If you watch Zambian TV and film productions, chances are you’ve come across Becky Ngoma’s work. She’s the writer for Zuba, a hugely popular new series dubbed ‘Zambia’s first telenovela,’ which airs on Zambezi Magic. Becky is a director, producer, screenwriter and actor. Some of the productions she worked on in include acclaimed local series, Kabanana, Love Games and Fever and films, Suwi, Mwansa the Great and the BAFTA-winning I Am Not a Witch. Becky has also worked on the set of legendary South African soap opera, Generations.
Becky and I met up at The Retreat in Roma Park. The restaurant name perfectly describes the location, which is situated in a quiet cul de sac and will make you forget the hustle and bustle of Lusaka. Serene and free of distractions, it was the ideal place to have a heart to heart with the TV industry veteran. As we dined al fresco, with the pool and greenery in view, Becky told me her favourite thing to eat is nshima with lots of veggies and meat. However, on this day she went for a classic smoked chicken and mushroom pizza, though she was tempted by the chicken liver pâté.
Becky clearly loves her work. This is obvious early on in our conversation when her face lights up as soon as I ask how she got into TV and film. Her interest in storytelling was sparked by her grandmothers who recited folktales to her when she was a child. Becky would retell the folktales to her friends, adding new characters and plot twists. At nine years old Becky started writing poetry and later joined her school’s drama and press clubs. All the while she loved watching TV and longed to go from a consumer to a producer.
Years later, Becky’s church drama group entered into film production and she seized the opportunity to get involved. The venture ultimately didn’t work out but while other members of the group moved on, Becky and her friend, Jessie Chisi, with whom she directed the first season of Zuba, just couldn’t move on. Despite family pressure to get a conventional job and not much of a local TV and film industry to speak of, she pursued her dreams. “My mum and I fought a lot. She worried that my chosen career was unreliable and wouldn’t take me anywhere,” Becky says. Today, however, Becky has her mum’s support.
Several times pursuing her dream meant walking long distances across Lusaka when she had no transport money, if only for the opportunity to learn from established filmmakers and meet potential collaborators. Becky once walked from Emmasdale to Longacres, to attend a filmmakers’ workshop at Alliance Française when she had no transport money. Anyone who knows Lusaka knows this is a huge distance to cover on foot. All the workshop participants except for herself and Jessie had impressive CVs. Becky felt out of place and somewhat intimidated but she pitched an idea to the workshop trainer and he loved it. This made her feel that she belonged and gave her the confidence she needed to keep going after what she wanted.
Two of the most important mentors and collaborators Becky learned from are directors Lawrence Thompson and Catherine Kaseketi. Becky notes how she learned professionalism from Lawrence Thompson the hard way. “The first time Lawrence invited me to set I got to work ten minutes late and he fired me.” Thankfully, she had many more chances to work with him and was never late again. When Becky complained that Zambia’s film industry was too small Catherine Kaseketi challenged her and said, “If there’s no film industry who do you expect to create it other than you, the people that want to be in it?” This pushed her on and encouraged her to keep working and to mentor up and coming talent once she found success.
While Becky has found success she notes that things could be better. She recalls her early days as a producer seeking funding from corporates. Being young and female Becky was often not taken seriously. Similarly, in the early days, some male colleagues didn’t take her seriously when she took on the role of producer or director. Sourcing funding is not as difficult as in those early days but Becky asserts that the TV and film industry requires much more investment and support from the corporate world and government.
When asked about life outside of work she says, “Besides work my other obsession is my kids. I’m very family-oriented. And I love nature and water. I’ll take any chance to travel to a beach and wherever there’s water.” Becky also loves to read, describing herself as a “big bookworm” and while she loves multiple genres, lately she has been focused on reading books on African history. She also loves and values books because it was from books that she first familiarised herself with the craft of directing before she had firmly established herself in the local industry.
Becky feels her biggest career highlight was landing a job as a writer on Kabanana. “It was Zambia’s first soap opera, it was big and viewers loved it,” Becky rightly points out. The show also offered steady long-term employment for Becky and appeased family members who worried about the insecurity of her career. Another thing is that she got to do what she wanted, which was writing. Whereas on other sets she was sometimes shoved into roles she didn’t want. While frustrating she says this had its benefits as she gained a complete understanding of the industry. Even her studies came in handy. She believes she’s naturally good with people but studying HR management and psychology developed her people management skills and made her a better crew leader.
And while Kabanana may be her main career highlight at the moment she is shining because of Zuba. The show is about a 17-year-old village bella, named Zuba, who is tricked by her stepmother into taking a job as a maid in Lusaka. She is thrown into the deep end and sent to work for the Sosalas, a rich, dysfunctional family. Ultimately, it’s about the haves and have-nots. During its recently ended first season Zuba was the most watched show on Zambezi Magic. The second most watched show: the Zuba reruns. It’s no small feat to write a show that can captivate the masses but Becky is up to the task. To keep viewers hooked she makes sure to not only come up with entertaining storylines filled with drama and suspense but more importantly, she writes stories that resonate within the Zambian cultural context and have relatable characters.
Becky’s business gems
Invest in relationships that help you grow as a person. Make your network work for you.
You’re only as great as the team you lead. When you invest in and respect your team they make you look good.
Individualism brings success but not the sustainable kind. Apply Ubuntu (the African philosophy that espouses the oneness of humanity and encourages compassion) at every level of life, including your business.