'It's not un-African'

2008-09-01 00:00

“BEING a lesbian sangoma is not un-African,” says Nkunzi Nkabinde over a crackly cellphone line. I imagine her in the corridors of Johannesburg’s Constitutional Hill, in between tours, her phone to her ear. “A big part of my audience for this book is heterosexual people who deny that being gay is African. I’m putting it out there for debate.”

Nkabinde’s book, Black Bull, Ancestors and Me, about her life as a lesbian sangoma, is a courageous contribution to this debate. She agrees when I say it’s also likely to have a following among gay and lesbian readers who will be able to draw strength and inspiration from her own experiences as an outspoken and proud lesbian.

They need it. Because, as Nkabinde’s book illustrates, township lesbians are still the target of a number of often fatal hate crimes. Nkabinde’s former girlfriend was HIV-activist Sizakele Sigasa who, together with her then partner Salome Masooa, was raped and brutally murdered in Soweto last year.

In her book, Nkabinde says that although she is “more protected” from harm because she is a sangoma, she does sometimes have “that fear” [of being targeted] within her.

“People who hate gays are on some sort of drug,” she tells me. “You can kill me for talking out and being an ‘out’ lesbian, but if I’m quiet what will I gain? Nothing. And what about the next generation? You can kill me, but another will follow. That’s the way it is.”

The book, which Nkabinde says is the fulfilment of a long-term dream, is a triumph of plain-speaking, all the more remarkable for its author having grown up in an atmosphere of “secrecy and superstition” and with parents who were “full of thoughts and emotions that they never expressed”. Nkabinde only found out after her mother died, for example, that she was a twin who had survived at birth at the expense of a brother. For Nkabinde, the news explained why come her birthday, she would start to feel numb and heavy. It was her twin brother “trying to get close” to her.

It was at the time of her mother’s death in 1998 that Nkabinde started to hear the voices of her ancestors. After a brief spell in Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital Nkunzi finally found herself at the place of a female sangoma who accepted her for training. Although she was already “out” as a lesbian, with the strong support of her mother, Nkabinde’s trainer assured her family that by the end of her training she would “be healed” of her lesbianism.

While she proved to be a quick and able pupil, by the end of her training Nkabinde was still a lesbian, and a proud one at that. While her refusal to hide her sexuality put her at odds with her trainer and other elders, she stood her ground and later received an apology from them.

At initiation, Nkabinde, who was given the name of Zandile by her mother, took the name of her great uncle Nkunzi.

Family lore has it that Nkunzi, which means “black bull” in Zulu, told a member of the family before his death that one of the family’s grandchildren would take his name and follow him, “doing things in a different way”. Today Nkunzi is the most powerful of all Nkabinde’s ancestors, helping with the most difficult cases, especially with men.

Through her work with the Gay and Lesbian Archives (Gala), Nkabinde was able to meet and interview a number of lesbian sangomas who helped her to integrate her separate identities as a lesbian and a sangoma. “The interviewing work for Gala gave me a new understanding of my identity, my culture and my place in the country,” she writes.

The search for identity is a strong focus of the book and Nkabinde’s story highlights the fact that all of us are, to varying degrees, the product of multiple and shifting identities. Nkabinde’s struggle to find balance in a life which sits so dramatically on the cusp of tradition and modernity now finds an appropriate context in her work as a tour guide at Constitutional Hill.

Occupying the site of the apartheid-era Old Fort prison complex and the new Constitutional Court, Constitutional Hill embodies, as Nkabinde says, both the past and the future, the old and the new, the good and the bad. It’s a position which allows her to see the merits of virginity testing in the context of high HIV-infection rates, but at the same time understand the need for the constitutionally protected right to privacy. And while she celebrates the right of same-sex couples to marry, she reserves the right to believe that the male partner “should be the provider”.

“I can see the traditional and the modern way,” says Nkabinde.

Nkabinde’s balanced approach is reflected in her attitude to Aids. Apart from “getting married”, one of her biggest dreams is to find a cure for Aids. “I can’t help people with Aids and it’s hard to tell them that.”

Nkabinde says that once someone has been tested, she is happy to find some herbs for them to complement their treatment.

She tries to encourage other sangomas to stop misleading clients into believing they can help cure Aids. “I tell them to be honest with their clients. They should advise them to get tested.

“My father died of Aids, my best friend and my uncle. Lots of people I know have died of Aids, including clients. Some of them die in my hands. It’s very painful. I carry that burden with me.”

• Black Bull, Ancestors and Me is published by Jacana.

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