Written by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende
Michigan, 1 December: Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global problem of pandemic proportions. According to the United Nations, one in three women will be beaten, raped or abused in her lifetime. This translates to one billion women who are both directly and indirectly affected by gender violence. Across the many different types of violence defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), including self-directed, interpersonal and collective violence, between men and against women, the perpetrators are primarily men.
Written by MARAVI POST CORRESPONDENT
LILONGWE (MaraviPost)—If media reports emanating from Swaziland are anything to go by, then Swaziland is shaken by God’s visitation by the coming of controversial but widely popular Malawian Prophet Austin Liabunya in their country.
Written by RAPHAEL TENTHANI - MARAVIPOST
Blantyre, Malawi, Nov. 25 (MaraviPost) _ US pop diva Madonna, who returned to Malawi Wednesday for the first time since her acrimonious fall-out with former president Joyce Banda last year, Thursday launched a two-storey 50-bed pediatrics ward at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in the commercial capital, Blantyre.
Written by MARK GEVISSER
In 2010, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a transgender woman, was imprisoned in Malawi for getting engaged to a man. Pardoned and freed, she now lives in exile in South Africa. Mark Gevisser, of The Guardian Newspaper, reports on an uneasy triumph for the global LGBT rights movement.
This was the headline on the front page of Malawi’s Nation newspaper, on 28 December 2009, beneath a photograph of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Stephen Monjeza, bleary and uncomfortable in matching his-and-hers outfits cut from the same waxprint: “Gay lovebirds Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza on Saturday made history when they spiced their festive season with an engagement ceremony (chinkhoswe), the first recorded public activity for homosexuals in the country.”
When Caroline Somanje, a staff writer at the paper, received a call alerting her to the chinkhoswe in Blantyre, the country’s biggest city, she knew she had a scoop. Homosexuality is still illegal in 38 African countries, including Malawi, and the rise of a gay rights movement had already become cause for scandal in countries like Uganda. Somanje rushed over to the Mankhoma Lodge, north of the city, where Tiwonge Chimbalanga – who lived as a woman – worked as a cook and cleaner. “There was a huge crowd,” Somanje told me. “People were hostile, they had come to satisfy their curiosity, not to celebrate a wedding. Tiwonge was in tears.”
The lodge was owned by a prominent local politician, Jean Kamphale, who had initially been worried about what people would say about her unusual new maid. But Chimbalanga was hardworking and diligent, and had become something of an attraction, after hours, at the bar. Chimbalanga soon hooked up with Steven Monjeza, a local drunk and layabout, and Kamphale gave the two a small house behind the lodge to live in.
Four months later, when Chimbalanga said she and Monjeza wished to hold a chinkhoswe, Kamphale offered her lodge as a venue, and a loan to pay for the festivities. The pastor of a local Pentecostal church, in which Chimbalanga was a chorister, agreed to preside. Two days later, the couple were arrested and charged with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” — a hangover from the British colonial penal code — which had never been used against two consenting adults in Malawi. They were given 14 years’ hard labour. It was, the judge said, “a scaring sentence”: there was to be no more of such nonsense.
During the trial, both Kamphale and the pastor would testify that Chimbalanga had deceived them: she had explained away her male features by saying she had been born a girl but had been bewitched as a child. Expedient though this explanation might have been, it is close to how she actually felt, given that she has always understood herself to be female.
“I am a woman,” she told me, firmly, five years later, as we sat in her neat, well-equipped two-roomed shack in Tambo Village, outside Cape Town. She has been in exile in South Africa since 2010. Amnesty International had declared her and Monjeza “prisoners of conscience”, and brought Chimbalanga to South Africa after they were eventually pardoned by Bingu wa Mutharika, who was then Malawi’s president, after five months in jail.
By township standards, Chimbalanga has been receiving a generous amount from Amnesty: R4,000 (£232) a month. She has a television, and a sound system – and a coterie, including her partner of about a year, Benson, a Malawian man who lives with her. Neighbours, both Malawian and South African, are constantly popping in to borrow some mobile airtime, to cadge a tomato, or to settle in for some beer with “Aunty”, as she is universally known.
“Aunty!” they exclaim, somewhere between affection and mockery, as they pass her security gate. She says she is 28, but she is probably about a decade older. Tall and ungainly, she would stand out anyway, even if she did not wear elaborate Malawian costumes, with full skirts and turbans, which put her at odds with the lycra-leggings feminine style of this sandswept, proletarian place. She communicates with her neighbours in a gabbled pidgin of English and Xhosa, but has withdrawn into the township’s substantial Malawian émigré community. On the streets, she walks in the determined manner of someone who seems like she will collapse if she does not keep her chin forward. She accompanies Benson, a good few inches shorter than her, to the shops to protect him from the insults, she says: she has clearly learned to use her fists. But when she curtsies in greeting and fails to meet your eye, or sways gently to the prayer in church, you remember that she is just a rural girl from a small village in a tiny country in central Africa.
But the first time I heard the word ‘gay’ was when I saw it next to my photograph in the newspaper
The international campaign to secure her pardon and resettlement in South Africa represented a triumph for the global cause of LGBT rights. But for Chimbalanga, who unexpectedly found herself on the front lines of an intensifying battle over these rights in Africa, there is little sense of victory. The Amnesty grant will run out in a few months time, and – after three years – she has no other source of income. Despite intensive English lessons, she still cannot speak the language well enough to enter the job market. And her body is covered in scars: she has been attacked at least five times since moving to Cape Town. She is now applying to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees for resettlement to a third country, a tortuous process which can take several years.
“They told me I was gay when they arrested me,” she told me in Chichewa, Malawi’s national language, through an interpreter. “They told me that I was paid to do my chinkhoswe by the LGBTs from overseas. But the first time I heard the word ‘gay’ was when I saw it next to my photograph in the newspaper. And the first time I met some LGBTs was when Gift and Dunker came to visit me in jail.”
* * *
Gift Trapence and Dunker Kamba were the first two people to visit Chimbalanga and Monjeza after they were arrested. Trapence is a serious, moon-faced man in his 30s; Kamba, a muscular man-about-town, a decade younger. Together they run Malawi’s LGBT rights advocacy organisation, the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep), which started off by providing Aids education and services to Malawi’s homosexual community in the 2000s. As elsewhere, the Aids epidemic had enabled gay people to start mobilising: “When you go human rights, they shut you out,” Kamba explained to me. “But when you go the public health route and you have statistics to prove your existence, then they’ll listen to you.”
There have, of course, always been homosexuals in Africa. But the confluence of the Aids epidemic, a global LGBT rights movement, and the digital information revolution meant that gay culture was beginning to emerge in African cities, from Dakar to Blantyre. This was happening at the same time that Pentecostal Christianity was exploding across the continent, with an ideology – ironically encouraged by American rightwing religious theology – that demonised homosexuality as a scourge of the secular western world, against which Africa needed to inoculate itself. Collision was inevitable in a country like Malawi, a deeply conservative and dirt-poor nation of 13 million people along one of the Rift Valley’s great lakes.
When Cedep launched a campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Malawi in 2008, it antagonised both the religious establishment and a government chary of any kind of social mobilisation. In fact, just weeks before Chimbalanga’s chinkhoswe, Cedep’s offices had been raided and its safer-sex materials confiscated as “pornography”. Now the authorities suspected Cedep of having deliberately staged the chinkhoswe with foreign backing.
In truth, Trapence and Kamba first heard about the chinkhoswe when they read about it in the Daily Nation. They had never come across Chimbalanga or Monjeza before, but because they had just been raided themselves, they knew immediately that the two would be arrested. When they arrived at the holding cells later that day, they struggled to get access. “We were told, ‘Why do you want to see these animals?’,” Kamba remembers – and were eventually given five minutes with them.
Trapence and Kamba immediately set about organising legal defence for the accused, and mobilising international support. Kamba visited the two almost every day, and came to understand that although there was an element of defiance in Chimbalanga’s determination to get married – a growing insistence that the world acknowledge her as a woman – she did not know that what she had done could incriminate her.
It is not uncommon for couples in Blantyre’s gay community to hold private chinkhoswes. Why did Chimbalanga decide to do hers publicly? She gave me several reasons. “It’s our culture,” she said at one point. “You can’t just one day wake up and decide you are married. You have to introduce the families to each other.” But although Monjeza’s family was present, hers was not, and she hired local women to play their role in the ritual. The custom is that guests at a chinkhoswe contribute to the nuptial coffers: “I was well-known. I attended a lot of weddings and funerals. This was a way for people to give back to me.” She is adamant that no one “gave” her the idea: “It’s everybody’s right to get married. I was not doing it for others, for the LGBTs so they can come out. I was doing it for myself.”
Perhaps Chimbalanga, more than biologically-born women, needed public affirmation of her female place in the world. Jean Kamphale egged her on, either out of naivety or because she sensed it was good business, and spread the word all over Blantyre. Now Chimbalanga and her betrothed were in custody and the country inflamed: “It was on the radio shows, in the taxis, on the pulpits,” Trapence told me. “It was as if Malawi itself was coming to an end.” Trapence had been skilfully steering the discourse away from the “gay marriage” headlines that were dominating the LGBT struggle in the west and towards basic human rights and health provision. But now, “everyone thought we were trying to get marriage in through the back door. We had to go underground, and so did the gay community. It was very traumatic. We shut down our office.”
It’s everybody’s right to get married. I was not doing it for others. I was doing it for myself
Blantyre came to a standstill every time the two appeared in court, the streets clogged with onlookers. The accused were subject to humiliating physical examinations and sent for mental observation; the media coverage was both salacious and contemptuous. Monjeza, bewildered, collapsed into a weeping wreck. Chimbalanga, usually wearing a traditional chitenje wrap and a feminine blouse, stood her ground: television footage shows her slapping away hands trying to touch her as she is transported to court in an open truck. At one point, she collapsed vomiting with malaria in the courtroom, and was left to lie in her own mess, and then forced to clean it up herself. But she never broke down, or even pleaded for pity: she was, said one of the English lawyers who came out to defend her, “what we in Britain would call gay and proud”.
After the “scaring sentence”, Malawi briefly became international headline news. Western aid agencies began threatening to cut programmes. Madonna, who had adopted Malawian children, put out a petition. At first, the president dug in his heels, calling homosexuality “foreign” and urging churches to pray “so Malawi can go back to its former glory”. Eventually, the United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon came to Malawi. He addressed the Malawian parliament, called for the repeal of anti-sodomy laws worldwide, and met with President Mutharika.
Afterwards, the president said he had decided to forgive the two, although he found their actions to be “disgusting, demeaning, and a disregard of our culture, religion and laws”.
Upon their release, Chimbalanga and Monjeza were taken to Lilongwe, the country’s new capital, four hours’ drive north of Blantyre, and installed in a safe house. But they fought with each other, and Monjeza left two weeks later, returning to Blantyre and introducing his new bride, a sex worker, to the media. Within months, he would be back in jail, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for stealing a cellphone. These days he is back in the environs of Mankhoma Lodge, drunk and laying about.
As for Chimbalanga, “she couldn’t walk in public without being mobbed”, Amnesty’s Simeon Mawanza told me. “She had assumed some kind of celebrity, but one which was very detrimental to her own wellbeing.” Without sustained psychological counselling, she seems to have found ballast both in heavy drinking – “it helped me to forget all my problems,” she told me – and in an embrace of her notoriety. As Dunker Kamba put it to me: “She became a queen.”
A Canadian religious group had offered to sponsor her emigration, but nothing came of it, and so Amnesty suggested South Africa: it was close, gay people were constitutionally protected, there was a local transgender organisation willing to host her, and Chimbalanga would not need a visa, just a passport. Even this was a challenge: the state dragged its heels in issuing her one. She had been beaten up once already in a tavern in Lilongwe, and Cedep decided it was too risky for her to stay in the city. She was sent home to her village, where she would wait for nearly a year for her passport to come through.
* * *
In September 2014, I drove with Dunker Kamba to Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s home village, also called Chimbalanga, a poor and remote place with no electricity or running water, perched on an escarpment on the fringes of the tea plantations at Thyolo, an hour south of Blantyre. As we bumped down a steep, rutted track, the whole village gathered beneath the stately mango tree outside the village chief’s very modest mudbrick home: word had spread that Tiwonge herself was coming, and everyone wanted to see her.
The chief, Black Chimbalanga, is her maternal uncle, and her adopted parent. He took her in, aged five, after her mother died. “My uncle and his family accepted me as a girl,” she told me. “When people insulted me, my family made a complaint, and the culprits were taken to traditional court.” Chimbalanga recalls this happened three times; the culprits were chastised, and fined some chickens.
Chief Chimbalanga, now in his late seventies, told me that when he took Tiwonge in, he was living with his wife and children elsewhere. But his marriage broke down, and he returned alone to the village, bringing only Tiwonge with him: “I saw nothing wrong in Tiwonge doing all the female tasks, because someone had to do it, either him or me.” His niece’s gender role suited him, and so, pragmatically, he accepted it.
The chief’s daughter, Annie Manda, said that as a child Tiwonge dressed as a boy but everything else about her was feminine: so much so that she was frequently the object of derision. Manda noticed how Tiwonge would put up her fists to defend herself, and tried to persuade her, unsuccessfully, to ignore the slights and slurs.
She had assumed some kind of celebrity, but one which was very detrimental to her own wellbeing
After eight years of schooling, Chimbalanga left her family – because, she says, she had been bewitched. She had severe headaches and nosebleeds, and suspected that her bewitchers wished to kill her – so she fled north, to find a traditional healer who might release her from the curse. In some African cultures, gender nonconformity is seen as a sign of being possessed by an ancestor of the opposite gender, and homosexuals or transgender people are assigned special places as healers. But it can also be seen as demon possession, which is why the deliverance rituals of Pentecostal Christianity have had such effect in this part of the world. You can be bewitched by displeased ancestors or malevolent neighbours, and Chimbalanga feels this is what happened to her – although she does not link it to her gender identity. Annie Manda, however, said that the family thought Chimbalanga might be bewitched because “he grew up as a man but never had any interest in women. He went to the north to be healed, so he could act as a man and have feelings for women.”
If this was the family’s intention, Chimbalanga’s absence had the opposite effect. When she returned two years later, she was dramatically different, living entirely as a woman, dressing in traditional twinsets known locally as “Nigerians”, and with a new name. Because “Tiwonge” is gender-neutral and pronouns in Malawi are gender-neutral too, she encouraged people to call her “Aunty”, even though this is usually a term of respect for older women. Chimbalanga believes that the healer did release her from the curse – and perhaps it was a release from the constraints of gender that society had imposed on her: away from home, she found the courage to reinvent herself so that her exterior could begin matching how she felt inside.
But she needed liquid courage too. Her first employer in Blantyre, Vaida Kalua, thinks that Chimbalanga started drinking because of the stress that came with presenting as a woman. Kalua had initially retained Chimbalanga as a “houseboy”, but “little by little, he started wearing feminine clothes. First the chitenje and then the matching top and trousers. It was not a problem for me, but I wanted to protect him, because he was being mocked and insulted. I tried to talk to him about stopping, but he would not listen.”
Kalua still ranks Chimbalanga as one of the best “houseboys” she has ever employed, but after seven years of employment they had a disagreement – about drink, and bringing men on to the property – and Chimbalanga decided to leave. She established herself in a shack, living by selling kachasu, Malawi’s potent home-brew – and met her first serious partner, a man named Yaseen. Yaseen had a wife and children, but Chimbalanga accepted the polygamous situation – until she was needled, one too many times, by Yaseen’s wife. She retaliated with her fists and knocked out two of her rival’s teeth. Yaseen left her. Shortly afterwards, Chimbalanga’s shack burned down, and she sought employment with Jean Kamphale.
When, after her release from jail in 2010, she went back to the village of Chimbalanga to wait for her passport, she was not immediately welcomed by everyone. But space was made for her by a few key supporters, including her uncle and the man expected to be his successor as chief, a primary school teacher named Simon Wangiwa. “Aunt Tiwo never wanted to be criticised about her dressing and her actions, and she would start a fight with whoever did that,” Wangiwa told me. “But everyone can be temperamental when pushed so far.”
Wangiwa also had a concise, and beautiful, way of explaining how he came to accept Chimbalanga, and why he had never clashed with her. “Of course I knew Tiwonge was born a boy,” he told me. “But her character made me accept her as a woman. I stopped seeing her as anything else.”
* * *
Chimbalanga’s passport finally arrived in October 2011, and Kamba accompanied her to South Africa. Because of her celebrity, she sailed through the asylum application process in record time – a week rather than the average three years – and became one of the first refugees to be granted asylum in South Africa on the basis of discrimination because of sexuality or gender identity.
In Johannesburg, she stayed at the guesthouse of a gay pastor, Paul Mokgethi-Heath, who remembers that she arrived “traumatised”, but that the possibility of a new life in South Africa excited her. He recalls, particularly, wonderful scenes at his church – a black gay institution – where “all the queens gathered and clucked around Aunty, and gave her tips about her hair and her nails!”
She was settled in Cape Town, however, because it has a reputation for being more tolerant than Johannesburg (it has always had a large gay population, across all races), and because a local transgender advocacy organisation, Gender DynamiX, had offered to host her and administer the Amnesty grant. GDX, as it is known, arranged accommodation in a flat at a shelter for abused women and enrolled her at a school for refugees, where she would learn English.
But life quickly became “very lonely for Aunty”, her asylum lawyer, Lusungu Kanyama Phiri, told me. “Here she was, trying to start a new life, being who she wants to be, but she’s confined to a rehabilitation centre with no men allowed and a curfew. And when she does sneak out to get herself something to drink and have some company, she finds herself recognised by Malawians who abuse her.”
Within four months she was violently assaulted twice, left unconscious, and hospitalised. Chimbalanga showed me the knife-wound scars on her leg and her back: both times, she says, her assailants were Malawians who told her she “had too much pride” and was “shaming Malawi”. Meanwhile, the shelter was struggling with her non-adherence to rules. Her hosts at GDX decided that it would be better for her to have her own space. Perhaps she should have been found a place in the city, safer and more anonymous. But the GDX staff settled on a flat in Tambo Village because it was near their offices and matched her budget, and because the outreach-worker assigned to her, a man named Charlie, was a local who was well-respected and would help her integrate.
But Chimbalanga did not last long in the flat – she was accused of being disruptive by the landlord – and GDX decided to use some of the Amnesty funds to buy her a shack of her own. At around the same time, in mid-2013, she dropped out of school. Her teachers, whom I met, are convinced that this was at least in part because of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.
Her relationship with GDX soon broke down. Liesl Theron, then the executive director, thinks that the problem had its roots in the way she was “coddled” at first: “At one point we had six staff members running after her. We realised that Tiwonge couldn’t be our only project, and so we started withdrawing some of that very visible support, not least because we felt she needed to start looking after herself while there was a little bit of money left in the Amnesty grant, as a safety net. But I think she must have experienced this as abandonment.”
Charlie was her day-in-day-out minder. They are estranged now, although he said he still feels a great affection for her. He tallies the damage that celebrity has done: not only that it gives her airs and graces – she will not, for example, countenance hawking vegetables on the street, as many other immigrants do – but, he said, that “people recognise her: ‘Oh, we saw you on TV, Aunty! Let’s meet! Let’s drink!’ Then the money’s finished.” Chimbalanga never has enough money, and the people at GDX believe – as the director, Sibusiso Kheswa, puts it – that this is because “she uses much of it to buy protection, to build a community around her, including securing lovers who don’t have incomes for themselves”. This is a familiar situation for many transgender women, and not just in Africa. But such relationships can be abusive, and turn, literally on a penny, from protection to threat.
When I went to visit Chimbalanga one day in September, she had invited two friends over: a Malawian man named Bernard and his South African wife. They were garrulous and expansive with Saturday-afternoon drink. They loved Aunty, they told me, and defended her against slurs. “I’ve been in South Africa for 10 years,” Bernard said. “I know about gays. We have a lot of them here.”
But then, a few hours after I had left, I received a hysterical call from Chimbalanga: Bernard was now outside the shack slashing at it with a knife, threatening to kill her partner Benson, because he was convinced I had paid R400 for an interview (I had not). Bernard wanted some of the action too, for having spoken to me.
Tambo Village, originally a squatter camp, is part of Guguletu, a dense and vital sprawl carved out of the dunes of the Cape Flats. It is filled with churches and schools and children on the streets, but also with shebeens – as taverns are called – and with risk. The Cape townships, in particular, suffer from astronomical unemployment, serious alcoholism, and among the highest levels of interpersonal violence in the world. They are places where you need to watch your step, and Chimbalanga seems unable to do so. She came to South Africa to be free, but she is, as Charlie told me, “too free for the township”.
And that is Chimbalanga’s predicament: when you have been sprung into putative liberation after having been imprisoned just for loving, how can you ever be “too free”?
* * *
A few days after the incident with Bernard, I went back to Tambo Village on a Thursday morning to interview Chimbalanga and to pick up some things she wanted me to bring to her family in Malawi.
As I pulled up outside her shack for our scheduled appointment, I heard loud Central African music. It was coming, I realised, from Aunty’s place, and when I looked through the security gate I saw her sitting with Benson and three other men. One of them was slapping cards on a table littered with glasses of beer, and there was much jovial gesticulation. When I was spotted, the men evaporated, and their hostess hastily cleaned up. As we settled down, Chimbalanga explained through my interpreter that the men had come to “console” her and Benson because of an altercation the previous day: a neighbour had insulted him, and she had been provoked into retaliation. As she told the story, she began weeping. What seemed to trigger her distress was the hardship Benson had to endure by being linked to her, and the consequent possibility that he might abandon her.
Forty years old, Benson is mild, ineffectual, and quietly inebriated. Although the GDX people roll their eyes at the procession of boyfriends who have stolen Chimbalanga’s heart before moving on (“Aunty loves too hard,” one said to me), Benson does not seem to be going anywhere. A few weeks before my visit, his kinsfolk arrived, hauled him into the street, and demanded he leave “the moffie” (the South African word for “queer” or “faggot”). When he refused, they beat him until Chimbalanga’s landlord called the police, who came and broke it up. Benson’s relatives spat at Chimbalanga: “You take care of him now. We want nothing more to do with him.”
While we were talking, Bernard stumbled into the shack, the previous weekend’s dispute seemingly forgotten. He was paralytic, and had an inadequate plaster covering a nasty wound on the side of his neck. He had been slashed with a bottleneck, Chimbalanga explained: he was always being stabbed in shebeens because “he gets drunk and starts shouting, and people get angry with him. Shebeens are dangerous places. That’s why I don’t go to them any more. Now I only drink at home.”
Her voice rose in agitation. Tambo Village was too dangerous for her. She needed to get out. Perhaps she would sell the shack and rent a room near Wynberg, where she volunteered twice a week at People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (Passop), a refugee rights organisation. She receives R150 (£8.60) a day for this work, which largely involves helping asylum applicants fill out forms, and she is much liked by staff and clients alike. When I asked at Passop about her drinking, no one knew anything about it, although she has worked there for nearly a year: “You drink when you’re unemployed and at home and bored,” one staffer told me. “That’s why Aunty needs a job!”
Chimbalanga had told me that she knew she had a problem with alcohol, and wanted to do something about it. We spoke, that Thursday morning, about her plans for medical gender transition. Although she told me that she very much wanted to begin taking oestrogen, the GDX staff had mentioned to me that she had twice missed her initial appointments at Triangle Project, an LGBT health service that refers transgender people into a free, state-funded hormone therapy programme. When I asked her why, she said: “There was no one to take me. I don’t know my way around.”
Because she feels herself so strongly to be a woman inside, she does not understand that she does not look like one
Language, of course, must be a barrier, particularly when it comes to intimate consultations with a doctor or therapist. But the issue might lie elsewhere too: she does not think of herself as “transgender”, a term she heard for the first time when she was introduced to GDX. As Dunker Kamba puts it: “Because she feels herself so strongly to be a woman inside, she does not understand that she does not look like one.”
Ronald Addinall, the gender specialist who runs the programme at Triangle Project, told me this was a common phenomenon among his clients: “Sometimes you want to say to a person, ‘Let’s get real here. This is what you need to do to survive.’ But when you’re talking about someone who has fought so hard to have their own identity, constantly having to fight people telling them that they are not what they know themselves to be, that sense of self needs to be respected.”
As I sat with Chimbalanga that morning, I thought of Addinall’s words, and wished that she could hear them too. All of the people who have tried to help her, and there are very many indeed, have been exasperated by her at times, but also feel deep remorse for not having been able to do more. It seems wrong to blame her for her difficulties; wrong, too, to blame her benefactors for creating a dependency trap. If she is a victim of anything, it is of cultures trying to square modernity with tradition, of a time and a place where the old ways of doing things are falling away and the new ways have not yet established themselves; of an incomprehensible world where you can be awarded a chicken by a village court as reparation when insulted for living as a woman, and yet sentenced to 14 years’ hard labour by the city’s chief magistrate for the very same thing.
The global LGBT rights movement, which came to Chimbalanga’s defence when she was arrested, rescued her from years in a brutal jail and probable death while captive. But having evacuated her, out of necessity, from all that was familiar to her, it cannot provide her with the sanctuary she needs. Perhaps this is because “LGBT” is an ill-fitting vestment itself; one that does not, with its current global cut, clothe an uneducated woman, born in a male body, from a remote village in central Africa, transplanted to a foreign metropolis.
Meanwhile, back in Malawi, the trial and its consequences have wrought significant change: the government declared a moratorium on gay arrests, and the Nation newspaper, like its competitors, has become exemplary in its informative and non-judgmental coverage – largely thanks to excellent media training done by Cedep. Still, the gay community remains underground, after a brief flourishing in the early millennium, and the “queens”, as they call themselves, no longer cross-dress: “I often used to go out as a woman,” a transgender woman called Amanda told me, “but I can’t do it now. People will shout, ‘Aunty Tiwo! Aunty Tiwo!’ and I’ll be in danger.”
When it was time to leave Tambo Village, I took out my phone to make a video of Chimbalanga and Benson, so that she could talk directly to the family I was about to visit in Malawi. As I filmed, I found myself overcome by the injustice of her exile; by the tragic distance between her and all that is familiar to her, wrought by nothing more than the assertion of her right to love. The couple snuggled into each other to fit into the frame: she in a rather grand black sun hat and her favourite neon-coloured plastic beads over a frilly black blouse, he with his walnut face and swimming-away eyes. In her message, she said that she had had a rough time, but that her family was not to worry. He was bashful and taciturn: “I am Aunty Tiwo’s husband and everything is fine.”