“Wena moffie, why are you going to the mountain?” shouted the young men to Phiwe Ngcengi, a transgender woman, when news spread that she was going to initiation school.
She wasn’t going voluntarily. Ngcengi’s older brother, who was supporting her financially, was forcing her to attend initiation school.
“All I remember thinking was: ‘But I am a woman — why should a woman have to do this?’ ” says Ngcengi. “He said I was old enough to go to the mountain and that, if I went, our family would respect me as a man even though I am trans.
Recounting her experience, Ngcengi says: “I went to the mountain but when I was there, I was isolated from the rest of the boys. They wouldn’t associate with me. When I came back, I just continued with my life. I kept on wearing my skinny jeans and make-up. My older brother called me and said things like: ‘You’re disgusting; you are weak and should be ashamed of yourself.’ After that, he stopped supporting me financially. It was a very difficult time for me.”
Ngcengi’s story is similar to that of many transgender women who find themselves in the minefield of non-normative gender expression and cultural traditions.
Jabu Pereira is the director of the Iranti.org that does lobbying, advocacy and educational work about gender, identities and sexuality.
“Being taught how to be man is in direct conflict with what transwomen desire for their own bodily autonomy and integrity,” Pereira says. “These are massively challenging for transwomen, who already face pressure in their communities for simply existing.
“It is a reality that is very different from that experienced by white transwomen, who merely have to conform to Western values. It’s systemically much more complicated for black transwomen, who, in South Africa, also face much more violations.”
Wandy Onceya is another such transwoman. “It was not easy,” says the 27-year-old. “It was a very, very painful thing to go through. You face a lot of things when you are there. You have to, for example, learn a man’s language and if you get it wrong, they beat you with a sjambok. It was so, so, so difficult.”
Onceya, who lives in East London, says: “I think my family thought that if I go to the mountain, I will come back as a man. But it’s not like that.”
The pressure she faced to go through the rite of passage came despite the fact that “I always had their support — even from the time I was a little girl.”
Support from their families is something very few transgender women enjoy, research shows.
Xola Tatubana grew up in the Northern Cape town of De Aar. Although she has recently reunited with her family, she had had no contact with them for five years because she refused to go through initiation.
“I was in grade 10 when my father told me I should go to initiation school, but I told him I am not a man so I shouldn’t have to go,” she says. “He threw me out of the house and I went to live with a friend in what we used to call ‘the gay mansion’. In that house, all of us were trans.”
As difficult as the years of having no contact with her family was, Tatubana believes her refusal to attend initiation school was the correct one. “There are traditional healers who say things like we are demons. But, more importantly, I felt as though my family wanted to send me there because they want me to change, as opposed to loving me for the person I am.”
Motlalepula Thinyane, a transgender woman who grew up in Hamakhoana in Lesotho, echoes Tatubana’s feelings.
“My brothers forced me to go to initiation school because they wanted to correct what they think is wrong with me. I really didn’t want to go. I only went to please them. But when I came back, nothing about me had changed. I didn’t want to attend the celebratory ceremony so the people in our community started developing resentment towards me. But I couldn’t go, because I didn’t belong there.”
Ronald Addinall is an academic, sexologist and volunteer therapist at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) advocacy organisation, the Triangle Health Project.
“Having to go to initiation school would be traumatic for transwomen,” he says. “With its emphasis on how to be a man, it would be an intensive process that’s essentially taking you down a path you do not want to go. This would therefore trigger a lot of psychological, emotional and social trauma for transwomen.”
Leigh-Anne van der Merwe is the co-ordinator of the Eastern Cape-based organisation, Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa (SHE).
“One of the most notable effects of having to attend male initiation schools on the identity of transgender women is that, when they come back from the mountain, during that period in which they are referred to as rhwala (a young initiate fresh from the mountain), initiates are supposed to wear particular clothing. Transwomen would wear it for a very brief period — a day or a week, maybe — and then burn it. The effect is therefore one of a negotiated identity; a performance of masculinity.”
More far-reaching is what Van der Merwe says is the “intimate link” between family rejection, sex work, HIV infection and violence.
“When transwomen are rejected by their families for either refusing to go to initiation schools, or not having ‘changed’ after having attended, they are often left without any financial support.
“This, in turn leads many to sex work, which in many cases leads to HIV infection and being subjected to the violence that often comes with being a sex worker.”
Van Der Merwe’s report on the issue titled Traditional Circumcision Among Transgender Women from the amaXhosa Culture in the Eastern Cape of South Africa found: “For most South Africans, the concept of gender is often conflated with sex: male or female. There is little understanding of the concept of transgender.
“For most transgender women in the rural Eastern Cape, there is internal conflict between whether to uphold cultural values on the one hand, and the rejection of masculinity on the other.”
The report noted that violence against transgender women, “as related to cultural circumcision”, was common.
“These manifestations [of violence] ranged from gentle coercion to the expression of physical violence. One participant said: ‘Personally, I experienced being threatened and discriminated against. The expectation is to satisfy family expectation and not to express our own identities in cultural spaces as transwomen.’ ”
According to the report “there also appears to be a great sense of exclusion from cultural spaces and therefore the denial of a cultural identity where transwomen were concerned”.
Dr Nokuzola Mndende is an academic, diviner and founder of the Icamagu Institute, which “aims to revive indigenous African spirituality as a basis to moral regeneration in the country and beyond”.
Mndende says: “When it comes to African culture and spirituality, there are gender roles. From a traditional perspective, there are different rituals marking life stages: birth rituals, initiation rituals, marriage rituals and death. Skipping one of these is unAfrican.
“So, once you reach puberty, you should be taught how to become an adult. You have to go initiation school. It is not possible for transwomen to go to intonjane (women’s initiation), because they have a penis. The same applies for transgender men.”
Mndende describes transgender as a new phenomenon, one where people are imitating white people. “And it is destroying us. Culturally, we don’t see ourselves as individuals; we are not an individualistic people. We see ourselves as a people.”
Pereira countered: “People tend to see traditions as something very fixed but these traditions were made by people so [they] can be changed by people.”
This change could soon be afoot.
Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva is the chairperson of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.
“We have had a meeting with the executive of the National House of Traditional Leaders in October last year, where this issue was raised,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva says. “The question asked was whether special attention should be paid to gay men and women as well as transgender people to allow them to claim their rights to go through this rite of passage.
“We are still discussing this with the aim of finding possible solutions — maybe a special season for them — which would allow them to go through this rite of passage as it is their constitutional right to.”
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva concedes that finding solutions will not be an easy task. “As it is, mainstream initiation has many problems, so simply adding the issues faced by transgender people to these would put transgender people even more at risk, because they will be more vulnerable. We can’t mainstream them. We would need special systems to adequately address these challenges.”
Including the LGBTI community in the search for effective solutions is, according to Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, an important part of the strategy.
“As part of a national investigation into initiation schools, which will commence in February, we will be having discussions with members of the LGBTI community around this issue.”
Sipho Mahlangu is the deputy chairperson of the National House of Traditional Leaders and the chairperson of the national task team into initiation.
“The issues faced by LGBTI people was not always something on our agenda, but because it is something that is within the public discourse, we have to address it.
Although Mwelo Nonkonyane, chairperson and spokesperson of the Eastern Cape branch of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), says he has “no experience in dealing with this”, but adds that “we would find a way to address this concern”.
“If anyone feels they are male or female and wants to go through initiation as such, we would look into it together with the person, their family, the traditional surgeons and nurses — everyone involved —to find a way to ensure that there is greater sensitivity when dealing with this.”
Commenting on Nonkonyane’s views, Van Der Merwe says: “We really welcome this statement. We can now have real dialogue to find a way forward.”
Offering South Africa’s transgender communities a glimmer of hope in finally attaining the cultural respect they have long been hoping for, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva says: “What we’re saying by looking into addressing this issue is that, whether you identify as heterosexual or LGBT, your cultural rights cannot be denied — certainly not because of your sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.