/ 7 August 2020

‘Courageous reinvention’: an extract from Mark Gevisser’s ‘The Pink Line’

Mark Gevisser and Tiwonge Chimbalanga at the StreetScapes Community Garden in Cape Town, where she works (Ellen Elmendorp)

Extract from Aunty’s story

The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers

Mark Gevisser

(Jonathan Ball Publishers)

But Aunty felt that her uncle was exploiting her, and fought with him. As a teenager she ran away to live with her cousin, the chief’s daughter Annie Manda. Aunty always dressed as a boy, Mrs Manda told me, but everything else about her was feminine: so much so that she was frequently the object of derision. Mrs Manda noticed how Aunty would put up her fists to defend herself, and tried to persuade her, unsuccessfully, to ignore the slights and slurs. 

Aunty left the Manda family after some years in school, when she was about 17. Why she went is unclear, but it seems linked to bewitchment, which was, in turn, linked to her gender identity. Aunty’s version is that she had severe headaches and nosebleeds and suspected that those bewitching her wished to kill her, so she fled north and found a traditional healer who might help her. Mrs Manda told me, however, that the family thought Aunty was bewitched because “he grew up as a man but never had any interest in women. He went to the north to be assisted, so he could act as a man and have feelings for women.” 

If this were the family’s intention, it backfired. When Aunty 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. She now claimed she was a member of the northern Tumbuka tribe, rather than of the Lomwe, the people of her home district. 

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 reserved for older women. Aunty told me that the healer up north released her from her bewitchment. Perhaps it was a release from the constraints of gender that society had imposed on her: away from home, she was able to find the courage to reinvent herself in such a way that her exterior could begin matching how she felt inside. 

But she needed liquid courage, too. After her time in the north she settled in Blantyre and found work — and when I was in the city in 2014, I met her former employer, a retired bank manager named Vaida Kalua. As we admired the roses in her manicured garden and drank Cokes procured from the informal shop she operated from her home, Mrs Kalua told me that she linked her employee’s deepening alcoholism to an increasing insistence on presenting as a woman: “Maybe it’s the stress of always having to defend yourself,” Mrs Kalua volunteered. 

She had initially retained Aunty as a houseboy, but “little by little, he started wearing feminine clothes. First the chitenje wrap 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. He would not listen.” Mrs Kalua still ranked Aunty as one of the best houseboys she had ever employed, but after seven years of employment they had a disagreement — about drink, and bringing men on to the property — that led to Aunty’s departure. Aunty established herself in a shack, living by selling kachasu, Malawi’s potent home brew. One of her customers was the man who would become her first serious partner. 

The man had a wife and children, but Aunty accepted the polygamous situation — until she was needled one too many times by the wife. Aunty retaliated with her fists and knocked out two of her rival’s teeth. The man left her. When her shack burned down two years later, Aunty arrived at the nearby Mankhoma Lodge carrying all her possessions, including a huge teddy bear. “I felt sorry for Aunty Tiwo,” Rachael Kamphale told me, “and besides, we needed a maid. My mom was on the road all the time, there were kids to look after, and I had schoolwork to do.” While working at the lodge, Aunty met Steven Monjeza, and he began staying over. They started attending a local church together, and Aunty announced their engagement. Some months later, the couple held their chinkhoswe and were arrested for “offences against the order of nature”. 

Tiwonge Chimbalanga received asylum in South Africa and now lives in Cape Town