To attempt to describe what Samba Yonga does in a few sentences would be to box it all in and probably do it a vocabulary deficient injustice. At any one time, she might be on the editorial team of several magazines; work on bringing to life the oral archives of women that played a role in shaping pre-colonial Zambia; produce an educational program on television and even find time to read a collection of short stories and How the French Think. She’s two parts enigmatic, one part omnipresent, a dash of media consultant and all passion.
Samba is the type to go almost an entire day running on nothing but water and a resolve to finish her tasks and then order her first meal when the sky begins to draw its curtains. “I feel like breakfast. Could I please make a special order?” she would say touching the waitress’s arm fondly after her request. Her scrambled eggs, salmon and toasted brown bread evening-breakfast might not be on the menu, but Samba would get it created. And for the last twelve years or so, Samba has been creating.
Her journey started sometime after she graduated college. After studying journalism at Evelyn Hone College, she had a stint at a local newspaper and left to seek something more meaningful. “I couldn’t stand the regurgitative political propaganda,” she says. Samba would move on to start writing scripts for social marketing campaigns and developing concepts for radio and television.
The media landscape was beginning to change in the country. It was taking a new form at around the same period that Trendsetters, a tabloid turned magazine was pumping new blood into their publication and trying to make a resurgence. Samba was brought on board and felt the magazine helped tell the story of Zambian cultural identity. Here she would work with Fred Phiri—Creative Director at Media 365 today and producer at Trendsetters at the time. They had both attended a script writing clinic hosted by a budding media company sometime in the mid noughties. A script she worked on that chronicled the different facets of what makes a Zambian got her flown to Cape Town to learn about film making and perfecting her craft. To date, this was one of the greatest experiences of her life.
“A lot of film making is about interaction… how you get to know people, how you interact with them…because, with the nature of film making, no matter how good your story is, if you’ve got a crappy attitude no one will want to work with you. Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino,”
In the past, Samba also worked as Regional Coordinator for The Big Issue, a street paper and social business focused on innovation and entrepreneurship that aims to empower socially disadvantaged individuals. While there, she facilitated the award winning ‘Education Issue’ in 2009 and scooped the Best Cover Campaign award. Her role with the magazine was flexible and provided her with the opportunity to travel and venture through parts of Africa producing work on the side for Zambian, South African and even Ghanaian television. Her travels brought with them a wealth of knowledge and experiences. They also provided an escape from the norm.
When she was younger, books were her escape. She had a healthy helping of English and Serbian literature while her father was on diplomatic duty in Eastern Europe. On cold winter days, Samba traded stories and shared books with her immediate older brother. They were the best of siblings and he also served as a creative muse. “His creativity was totally different. He was a brilliant cartoonist… a lyricist. I didn’t do any of that! But I loved his creativity,” she says of him.
Unfortunately her brother took to the bottle and abandoned any of his artistic aspirations. Like many young men from his generation, there was a slight sense of entitlement and a want for more from parents and country. Samba did share the belief that the country owed something to its people. She felt Zambia had a lot more to offer and wondered why it hadn’t reached its full potential. It roused an insatiable hunger for knowledge of Zambian history. She wanted to learn more about her heritage and the rich culture that once prevailed in the nation.
She delved into Zambian literature and history, sparking conversations with individuals that were a product of a particular period in time. She realised a lot of what she was learning wasn’t in school curriculums and that there were gaps in the historical narrative. It didn’t help that her work with the Big Issue in some ways supported a negative perception of Zambia and Africa at large. Though the magazine did help disadvantaged individuals, it acted as a crutch for the flies-on-cheek rhetoric that Samba found herself reciting at cocktail parties and networking events. She needed change.
“I wanted to learn and re-learn things,” she says. So around 2011, Samba decided to take a sabbatical. She would go pursue a Masters degree in London and seek a some anonymity. “I rediscovered things I used to love; art, discovering talent, storytelling…” She found a new sense of purpose. But this would not be complete until she met Dr. Giacomo Macola.
Dr. Macola is a historian and writer that had lived in Lusaka for several years, studying Zambia’s history. He had contributed to One Zambia, Many Histories: Towards a History of Post-colonial Zambia, the book is a ‘collection of essays on different aspects of Zambia’s post-colonial experience, seeking to lay the foundations for a future process of sustained scholarly enquiry into the country’s most recent past’. Samba had read the book and it had inspired so many questions in her. She got in touch with Dr. Macola and what was meant to be an hour’s meeting turned into an insightful conversation that lasted hours. Samba had the ammunition she needed to return home.
She had already established Ku-Atenga Media before she left for London, but she had found a new resolve and purpose for it when she returned. “Ku-Atenga was born out of the need to tell stories that painted a new African narrative,” she says. Ku-Atenga, in Samba’s native Luvale means ‘to create’. Today, Samba and Ku-Atenga are working on a number of projects including Narratives of Silenced Voices, a focus on the absence of information about what role women and marginalized groups played in nation and region building for both Sweden and Zambia.
Samba has had a hand in numerous publications, productions and projects you may love and have been inspired by over the last decade or so. She continues to push herself and strives to work on meaningful endeavours. She uses her power for good. Who is Samba Yonga?— you could say she’s a creator. “Wait, that’s what I do! I tell stories in an unconventional way!”