Malawian refugee Tiwonge Chimbalanga. Picture: PIETER BAUERMEISTER
Malawian refugee Tiwonge Chimbalanga. Picture: PIETER BAUERMEISTER

In July 2016,  five years after fleeing her native Malawi once she was released from prison, Tiwonge Chimbalanga headlined an event called Colours of Cape Town. It was held at the Nest, a trendy venue for “young African creatives” in downtown Cape Town.

“Join us for a night of solidarity with the LGBTI refugee community,” the Facebook invitation read. It was put out by PASSOP, People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, the refugee support organisation where Aunty — as Tiwonge was universally called — volunteered twice a week. More than a hundred people responded, piling into the Nest’s upstairs rooms and spilling out onto the wrought-iron Victorian balcony that hung over the action on Darling Street, just off the Grand Parade.

The crowd was unusual for Cape Town: there was a large group of the refugees I had come to know — people from Zimbabwe and Uganda, from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi — scattered among the queer kids who had found out about the event on social media. There were young lesbians from Khayelitsha with buzz cuts and attitude, and there were older activists I had not seen in 20 years. A choir opened the proceedings with heavenly gospel: it was from the newly established local branch of a gay Nigerian church called House of Rainbow.

I arrived late, but I spotted Aunty immediately. She looked radiant and regal in an elegant purple skirt and blouse with extravagant gold and silver brocade, crowned with a lavish turban. Her man Benson was at her side, all smiles and nods, swallowed up in a matching suit. When Aunty rose to take the mike, her voice was tentative but unfaltering, each word spoken with the care it must have taken her to write  it: “My name is Tiwonge Chimbalanga and I am a Malawian currently residing in Cape Town, South Africa.” After describing how she had been arrested and sentenced to 14 years hard labour following her involvement in “the first gay marriage in Malawi”, she told of her “very painful experience” in prison, how she was finally pardoned and sought asylum in SA, and her difficulties now that she was here: the assaults and the unemployment.

Aunty has always been clear about her identity: she is a woman. But over time, she has been called different things in different places: “bewitched” in her home village where she was nonetheless somewhat accepted; “gay” by the media and the authorities when she was arrested for “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”; “transgender”, now, in SA.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

A  pamphlet was distributed at the event: “African LGBTI people who face extreme danger in their home country flee to South Africa to find refuge, as [SA’s]  constitution is the most progressive in the region. However, the lived reality after arrival is far from desirable. LGBTI refugees face extreme challenges after relocating to South Africa.”

The pamphlet described a “double marginalisation”: they were not “accepted into their own refugee communities because of their sexual orientation/gender identity”, and they were also not “accepted into LGBTI communities because they are foreigners”. This was, of course, on top of the xenophobia most black migrants to SA experienced.

I had first met Aunty two years previously, in PASSOP’s somewhat decrepit suite above a storefront in Wynberg, in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. The top floor, an attic space, was given over to the organisation’s LGBTI Network, scattered with mismatched furniture and strung with rainbow banners made for a recent Pride march. It had the feel of a student common room, and there was a constant trail of people passing through, sleeping off a rough night on the couch, hopping on to the free Wi-Fi, or consulting the resident lawyer on their cases. Always buzzing about, too, were a handful of international interns: US or European volunteers, often graduate students, who had come to roll up their sleeves to do fieldwork with this newly recognised marginalised group in a conveniently accessible city.

But Aunty was seldom to be found there, up in the LGBTI loft. She far preferred to be downstairs “with the other women”, she told me, helping out the caseworkers as they assisted disoriented walk-ins far away from home and looking for a way to stay. This is how Aunty met her friend Prisca, who acted as interpreter for me: “Aunty Tiwo is polite and courteous to everyone, unlike many of the other people,” Prisca told me. “So we don’t even think about who she is. We just see her as someone helping us.”

I watched Prisca’s eyes widen as she translated Aunty’s story for me. Prisca was a staunch Christian who had not really processed the reality of her friend’s identity. At first she managed this by exceptionalising Aunty: there was her friend, whom she loved, and there were others, who were sinners. But Prisca — a fashionable young woman who worked as a nanny for a white family — had an open mind and a big heart, and by the last of our meetings, a few weeks later, she was full of outrage at the hardships that had befallen her friend, “just because of who she loves”.

Like everyone else at PASSOP, Prisca only knew Aunty sober. Tendai, the Zimbabwean receptionist and another of Aunty’s friends, was uncomprehending when I asked about Aunty’s drinking. She thought about it for a while, visibly distressed, before answering: “You must understand, Mark. When you sit at home, bored, that’s when you drink. That’s why Aunty needs a job.”

Mark Gevisser and Tiwonge Chimbalanga at the Streetscapes Community Garden, where she now works. Picture: ELLEN ELMENDORP
Mark Gevisser and Tiwonge Chimbalanga at the Streetscapes Community Garden, where she now works. Picture: ELLEN ELMENDORP

I took these words to heart.

When I first started visiting Aunty, she routinely hit me up for a handout. I had responded at first by arriving with groceries, or paying for her transport costs if she was coming into the city to see me, or helping out with a dentist when Benson was doubled over with the pain of a toothache. This is where conscience takes me, on the job, when I find myself asking people in distress to share their stories with me.

But after listening to Tendai and Prisca, I began to see another way for Aunty. PASSOP lost its funding in 2015: it had to lay off most of its staff, and could no longer afford to pay the small stipend — R250 a day — it offered “volunteers.” PASSOP needed staffers as much as Aunty needed the stipend: it was a first port of call for asylum seekers arriving in Cape Town. And so I gave the organisation enough funds to retain Aunty for two days a week. Not only would this offer Aunty a reason to go to work, and much-needed income now that her Amnesty grant was finally coming to an end, but it would also give PASSOP an extra hand, and the organisation would continue to expose refugees to a transgender person helping them, thus breaking down their own prejudices, as it had done Prisca’s.

Having set up this arrangement, I stayed away. I had not seen Aunty for about a year when I made contact with her and PASSOP again, in early 2016, to invite her to participate in a panel at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School. The staff told me that even though she was only paid for the two days, Aunty came in almost every day and had become an indispensable part of the team. As well as doing her basic cleaning duties, she had learned how to use the computer and was helping walk-ins with their “newcomer letters”. Aunty came to the university event with me; so moved by her was an older gay British man that he offered to fund PASSOP to employ her for a further two days a week. I retreated, and Aunty’s new donor took up the slack.  

Now, at “Colours of Cape Town”, I watched Aunty receive a standing ovation following her speech. I was immensely proud of her. And I was also gratified that I had been able to play some part in helping her find her feet. This was not just out of a sense of pity or justice but also — I realised — out of kinship. I, too, had been asked to say some words and I had focused them on the “double marginalisation” bind. Refugees usually sought work and shelter in their own ethnic or national networks when they arrived somewhere, I explained, but if they were queer, they did not have access to this resource, ostracised as they were because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. “We, as LGBT Capetonians who benefit from the freedoms of this society, are their family now,” I said, “and we have an obligation to them.”

Much as I believed this, I was troubled by my own feelings of pride and gratification. I remembered the words of Aunty’s other benefactors, about the dangers of the dependency trap. Was I contributing to it, too? 

I did not think so, given that my contribution was funnelled through PASSOP,  where she was earning it. But I had not gone to enough effort to be anonymous, and she had discovered that I was her benefactor. Why had I allowed this to happen? Had I fallen victim to the white man’s saviour complex? Was I tearing up, listening to Aunty speak publicly about a year after I had started funding her, because I believed I was playing some role in her redemption with my paltry R500 a week?

I ruminated on something that had challenged me throughout my years of research into this book, as I travelled the world. The Pink Line was a new human rights frontier over “LGBT Rights”, staked by a new 21st century conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity,  and this conversation was disseminated across the globe by the vectors of globalisation: by the digital revolution and mass migration, by a transnational human rights movement and popular culture. If this was the case, then surely I needed to understand myself as one of these vectors, too. I carried my own ideas and my own experiences in my backpack, not to mention in my wallet (or the perception of it) and even in my own struggle as a gay man, and I unpacked these each time I encountered someone like Aunty.

I was particularly conscious of this as the recipient of an Open Society Fellowship, the award from George Soros’s organisation that funded much of my research. My own benefactors were among the world’s largest supporters of the new global LGBT movement, and this undoubtedly opened doors for me. This forced me to think about how I might be introducing ideas that weren’t there before, or in some way influencing the way people and their communities thought about themselves and the world. I might have played a small role in helping Aunty settle into a more stable and integrated life, and done my bit as “queer family.” But I had to accept that I had become part of a dynamic of solidarity and dependency and thus to the global queer politics of these times.

My very presence in her shack near Gugulethu, or under the tree in her native village back in Malawi, fuelled the notion that people like me paid people like her to be gay or LGBT.
Mark Gevisser

Even if I embraced and accepted the agency of people such as Aunty, I had to grapple with the fact that my very presence in her shack near Gugulethu, or under the tree in her native village back in Malawi, fuelled the notion that people like me paid people like her to be gay or LGBT — or, at the very least, that there was a funding stream, a passage to upward mobility, attached to such novel identities.

There had been much of this discourse around Aunty in Malawi. Commentators repeatedly accused her of having staged her engagement ceremony for financial gain, and alleged that her few Malawian supporters had all been “bought” by Western money. It was openly stated by then Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika that the only reason he pardoned Aunty and Monjeza was to unfreeze development aid from the West. And of course once Aunty went into exile, this became proof of her payout: her public exposure, and her alliance with her global supporters, was a ticket to all the riches that SA offered.

All over Africa, the “recruitment” canard was fervently advanced by those who feared or disapproved of this new social phenomenon. It had a corollary, of course: homosexuality was a form of exploitation — or the consequence of it — rather than an innate characteristic. These ideas have always been part of Western anti-homosexual discourse, where — in Britain, for example — upper-class homosexuals were accused of exploiting and corrupting working-class men by paying for their services. This line of thinking holds a particular place in anticolonial theory, too: Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean-Algerian psychiatrist whose works became primary texts of decolonisation, wrote that the black homosexual compatriots he encountered in Europe were not “neurotic”, as Freud had described, but were practising homosexuality as “a means to a livelihood, as pimping is for others”.

Aunty’s gender identity was manifestly not a strategy for getting out of poverty: it drove her deeper into the poverty cycle because of the way it stigmatised her. Still, it is undeniable that her embrace of an “LGBTI” identity was connected to the capital this label carried in a new global economy where the wealthy West — people like me — valued such identities and understood people like her as vulnerable, and deserving of our help, or at the very least our solidarity. Aunty knew exactly what she was doing when she told the audience at Colours of Cape Town that she had held “the first gay marriage in Malawi”.

She was singing for her supper along the Pink Line.

Postscript: Aunty and I remain in touch, and last week I took an inscribed copy of ‘The Pink Line’ to her, at the Streetscapes Community Garden off Roeland St in Cape Town, where she is happily employed as a gardener.

This is an adapted extract from ‘The Pink Line: The World’s Queer Frontiers’ (Jonathan Ball: R280). Mark Gevisser is donating the equivalent of royalties earned in SA in 2020 to Covid-19 relief efforts that reach LGBT refugees, including that of PASSOP.

• Mark Gevisser's next Monthly Review will be published in September.

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