldies playlist keeps everyone in a cheery mood as we have drinks before going to the more popular dance clubs in town. On its best days, it smells like drunken men and stale beer, and on its worst like one large port-o-john. This is by no means a place fit for ‘proper’ Zambian ladies. On that evening, like most nights, we are the only women aside from the bartenders in the establishment – something that doesn’t seem to faze us, but definitely seems to attract the attention of the other men in the bar. By simply being present in this male-dominated space these women are not only breaking gender boundaries, but also introducing a new narrative about Zambian women.
I remember the way this group of women walked into one of the smaller local clubs, Chez Ntemba, with such poise and confidence. Like the main club, Eastpoint, Chez Ntemba has mirrors lining several of the walls. After only a few minutes we had lined ourselves up directly in front of the main mirror and began dancing and laughing. As usual, I did my best to follow along with the other dancers without making a total fool out of myself. I felt this sense of pride as I noticed our small group of four women were dominating not only the dance floor, but the attention of many both male and female onlookers whose expressions seemed to read something along the lines of, who do these chicks think they are?
Only about a week or two after this first night out I realized I had finally found women with similar attitudes and habits to my own – a group of three others that I could proudly call friends. Over the next month these strong, independent women and their stories surprised me in so many ways. Not only had I found friends, but individuals who are in their own ways challenging society’s expectations of young women in their daily or more accurately, ‘nightly’ behavior. These women break a huge norm simply by being ‘out’ in clubs and bars. As my friend C-Roc explained, “the thing is, in Africa, there’s an age where you are expected to be married and settled without the consideration of how far you wanna go in life….women have to be home… blah blah blah.” While it’s slowly becoming more common for women to be found drinking alcohol or visiting clubs, there is still a large stigma associated with such activities. These stigmas don’t hold back C-Roc as she explains, “I believe I have so much to offer and shouldn’t be tied down to the norms…because norms are something a bunch of people considered normal and the rest followed suit. But what do I personally believe in? That’s where I gave me freedom.”
When I asked C-Roc if the judgment – whether simply looks or comments – ever bothers her when we go to bars as dingy and male-oriented as ‘Ruth’s’, she laughingly responded, “can you believe I stopped noticing?” It’s not just about rejecting these expectations, but about being yourself, having fun, and as she put it, “not being afraid to live.”
The boldness of these women is also evident during the day – whether they’re speaking their mind at work, pursuing a male dominated profession, or snapping back at the disrespectful, sexual remarks so commonly received by their male coworkers. Despite these daytime protests, their presence in nightlife activities (and maybe lack of presence at church on Sunday) is the most controversial.
Not only do these women break through the physical boundaries of the city by crossing into spaces where they traditionally are not welcome, but the way they express and carry themselves entirely overcomes the idea that the actions of women can and should be dictated by others–whether other women, church members, elders, or men. As anthropologist James Holston explains, “citizenship changes as new members emerge and advance their claims, expanding its realm…they are sites of insurgence because they introduce into the city new identities and practices that disturb established histories.” It is the way that they envision and assert themselves within their society – as rebels – that introduces a new narrative about young women in Ndola.
It’s only to be expected, however, that there are moments when the criticism these women receive from family, coworkers, or strangers hurts them and makes them feel tinges of shame or guilt. As C-Roc added, “it’s tough – you gotta be ballsy… people are judgmental, but it’s up to you to change that if you wanna.”
And as much as I find myself similar to my new friends in some ways, I often wonder if I would be as brave as them if I grew up in Zambia. I don’t feel I’ve ever truly been a woman who breaks gender norms and in fact, I might even perpetuate them. Each of these women are, even if in a nontraditional way, activists, in a way that I am not. I pass through the same gender boundaries excluded from the same judgment because I am white and foreign. In fact, they’re the ones that usually have to deal with remarks from onlookers about being accompanied by a white, foreign woman…not me. Not only do they stand up for themselves, but for me too – since the first day I met them. Obviously my admiration for these women goes beyond just academic interest and while I recognize this is unconventional for a researcher, I feel it is only through my emotional connection to these women that I became able to understand their true bravery.