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
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