I met Musola when she was a Human Rights Advocate at Columbia University and I was her writing teacher. She was reserved, sat to my left and wore a leopard-print coat with an ever-rotating collection of headbands. She walked with the aid of a crutch. A few weeks into class, the students were drafting editorials for future publication and, as we started working one on one, I began to learn more about her.
Musola was born in Zambia in 1968, a few years after the country's independence from the British. Zambia's first president established a policy that all government workers were to be transferred to another province within two years, in an effort to promote cultural exchange, and so her parents found themselves uprooted to Solwezi, a mining town in the rural Northwestern province. Musola was born healthy, the eighth of nine children. At eighteen months, she suffered diarrhea from teething; a student nurse administered a set of injections to relieve the symptoms. The fifth injection struck the nerve of her left leg, leaving her unable to walk. Though she received a corrective operation, she has walked with difficulty ever since.
Her early life remained carefree. She went to church every Sunday with her family, where she loved to participate in the Bible plays. Musola's older sister read children's books from West Africa, like Flora Nwapa's Efuru, with her at home. But this state of normalcy was changed when her parents separated and her father remarried. Her stepmother treated her harshly, forcing her to do the household chores, walk four miles to school despite her disability and restricting her food. "I thank her for mistreating me. I learned to do things for myself without expecting anyone's help," Musola says now. High school was equally cruel, as girls with disabilities were kept in the bay for sick students, separated from their classmates. Her mother was furious and pushed for better accommodations. Back at home in the evenings, she would cry, sitting on the veranda and writing poems, plays and songs.
But her plays had life, a life that would later take her to South Africa's Newtown Film and Television School, where she graduated at the top of her class. After graduation, she came back home to work on Zambia's first soap opera, Kabanana. The Zambian film industry is underdeveloped; there are no film schools in-country and little professional equipment available. In order to receive training in filmmaking, human rights, leadership and advocacy, Musola has attended schools across the world. She has worked on dozens of film projects, as a filmmaker, producer, director, actor, writer and activist. In 2002, she founded Vilole Images Production, a nonprofit which has trained dozens of Zambian filmmakers under her guidance. When I ask her which she considers her primary identity, she says with a laugh, "Well, I no longer act."
Over the course of a week, we catch each other in glimpses after midnight Zambia time – when the buzzing Internet line quiets enough for Skype to patch through, and when she's done with the long days leading disability equality trainings for facilitators. When I ask how her friends would describe her, "hard working" and "workaholic" are the first adjectives she offers. There are other rich parts of her life – she loves watching local musicians Maureen Lilanda and the Sakala Brothers, visiting Victoria Falls, playing with her friends' children – but the work is first and center, deeply felt and argued for from the core.
Art and advocacy are intertwined in the projects Musola creates; the overlapping energies of the freelancer's and nonprofit director's hustle are abuzz in her life. She remembers making Suwi, her first feature film. Right after graduation from film school, she took a volunteer staff, with payment promised from a funder after the project wrapped. A lively affair struck up between one of the crew members and one of the filmmakers; their personal dynamic grew unmanageable. The Finnish crew members started questioning Musola's direction, threatening to stop shooting more than halfway through. "I was a woman, black and had a disability," she says. "I was overlooked."
But when she returned home after late, contentious days of shooting, her then 84-year-old mother made her cups of tea. She lent her money to finish the production. And most of all, she reinforced Musola's right to lead. She told her, "When God is about to bless you big time, the devil is not happy and tries to destroy you. This project will bring glory to Zambia."
It did. She finished Suwi. It was screened in Italy, Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands and South Africa. Elements of production show a filmmaker's first cautious steps and budget restrictions, but the broad themes of developing a disability, learning to adapt to a changed life and finding a way to support oneself resonated deeply with its audiences. Months after Suwi's Zambian screening, Musolawas contacted by a group of thirty women with disabilities, who had been begging to support themselves. They'd seen the movie and wanted to change their lives. She works with the women to this day, helping them to develop dignity, confidence and independent living. With none of the resources of Nollywood, Nigeria's multibillion film industry, Musola created a full picture of life on the screen.
As an adult, she has continued to endure painful discrimination. When walking through a rich, residential part of town, she was called bafuka – a Nyanja word for "the dead" – by a group of children. She has been associated with begging in Zimbabwe, South Africa and New York City. Her capability has been constantly questioned.
How do you find the strength to speak back to a culture when it says you are less than? I ask her. She often reads The Bible. Her Facebook statuses praise the generosity of God and the utility of prayer. And she makes demands, demands which reflect the traditional and feminist views of her culture colliding. The women of Vilole Images want men to pay a dowry when they marry women with disabilities – just as they would for enabled women. They want the government to secure equal opportunity employment. They want all of Zambia's progressive legislation – from its constitution to the 2012 Persons with Disabilities Act – to be implemented.
"Being the first woman film director in a country is not easy, because everyone looks up to you and thinks you know everything," she tells me. The pressure is unsubtle; friends call her Mama Nationale, Mama Africa, Mama Shola. They admire her for the same reason I was struck by her when we met months ago. Kindness is a complex practice. While compassion and empathy for the suffering of others is natural, following compassion to its active ends entails tremendous personal sacrifice. Most resist following it, able to live more comfortably with the disconnect. This is not the way she has chosen.
In Musola's practice, there is no time for rest. She is currently researching and finding funding for Letter to my Mother, a film about 13 courageous Zambian women with disabilities who compose video letters to their mothers, locating an incident in their lives, tracing its cause and effects and coming to terms with it. She has founded Pachibwanse Corner, a future village and project to enhance the lives of women and girls with disabilities, and is working to see it established. There are more three a.m. sleeps and five a.m. wakes in the future of this self-described fighter. Stephanie Grepo, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights' Director of Capacity Building, remembers Musola as "the first to arrive at group meetings or workshops, even though she had to take the bus (or buses) whereas the rest of us only needed to take the subway. She said she never wanted to be late."