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Two Years of Collaboration: A Conversation With the Founders of Bhala Writers

Who doesn’t enjoy cake and some book related conversation? This month, Bhala Writers celebrates two years and to join them in the celebration we have a chit-chat with the founders about the work that they do. In 2021 I met one of the cofounders of Bhala Writers, Nomsa, on an excursion. We were two strangers who soon became good friends. We talked about all things books, writing and inevitably a discussion about Bhala Writers came up. The rest is history (being written). Nomsa introduced me to the writing community and since then I have found great value in being part of this network. Bhala Writers was formed by Melissa Mbazo-Ekpenyong, Nolizwe Mhlaba and Nomsa Mlambo. The aim of Bhala Writers is to create a writing community and resource network for African writers. I have had a conversation with Bhala Writers before on one of their Bhala Insta Lives, you can watch the interview here. Let’s get into knowing more about Bhala Writers.

[Bhala Writers founders: Melissa Mbazo-Ekpenyong - left, Nolizwe Mhlaba - top right, Nomsa Mlambo - bottom right]

*What is Bhala Writers and how was it formed?

Bhala is a community that champions and inspires good writing and is a platform built for collaboration, growth and crucial dialogue.

It was formed by three writers in 2020 who believe that writing is more than a basic skill; it is a legitimate career path for the working class in Africa. To this end, the Bhala community serves members as a bridge between writing talent and income generation. This community is for the aspiring and the accomplished alike; a platform for both sharing and learning.

*You have done a lot of brilliant work by facilitating co-writing sessions ('Come Write Along'), Masterclass Series and Instagram Live conversations with writers, publishers, book reviewers etc. What is the value of collaboration in the literary world?

Collaboration is necessary to learn and be inspired by others. We’ve noticed that writers enjoy being in these spaces of collaboration because they learn from each other’s writing journeys and feel the confidence to speak about their own. They are inspired from reading other people’s stories and are encouraged to share theirs. There is a camaraderie and solidarity that comes with being in a room with other writers and knowing they face the same struggles and successes that you have. What better collaborators than those you can relate to!

*As a member of the community, I am aware that you are celebrating two years of Bhala today, congratulations! What does the continued existence and impact of the work you're doing mean to you?

Where has the time gone! The beauty of Bhala has been this: in every season, we have found that there is at least one person that is following and being encouraged/inspired by our work. We often wonder whether what we are doing matters (hello Imposter Syndrome), but we have always found that someone in our network has answered that question with a resounding yes. Being a part of Bhala has meant we have had the privilege of reading awe-inspiring work, rubbing shoulders with phenomenal writers and connecting with budding authors whom we know are going to shake up the world of literature, one writing prompt at a time. For us, Bhala has been the gift that keeps on giving and lets us know that one day it will be normal for African writers to be quoted when people refer to classics and reputable literature.

*Let's talk about the gap between writing talent and income generation especially in the Zimbabwean context. In your view what are the causes of the gap and how can this gap be bridged?

Writing has just not been considered a strong enough career choice to sustain adult living (and African parents’ awe). That coupled with the fact that there are far too few opportunities for Zimbabweans to earn money from their writing means that writing falls short on the list of viable careers. Closing the gap is a mammoth task but we are starting with sharing opportunities, spotlighting authors (in the hopes that they connect with publishers), and encouraging authors to write, write and write some more - one can never be sure when they will land the book deal but when they do (because we are confident that it is only going to grow), we want writers to be able to point to more than one piece of writing that a publisher can work with.

In addition, the Zimbabwean economy has been in crisis for a long time. Creative jobs usually suffer the most in bad economies. Everyone wants to enjoy them but no one wants to pay for them. Is it cynical to say we need to fix the economy to bridge the gap? Probably.

*A quick look at most of your work reveals that Bhala Writers focuses on African writers. Lately I've been thinking a lot about this, what is an African writer?

Melissa: Such a reflective question! I initially thought the answer was obvious and then Rachel Dolazel popped up in my mind and that gave me pause. After the pause, I decided an African writer is anyone who can write African content from a place of experience and familiarity. Real experience. I don’t mean a summer internship at a Ugandan orphanage but someone who has breathed and lived the African experience. The nuances of what that means exactly are up for debate!

Nolizwe: I think if you live and/or are born on the continent or to African parents in the diaspora, you are an African writer. Sidenote: I find the classification of writers this way especially fascinating because we don’t often hear as much debate/discussion about, say, who is an Asian/European writer.

Nomsa: For me an African writer is anyone whose surname begins with an “M”. Kidding. Kinda. Some people will get that joke, others won’t. An African writer is anyone born on the continent or with family born on the continent and who probably wouldn’t typically have the privilege of considering writing as a viable career path.

*In 2021 Bhala Writers published its debut anthology of short stories penned by members of the community. Congratulations, for coming up with ‘Come Write Along: Volume 1.’ It is a solid project which found its spot on our Short Stories' recommendation list. Can you tell us more about this project?

"Come Write Along” is the tagline for our weekly co-writing sessions. Given that we launched Bhala Writers as a virtual community, during the lockdown, we wanted folks to feel connected to each and motivated to write. So, we would convene on the platform every Wednesday and write for an hour. We shared a creative writing prompt - something we still do today - but also invited people to just come write along, and work on other projects or focus on other stages of their writing (e.g. proofreading, editing). And people came whenever they could! It was a great way for us to build community while also developing the habit of writing at least once a week. We decided to celebrate the community through an anthology. We wanted contributors to see how their writing journeys (with Bhala) started off. The pieces were only lightly edited because, ultimately, we wanted writers to feel confident and proud, sharing even their unvarnished works publicly! The anthology can be found here:

"Come Write Along: Volume 1" by Bhala Writers

*How can one join this writing community?

Join Bhala Writers at and follow us on Instagram and Twitter (@bhalawriters).

*I know that you are all writers, what do you enjoy about writing?

Melissa: Giving stories, thoughts and ideas the opportunity to be characters in the world. When I write, I always think of every piece as a character or a friend with a personality. Someone that will get to meet the rest of the world as I have created them. I love that about writing.

Nolizwe: I find writing so therapeutic. It’s how I try to make sense of the world. I love building (or dismantling!) worlds through wordplay. I can sit with a thought for a long time, just mulling over different ways to express it, and that challenge is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing, for me.

Nomsa: My favourite thing about writing would be that there are no limitations and there is nothing you cannot work on. I recently started writing children’s stories and was surprised to find they resonated with people. I never imagined that my writer’s pen would extend to children - that is what I love most about writing; it makes what is unimaginable possible.

*Can you name one book you will never forget and highly recommend to all book lovers?

Melissa: My answer has been the same since I was about fifteen. I either need to read more books or get over this obsession! My recommendation is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams. A quote that encompasses the humour and wit of the book is as follows, “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” Recommended to all those who love to read funny, strange and smart.

Nolizwe: I always struggle to answer this question! My recommendations depend on the moment or season, and are often based on an emotional connection or deep appreciation for the mechanics (art?) of writing itself. Right now, I would recommend “The Death of Vivek Oji” (Akwaeke Emezi), “Big Friendship” (Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman), “Pachinko” (Min Jin Lee), and “All About Love” (bell hooks). (Sigh - it’s never just one!)

Nomsa: There are just so many books I highly recommend! My recommendation really depends on what I ate for breakfast but I guess I would go with "House of Stone" by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. It is a long book but I thought the author was remarkably gifted in the way she built her villain and illuminated Ndebele history and experiences of Ndebele people during a tumultuous time. Can I sneak in another? "His Only Wife" by Peace Adzo Medie if you want a more light hearted and entertaining read.

*What are you currently reading?

Melissa: Embarrassingly, there isn’t anything that I am reading right now. In the hopes of not embarrassing myself further when this question comes up again, I am going to read "The Courage to be Disliked" by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi. It’s been at the top of my book list for a while now. The synopsis says this book will show me how to achieve real happiness. Given that promise, I honestly should have read it already!

Nolizwe: I just finished reading “The Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler and “The Joys of Motherhood” by Buchi Emecheta, which I happened upon in my sister’s bookshelf many years ago. I barely made a dent in it, but it’s just one I always wanted to get back to.

Nomsa: I just finished reading “The Yearning” by Mohale Mashigo and wow - the book had me at hello and I definitely needed a hug after reading it. It is so well written - the author expertly weaves through past and present with foreshadowing as her trusted companion. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. My next read is “Professional Troublemaker: The Fear Fighter Manual” by Luvvie Ajayi Jones because I take breaks from reading novels by reading some non-fiction to keep my feet on the ground.

To support or join the writing community, you can contact Bhala Writers here. Join us to write along and read with the community. I'll be honest, grammar and spelling quizzes have had me questioning myself once or twice! Happy birthday Bhala Writers.

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