/ 6 June 2018

Legacy of a lesbian sangoma

(Graphic: John McCann/ M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/ M&G)

Nkunzi Nkabinde is now with his ancestors. I like to think that he is now an ancestor to us, his queer family, as well as to his biological family.

His sudden death on May 24 was a shock to the transgender and queer community. As documented in his book, Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma, Nkunzi was born in Soweto on December 7 1975 after a twin brother who was stillborn. He grew up moving between Soweto and Empangeni, where his mother’s family was from.

He realised he was queer at the age of 13 and told his family when he was 18. In Black Bull he wrote: “I feel my sexuality was with me from birth. It is not from my ancestors but my ancestors supported me … The ancestors helped me to become who I was. They guided me knowing that I was going to grow up being the way I am.”

He received his calling to become a sangoma at the time of his mother’s death, when he was 23 and studying journalism. He was named Nkunzi after his ancestor.

The first time I met Nkunzi was in January 2002, when he was 27 years old. We were making a documentary about same-sex sangomas called Everything Must Come to Life. The first thing Nkunzi told me was that he had wanted to meet me because his dream was to write a book about being a same-sex sangoma. That was the beginning of our connection and close friendship and working relationship. His work focused on documenting the experiences of same-sex women sangomas. In 2008, the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala) published his book.

After the documentary was completed it was screened at the Out In Africa queer film festival and at international lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex film festivals. It was also shown at a lesbian lives conference in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003.

Nkunzi made a huge contribution to Gala. As a same-sex sangoma he directly challenged, with his activism, the idea that homosexuality is unAfrican. He wrote in Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-sex Practices in Africa: “Through the same-sex sangoma project I have found that although same-sex relationships within ancestral marriages between women are supposed to be taboo, some modern sangomas are using these marriages to have secret sexual relationships in rural areas. In urban areas some of them are being more public about their same-sex relationships.

“My feeling is that women sangomas have always used ancestral wives as a way to have secret same-sex relationships. The secrecy is so deep that most people still think that same-sexuality is UnAfrican.”

It was because of Nkunzi that Gala has a collection of interviews with same-sex women sangomas with ancestral wives (unyankwaba) in rural areas about their motivation, patience and perseverence. Nkunzi recorded these interviews and transcribed and translated them into English over a period of two years during the African women’s life story project, which resulted in a chapter titled “‘This has happened since ancient times … it’s something that you are born with’: ancestral wives among same-sex sangomas in South Africa’’ in Tommy Boys.

From Nkunzi’s perspective, written in Black Bull: “The interviewing work for Gala gave me a new understanding of my identity, my culture, and my place in my country.”

Nkunzi started his grassroots queer activism by creating an informal support group for same-sex sangomas who were not accepted by their heterosexual trainers. By 2004, about 40 same-sex sangomas were members of this group. Slowly the attitudes of heterosexual sangomas started to change to be more accepting and I quote from Tommy Boys: “They also attend our same-sex ceremonies and say that they enjoy the way the gay guys are cooking as it’s better than the way the straight women are cooking!”

His work challenged the notion that homosexuality is unAfrican, as he stated in Tommy Boys: “Same-sex sangomas are powerful people at the centre of African culture. They therefore occupy a special position in society as they are respected and feared. Sangomas who are involved in same-sex relationships don’t have the problem of being harassed by the community. Lesbian rape is a punishment and seen as necessary by thugs in order to teach visible lesbians a lesson. However, same-sex sangomas are not raped as people are afraid of the sangomas because of the power they believe sangomas have.”

One of the most powerful secret stories was about a much older sangoma, who was called Hlengiwe in Tommy Boys. Her husband did not have sex with her after her ancestor sent a snake to prevent him from doing so. Then her husband’s ancestor called her to go for training with a woman sangoma who seduced her. Later her ancestor told her husband to pay lobola for an ancestral wife for her, who happened to be a modern-day lesbian. They lived together in a house far from the homestead where her husband lived with his other wives. This enabled her husband’s other wives to fall pregnant after being childless for years.

Hlengiwe mentored Nkunzi until she died. She left Nkunzi her sacred sangoma items.

Nkunzi also participated in Gala’s tour of Jo’burg, during which he told his story of being a lesbian sangoma.

During the years that we worked together, I saw Nkunzi grow into a natural leader. The launch of Black Bull at Constitution Hill was very gratifying; his dream of publishing his story had been realised.

My one deep regret is that we did not work with Nkunzi on a book he wanted to write about his journey to being a transman. I had not seen Nkunzi for a few years. We were supposed to have coffee earlier this year but it never happened and now he is gone.