IAM Staff Profile: Nokuthula “Thuli” Mjwara

In this monthly series, we hand over the blog platform to IAM’s staff to share their own journeys, stories and insights in their own words. Though our journeys are all unique and individual, many of us share common challenges and dilemmas as we simply attempt to lead our lives as people of faith while loving whom we love.

Thuli Mjwara is a black feminist activist working towards an all-inclusive society. She graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences having majored in Psychology and Criminology. She then served on a number of local, provincial and national forums advocating for LGBTIQA rights and victim services. She has always been passionate about making the Constitution a lived reality to all in the community. With 10 years’ work experience, she has had the privilege to work with a range of marginalized communities, from youth-at risk, sentenced offenders within correctional facilities, to youth living with disabilities, LGBTIQA youth and their families. Here is Thuli’s story in her own words..

There is something about having to retell personal stories that just does not sit well with me. Maybe it having to find the customary ‘happiness’ and welcoming that other families have when there is a newborn within the family compared to my dark dingy story. Or maybe it’s having to make a dark story pleasant and appealing, I am not sure. Anyways, let me welcome you to snorkeling in the depths of who I am. As in the words of the Kingpin of Rap, Jayzee, “Allow me to introduce myself…”

Born Nokuthula, my name means “one with peace” yet the name came merely as a reassurance that things would get better. My mother fell pregnant with me unexpectedly quickly, after the removal of the IUD, which in turn took my father by surprise. Overwhelmed, he decided to leave my mother and started dating an older woman who shared a common name with my mom, living just houses away. I was meant to bring peace to a tumultuous relationship and stress that followed my initial conception.

In primary school, I was not only a top student but excelled in athletics. I made it to the Kwa-Zulu Natal team for softball, hockey and athletics. My physique was sculpted into a body of my then idol, Marion Jones. I was the tomboy in my gran’s neighborhood of KwaMashu whenever I visited. Out of concern of my tomboy look, my mom took it upon herself to make a lady out of me. She started canvassing for my application to the neighboring prestigious all girl’s school – something I was not happy about. I somehow “lost” the application (during a “letting go” ritual of burning away my stressors), and believed I was safe. However, I found myself thrust into a girls’ only school anyways, where I faced not only hair politics but other lessons that still haunt me and leave me susceptible to mockery amongst friends. One of the most painful memories of my high school was when, despite my academic and sporting contributions to the school, I was not included for selection in the final list of prefect candidates as my mother did not donate to the school. The lack of economic advantage became a cold slap on my face after the years of representing the school on a provincial level for a number of sporting codes. I matriculated from my prestigious girls’ school with outstanding marks, but the most lasting impact was the reawakening of my black consciousness, which was often called ‘rebellious’ in a model C high school.

During that time, my mom was determined to make a lady out me. I was subjected to a long list of chores, lacey dresses and heels around the house. Despite the inculcations of school, home and church, my feelings drew me to the same sex. One of the hardest things any young black person has to endure is the conscious decision to disobey the many teachings from home. These teachings about our gender specific roles and duties having been drummed into us our entire lives (or occasionally beaten into us via the odd shoe, cane or whatever is close).

Coming out was as exciting as the South African State of the Nation Address. My mother summoned the matriarchal structure of our family to our home for a meeting upon hearing that I had become a “deviant lesbian”. My gran, her sisters and many aunts sat gathered in anticipation of what this emergency meeting was about. My mom, breaking down into tears, announced “Nokuthula is telling me that she is in love with girls…” (translated from isiZulu). The longest silence followed as I shrunk to my toes and started exploring cracks on my grandmother’s tiles. Then, after what felt like a century of silence, one of my Granma’s responded “oooh, I thought it was something serious. Hayi, if she’s kissing girls it’s fine. It would be a bigger problem if she was a boy. She will grow out of this. Now then, where are the mealies?”. I released a breath of relief. Being with a girl seemed to be of no problem – at least I wouldn’t bring children with different fathers’ home. Coming out is a journey that one can never be fully prepared for yet being Queer means that any moment of intimacy with a partner in public – whether it’s a hug at the taxi rank, holding of hands at MacDonald’s or turning up hand in hand at church – can be coming out.

In my experience of working with traditional healers, traditional leaders, customary midwives and community leaders, I have learnt that being intersex, transgender or queer has often been dealt with by leaving it as an issue for the family to address. Villages often have one uncle who is known to be in love with men, often spoken in whispers lost in the wind, yet his masculinity is not tested as he can fight like any warrior worthy of his salt. My culture has always had a space for those “othered” by those who do not know of the gems of history, such as customs associated with women taking wives in order for the Princess Nomkhubulwano to bless the harvest. Each village has a way of embracing those that were not part of a heteronormative narrative.