After Bellagio/

Aya and Novuyo

Bellagio was a catalyst for Aya and Novuyo’s collaboration, which brings the voices of African women leaders to an international audience.

Aya Chebbi and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma were residents of the 2017 Youth as Agents of Transformative Change program. During this thematic residency, participants – who ranged from activists and artists to academics and private sector practitioners – engaged in an intergenerational discussion about what motivates and inspires young people, the unique challenges they face, and how people of all ages can contribute to transformational change. After their residency, Aya and Novuyo collaborated on the 2022 book I Am Nala, which brings the stories of seven African women change-makers to an international readership.

Image is a headshot of Novuyo.Novuyo is an author and Assistant Professor of Fiction at Emerson College, Boston. Her 2018 novel, House of Stone, has garnered critical acclaim, and won and was shortlisted for a half-dozen international prizes. She has given public lectures about her work at the University of Oxford and the Nordic Africa Institute.

Image is a headshot of Aya. Aya is a diplomat who has worked as a Special Envoy on Youth with the African Union. She rose to prominence as a political blogger during the 2010/11 Tunisian Revolution. Inspired by her time at the Bellagio Center, she founded the Nala Feminist Collective (Nalafem), a Pan-African coalition of women leaders in politics and activism.

Novuyo: When I went to the Bellagio Center during the first year of my Ph.D., I was working on my novel, House of Stone. Published soon afterward, the novel discusses the taboo aspects of Zimbabwe’s history. I believe stories can liberate us from our past and help us chart alternative futures. Bellagio was instrumental to the writing process because I was able to meet people of all ages, in various fields, who all had the same interest in the world, youth, and change.

Aya: Yes, we became a well-bonded group. There were a few reunions after Bellagio. For example, the Princess of the Netherlands [HRH Princess Laurentien van Oranje-Nassau] invited us to the Hague and there were a couple of reunions in San Francisco. Then I reached out to you Novuyo for the book project I Am Nala because it’s an Africa-led project. When I thought of writers, you were at the top of my list.

Novuyo: I was honored to come on board and help with the project in whatever way I could.

Aya: So, at which stage of novel-writing were you before Bellagio?

Novuyo: I was at a very advanced stage of writing my novel and had the entire draft at the start of my residency. I just needed time and space to finish it. My thinking was expanded by talking to others. It got me asking myself: what is this work, what is it doing, and where can it go? I explored ways it could connect to other fields. What were you up to, Aya, before Bellagio?

Aya: Just before the residency, I was involved in the revolution in Tunisia: the democratic transition and mobilizing African youth around the continent. When I got to the Bellagio Center, I met incredible people who are also doing work around youth mobilization. Despite being intergenerational, our group of writers, activists, musicians, and professors grew close. Of these, there were only five young people. I’m not sure about the reputation we left!

Novuyo: We were confident and outspoken. Any tension that arose might have been due to different class backgrounds, which is expected at gatherings like these. But even that can be intellectually useful because that’s where new ideas and fusions are born. It’s evident in the way that our group has continued to keep in touch after all these years. The young and the more experienced working together to create innovation made for a lovely symbiosis.

  • The interactions at Bellagio transformed my thinking as to what sort of work I can do back home [in Zimbabwe].
    Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
    Writer and Professor

Aya: You and I bonded over Africa. We discussed our challenges and our aspirations. In the 1960s, post-colonial Africa enthusiastically documented the theories and philosophies of some of our leading thinkers. Then there was a bit of a gap. That’s why I wanted to showcase the youth movement from an African perspective. I was tired of Westerners sharing what was happening on the [African] continent from their perspective.

Novuyo: I think that these interactions transformed my thinking as to what sort of work I can do back home [in Zimbabwe]. Before, I had a very depressing sense of home – that’s an accident of youth. One of the most transformative lessons I’ve learned, however, is how to build, not only critique. Thinking of all the ways that one is oppressed creates more anxiety. Rather than focusing on the darkness, I wanted to find spaces for collaboration, connection, and levity.

  • The residency was an incredible experience that opened my eyes to so many ideas and experiences and enabled me to strive for even more ambitious goals.
    Aya Chebbi

Aya: The residency was an incredible experience that opened my eyes to so many ideas and experiences and enabled me to strive for even more ambitious goals. It’s the reason Nalafem strives to bring together young female ministers, parliamentarians, and politicians to pave the way for more young women in leadership. My plan for this project was to document the stories of these women advocating for the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. Your help was invaluable, Novuyo.

Novuyo: I didn’t think twice when you asked me. It was an immediate “I’m in, let’s do it!”

Aya: We began with the concept notes and timeline I had put together and found that, of the 17 chapters I had planned (based on the 17 SDGs), seven would’ve been more realistic! Nalafem is all about building and organizing, and this process with you, Novuyo, taught me so much about publishing.

Novuyo: We got there in the end. It was incredible to read the biographies of these trailblazing young women – I mean, there are ministers in their twenties! They walk into such hostile spaces for women, especially African women, and continue regardless. Editing the book also provided a learning curve for me. Being in the U.S. for the past decade, I had to readjust to how things work on the continent. I had a very structured way of doing things in mind, but as the project developed, I had to step back and appreciate that this process was more about creating as you go along, from the ground up. It required a different way of doing things; because these are the stories that Africa, and the world, need.

Aya: What was eye-opening for me was the fact that some of the women we approached were not ready to tell their stories. And I realized in these moments why I’m part of this collective – because we need to support each other. We need more sisterhood, and we need more healing as a collective in order to be able to tell our stories. Meeting this challenge meant that this book helped me to build a better and stronger collective.

Novuyo: You always hear such negative stories about the continent. Instead, I acknowledge the positive by celebrating our accomplishments. That’s also what you get from the book. It’s written by young women who are very attuned to the challenges on the continent. Yet, through fearlessness, mentorship, and learning, they were able to rise above their circumstances. Crucially, these are contemporary women, which gives a very different picture of Africa: its abilities and potential.

Aya: Each contributor was so accomplished. Like Rose Wachuka Macharia, Chief of Staff to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kenya. At 25, she was the youngest law clerk in the Supreme Court and has gone on to an amazing public service portfolio. The way she unpacks and articulates her experiences in her chapter is incredible; people need to hear her voice. Bogolo Kenewendo, from Botswana, was the youngest minister on the continent for investment and trade, which is a portfolio that is not generally given to women – let alone young women. Her appointment conveyed that young women are finally occupying the leadership positions they deserve.

Novuyo: Aya, you are very accomplished, so I loved when you opened up about the challenges you face in your chapter, like trying to figure out where you fit in society. You started thinking about the tensions between self and society from a young age. The highlight of your chapter is the revolution of Tunisia. You have a phrase for it…

Aya: The Revolution of Dignity.

Novuyo: Right. You were on the streets in 2010, protesting as a young woman and putting your life on the line. And you were arrested! You wrote that a conversation with your father was helpful at that moment. I see why intergenerational wisdom is so important to you. As is learning to move from the streets to the board room while remaining authentic. It’s great to grow from, rather than focus on, what pulls us down. It would be great to get Nalafem to Zimbabwe! Building spaces to share these kinds of stories is what I am passionate about.

Explore more

You can learn more about I Am Nala at African Books Collective.

For further reading on the topic of African women change-makers, find out about the 2022 Amujae Leadership Forum at the Bellagio Center.

To find out more about Novuyo’s work, get in contact via her website. Read a review of her book House of Stone with The Guardian, as well as an interview about her favorite books. Or you can follow her on Instagram.

To find out more about Aya’s work, explore the Nala Feminist Collective, or get in contact via her website. Or you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

For further reading on the topic of African women change-makers, find out about the 2022.