Aunty Titi finds a home on Cape Flats

Jailed in Malawi for her same-sex mar­riage, she’ll visit her coun­try but never live there

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Carl Col­li­son

As we sit out­side her one-bedroom shack in the Cape Flats town­ship of Tambo Vil­lage, passers-by greet Ti­wonge Chim­balanga warmly — al­ter­nat­ing be­tween “skwiza”, “aunty” and, more com­monly, “Aunty Titi”.

“That’s what they call me. Not ‘Aunty Ti­wonge’, no. They call me ‘Aunty Titi’. It’s a short­cut. I’m fa­mous, mos,” she laughs.

It has been nearly eight years since Chim­balanga, a trans­gen­der woman, made world head­lines af­ter be­ing ar­rested in Malawi for mar­ry­ing her then-part­ner, Steven Mon­jeza, in what was the coun­try’s first same-sex mar­riage.

Af­ter the sen­tence — 14 years’ hard labour — in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions lob­bied the gov­ern­ment to step in and re­lease the cou­ple. Fol­low­ing talks be­tween the then United Na­tions sec­re­tary gen­eral, Ban Ki-moon, and the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Bingu wa Mutharika, the two were re­leased.

The five months she spent in­car­cer­ated in Chichiri prison might have been a frac­tion of the years she would have served, but it was, she says, “very, very hard, my friend … very hard”.

“You see this one?” she asks, point­ing to a thick welt on her chest — it’s an ever-present re­minder of the reg­u­lar beat­ings at the hands of prison guards.

“When I got there, they asked me: ‘Why are you speak­ing too much in court?’ But the judge asked me to speak and I stood up in the court­room and asked the court: ‘Why not par­don me? Why was I not given bail?’ But those guards didn’t like that I spoke in court, so they beat me and beat me. They beat me a lot. A lot.”

Com­mis­sioned by the Other Foun­da­tion, a 2016 study that looked into the lives of les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der and in­ter­sex (LGBTI) peo­ple in Malawi found that “the life ex­pe­ri­ences of LGBTI peo­ple in Malawi are shaped by the in­ter­linked bar­ri­ers of crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion and stig­ma­ti­sa­tion, which re­sult in a range of ex­clu­sion­ary prac­tices that im­pact neg­a­tively on the day-to-day lives of sex­ual mi­nori­ties”.

“In Malawi, di­rect so­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion over­laps with le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion to cre­ate a mul­ti­lay­ered set of ex­clu­sion­ary ex­pe­ri­ences for rel­a­tively pow­er­less sex­ual mi­nor­ity group mem­bers,” the re­port noted.

Although she may have suf­fered le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion, Chim­balanga in­sists that so­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion was not some­thing she faced grow­ing up.

“You see this?” she says, point­ing to my pants. “I never wore such a thing, grow­ing up. My fam­ily al­ways said to me, ‘Don’t change.’ They loved me and re­spect me. My mother would al­ways say: ‘My son, you are a woman … don’t change.’ ”

No longer feel­ing wel­come in her coun­try of birth, how­ever, Chim­balanga fled.

With the aid of hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, she spent a year liv­ing in Mada­gas­car (“Yho, I loved it there”), be­fore mak­ing South Africa her home.

“South Africa is a good coun­try … Lots of hu­man rights and free­dom of speech,” she says. “But too many Malaw­ians here.”

Although she greets a few Malaw­ian passers-by in Chichewa — “Mwaswera bwanji [How are you to­day?]” — she says: “I don’t have many Malaw­ian friends here. I’m scared. They stabbed me five times. Se­ri­ous. Five times. And robbed me, came into my house and took ev­ery­thing: my phone, the food in my fridge, ev­ery­thing. One time, they came and broke my win­dows, call­ing ‘moffie, moffie’.”

Now work­ing as the of­fice man­ager, af­ter three years of vol­un­teer­ing at Pas­sop — the asy­lum-seek­ers, refugees and im­mi­grants rights or­gan­i­sa­tion — Chim­balanga says this dis­crim­i­na­tion is also some­thing she faces in her work life.

“You know mos peo­ple,” she shrugs, adding: “But I love my job, me.”

Chim­balanga sup­ple­ments her in­come by sell­ing beer from her shack.

Not want­ing to be seen as a she­been queen, how­ever, she hastily adds: “But they don’t come and sit here and drink. Only my hus­band’s friends can sit here and drink.”

Be­cause her part­ner, Ben­son — a tall, soft-spo­ken man with a warm, easy smile — is un­em­ployed, she has set up a stall out­side their home from which he sells veg­eta­bles.

“There’s even cab­bage,” she smiles. Asked whether she is happy in her new re­la­tion­ship, Chim­balanga smiles: “Ja. Se­ri­ous. Very happy.”

The years since she fled Malawi have treated her rel­a­tively well but Chim­balanga hopes to re­turn “some time next year” to visit her fam­ily. “But only to visit,” she says.

“I love my fam­ily too much, too much. But I will only visit. And then come back. I will never live in Malawi again. Never.”

As she walks me to where I have to catch a minibus taxi back into the city, we pass through a sec­tion of the neigh­bour­ing town­ship of Ma­nen­berg, known for its gang vi­o­lence and high crime rate.

“There’s too much skol­lie here,” she says, walk­ing be­side me in a daz­zling flo­ral skirt and well-worn court shoes. “But don’t worry, my friend. They won’t rob you here. They know Aunty. Here, they know Aunty Titi.”

New start: Ti­wonge Chim­balanga now lives in Tambo Vil­lage (be­low) near Ma­nen­berg. She loves be­ing in South Africa but life is still dif­fi­cult for LGBTI peo­ple liv­ing in Malawi. Pho­tos: David Har­ri­son

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