Power of the Streets Episode 6: How do you prove that the home you fled was unsafe, if you could never report the violence you faced there? Thomars Shamuyarira is a Zimbabwean migrant rights activist living in South Africa. He speaks on South Africa’s restrictive asylum process and the experiences of LGBT people from elsewhere in Africa seeking asylum there.
The Fruit Basket won a prestigious award, read about it here.
About Power of the Streets
Power of the Streets is a podcast about how we speak truth to power. In a series of intimate interviews, host Audrey Kawire Wabwire brings us the achievements and stories of the young people driving Africa’s human rights movement.
Audrey: This is Power of the Streets, a podcast series brought to you by Human Rights Watch about how we speak truth to power. I’m Audrey Kawire Wabwire and I am based in Nairobi, Kenya.
We’ve been hearing from some of the people driving Africa’s MeToo movement and that journey now takes us to the LGBT migrant community in South Africa.
Everyone we speak to in this series has a second, a minute, or an hour when they realise that they need to make a change. The moment when they decide to step up, and rise.
Thomars: Homosexuality, or it's just a... it's that elephant in the room, that issue that nobody ever wants to address or ever talk about. So I, I didn't know. I didn't know anything. I just knew that I felt differently from the way that everybody else my age was feeling, you know, and I didn't know what to make of it. I didn't know who to talk to about it. I didn't know who to ask, so it was really confusing.
Audrey: Thomas Shamuyarira is a transgender man born and raised in Zimbabwe and has been living in South Africa for 10 years. He speaks about the hardships of growing up in a country where sexual orientation and gender identity, outside of being heterosexual and cisgender, is frowned upon and even taboo.
Thomars: I just had to try and just be like, everybody else, do the things that the other girls my age were doing, just so that I could yeah fit in. But even though I did my very best, I just knew that that was not, that was not me. You know, that was not who I was. And yeah, I just had to figure things out.
Audrey: And how did you get to learn more about yourself? Was there a person you met? You know, you're saying there were no books, magazines. How did you then, you know, what was the journey? How did the journey begin to find yourself?
Thomars: Okay, so yeah, uhm in high school, I had a best friend. I... she thought we were best friends, but for me it was obviously more than that. I had other feelings for her, other than those of, of, of friendship. II loved her actually. And yeah, so for her, it was just, oh, okay we are very close. We are best friends. And we always, we are always together. We're doing everything together. We spend most of our time together and for me it was something else. So, uh, then I knew, okay, that I was different because obviously at that point, every other girl my age was into boys. They were starting to fall in love with boys. But for me it was just not the same. I didn't know what it means, still at that point. And then I think how I came to discover or to actually figure out what it meant and what I was and was way after high school, when I met a masculine presenting woman who is, um, uh, lesbians, or I think they are called Butch lesbians or studs. I met her. I didn't know what, what she was also at that point, but I just saw her. And I sort of like saw myself in her, you know, like what I've always wanted to, I mean, like how I've always wanted to dress, how I've always wanted to present myself. I saw that in, in, in that person. So I approached her and I spoke to her. And her being a female that is attracted to other females, she thought, she assumed when she saw me walk up to her that I liked her in that way. But for me it was just like, oh, that person, you know, I just want to be friends with her so that, you know, I don't know, we can just be friends because I see myself in her.
Audrey: So they do exchange phone numbers and continue chatting.
Thomars: She introduced me to GALZ. So there was actually a function happening at their, at their premises. And she took me there, like, I think a day or two after we met. And yeah, my life changed. That's when I, I just knew like when I got there, I was shocked. They were like, boys that looked like girls. They were girls that looked like boys. There was just a whole, you know, it was just a whole different world for me. So from there that's when I started learning from there, that's when I started to get an understanding to say, Oh, okay. So what I am is lesbian and I'm, I'm putting air quotes. I'm using air quotes here, but you can't see me obviously. So like, I was like, Oh, okay. So if I'm a girl that is attracted to other girls, then that means I'm a lesbian. And then there's, you know, and if boys that are attracted to other boys they're called gay and all of that. So the moment that I met her, I mean, that's, I can say that's when the education or the journey began for me to understanding who I was, to getting to where I am today. I think meeting that, that person was the beginning of everything for me.
Audrey: Hmmm, hmm so, so finding that community and, you know, something that you've never been exposed to before, was it... were these like friends who, you know, your family knew about? And so how was that journey between, you know, you finding, um, this new family and your family at home? Yeah.
Thomars: So, yeah. Um, I started dating this girl that was very out and very proud. So, you know, you're in the closet and you're dating somebody who is out and proud. They can't be pulled back into the closet for any reason. And you can't come out of the closet that quick, because you know, you have to, there's, there's a lot of things that you need to consider before you put yourself out there. So yeah, people started talking and my sister heard about it. And then also, yeah, somebody had told my mom also about me being seen with people that look very suspicious, boys that look like girls and girls that look like boys. And my mom approached me and asked me about it at some point. And I denied it, that they were just, they, we just happened to be in the same place at the same time, but we were not together.
You know? So yeah. So one time me and my sister had a fight and then she sort of like just told my mom that I was a lesbian because she was very angry with me. So my mom, because she had also been hearing all of these things from different people. She then she, she, she didn't even have to ask me because it made sense, you know? And yeah, that's, that's how it caught up with me. I was then disowned instantly, like disowned, kicked out and told never to come back and told that I was a disgrace to the human race, to the family, you know? So it's, yeah. It's funny now. But then back then it was, it, it wasn't, it wasn't funny at all, yeah.
Audrey: Okay. Okay. Um, in this series, we are focusing on the #MeToo movement in Africa and the violence faced by LGBT people is an important part of this movement. And you're an activist in South Africa, your work revolves around supporting migrants, LGBT people. But you know, before we go into that, tell me about your migration story. Why did you decide to leave a place that was home?
Thomars: Okay. It wasn't really a personal decision, but then, you know, like after I was disowned and kicked out, then my mom I think after a year plus yeah. After almost two years, she then I don't know what it was. Okay. Then she just called me out of the blue and then instructed me to come back home. So yeah, where I was, wasn't nice. So I was like, okay, I know that if I go back home, it's not going to be the same, obviously, but yeah, I'm in hell already now with this person in this place. So which hell is better than the other, you know? So I just made the decision, like, okay, since you say that I must come home, let me go. I have nothing to lose. So I went back home and as I predicted home wasn't home anymore. It wasn't nice. It wasn't comfortable. It wasn't good for me. The people in the area, also they, they had heard about why I was disowned and why I was kicked out. So everybody was talking and also at home, like, it was very difficult for my mom to accept and to understand like, how is it even possible? Like where did you get it in the family? They've not heard about it. Nobody else is like me. So why me? You know? So it was very difficult for me and for her,
Audrey: But she, she called you to come back home. Didn't she know that, you know, you'll just come back as yourself or what was the understanding there?
Thomars: I don't know, maybe it was like, okay, so you've learnt your lesson. Yeah. Like it wasn't, it wasn't home anymore. I wasn't free to laugh. I wasn't free to just be, you know, a child in, in, in their mom's house, you know, it wasn't like that. So, uh, there came a point where I, I have a sister who was already living here in SA. So she had a tenant that was going to open a business, a hair salon. So she needed people to help her with that. So my sister then knew that I was there at home, not doing anything. And she told my mom about this person and this, this opportunity. So yeah. They were like, okay, yes, I can come to South Africa. Only if I promise that I will stop this thing. If I promised that I was going to change and I wasn't going to look at women, the way that I looked at women and stuff, you know, so what options did I have? I made the promise. I said, I was going to change. I said, I wasn't going to do it anymore. I say I was going to be the best daughter ever. I was going to do my best. So yeah, after making those promises, then yeah, the arrangements were made and I came to SA. So yeah, I was living with my sister and I was working with this woman at this hair salon. But then I, this wasn't a good idea was it, putting me in a place where women... *laughing*
Audrey: Of course you are going to, you know, fall in love.
Thomars: Oh God, of all the places to, to put it, to put a lesbian-identifying woman, put them in a place where different kinds of women walk in every single day. Yeah. So I fell in love with someone and this was like barely a month after I moved here. You know, and after making the promise that I would never do it again. So yeah. Obviously the woman was a straight woman. She was not a lesbian, she was just attracted to men and yeah. You know how it is wanting something that you can never have. It's crazy. But then, because you want it so much, you're willing to die or do anything and try your very best to get it. So that's the predicament that I found myself in. I fell in love with the straight girl. And you know, when you like somebody, you can hide that you like somebody. But when you love, when you're in love with someone, it's, you, you cannot hide that.
You can do your best, but then you just fail. You know so that's what happened. I fell in love with this woman and yeah, my sister ended up finding out, she kicked me out. She found out it was a girl and she kicked me out. So luckily the lady now that I was working for, the one with the hair salon, she was like, you're going to kick her out where is she going to go? Because then, you know, we're working, but then we’re not making a lot of money yet at the salon and I'm not paying her enough. How is she going to survive? You know? So I'm going to go with her and then we're going to look for a place and we're going to share so that I can help out. So my sister was like, good riddance just, just get out the both of you, you know? So we left and then I started living with her. So yeah, that's, that's how I ended up here.
Audrey: While living in Zimbabwe, Thomars was automatically identified as a lesbian, because he was seen as a woman attracted to other women. But he always felt masculine and wanted to express himself in that way. It was only when he moved to South Africa where he discovered the term transgender and this unleashed his confidence to begin transitioning.
And so you, like many other LGBT Africans, migrate to South Africa? Why is this, why SA?
Thomars: Well, it's the easiest place for us to get to number one. And then it's also like, it's not a criminal offense to be yourself here, to be gay, to be trans, to be queer, to be lesbian, to be bisexual. You can be yourself freely in this country, which is why it is, which is why we, we, everybody, even until today, there are so many LGBT people that are in their countries that criminalize homosexuality that wish, or that hope to get to SA one day, you know, because of that, that's all we want. We don't want so much. We just want the freedom to be ourselves. You know, that chance to just love who we want to love freely and not have somebody arresting you for that. You know, we can be ourselves here. I think that's why. And also the economy here is, is thriving compared to other African countries. So yeah.
Audrey: Now, well, now that, you know, considering those factors, um, now, now that you're like someone is there at the border, is it easy to get, the process of gaining asylum as an African LGBT migrant? Um, what's that like exactly?
Thomars: It's very complicated. Um, okay. So this is how the whole process or system is supposed to work. You are supposed to state, at the port of entry, your intentions of seeking asylum right. But then, um, people actually opt to just get in as a tourist, or as a visitor. And then they, um, find their way once they, they, they've settled in. So from my understanding, from the conversations that we've had with people is that, um, one it's scary. You never know, you know, you never know who you going to talk to. You don't know how they're going to receive you. And you don't know if they're actually willing, they're going to be willing to, to take you through the process. If they actually want you to proceed, you know, this is the very, very wrong way of doing it. But then again, what options or what other choice do people have because you don't want to be sent back. That is the worst thing that can ever happen to you.
Audrey: Yeah. I can see that, you know, dilemma of trying to do it legally or going back home to face violence, potential violence.
Thomars: Yeah. You know, like going back to whatever it is that you were running away from. So then the process then again now is once you get in, you now need to follow the process, where you go to a refugee reception office and then state your case. And yeah, that is also not very easy because we've had cases or situations where people were asked to prove that they’re really gay or people were asked, why they are gay. You know, there's just no way to do that.
Audrey: Like they need proof of why you're escaping?
Thomars: Yeah. So for example, you need to come with a, because then you will, you, you have to have gone through an ordeal where maybe you were attacked and then you, uh, reported the case, or you have to have maybe the, the police reports or maybe there was an incident. And then you ended up in the papers in the newspaper. So you have to bring a newspaper article and say, look at this, you know, uh...
Audrey: Yeah, that, that is really difficult. You know, you were saying that you are leaving home, you are afraid of, you know, people's words turning into something physical, but they want proof of something physical.
Thomars: What it is, is the fact that the constitution of your country says, criminalizes, homosexuality. That's reason enough for you to leave and come and seek asylum here. You know, that's reason enough for you to leave and go seek asylum anywhere else.
Audrey: Now let's go back to your, um, activism. When you look at your childhood and your experiences as a migrant, what's the exact moment that pushed you to speak up and become an activist? Was it a moment or a series of events if something?
Thomars: If something happens, especially if it's something bad, I always imagine how people that are less, let me not say less privileged that are more disadvantaged than I am, I always imagine how they are dealing with a situation or coping with that situation. Because me, with the little advantage that I have, I'm actually struggling. What more somebody, you know, else. So it was always that for me, the fruit basket, like was, was born out of, I always want to say frustration and passion, my passion to want to help people. And then the frustration of not knowing who to turn to when I need assistance, like going to people to look for certain assistance and people not knowing how to help me and referring me to the next person and the next person actually saying, why did they send you to me? Because, you know, type of, type of situation.
And then I was just like, okay, I am here now in this situation, in this foreign land. What do I do? Okay so I am not a professional. I don't have the experience. I know nothing at all about all of these issues. You know, I am still trying to figure things out. I am still trying to figure myself out, but then again, okay. So in the process of me figuring things out, in the process of me trying to find out what to do to get what I want, in the process of me just trying to find a way to survive in this foreign land. Why don't I just create something, a platform that can then, as I get help for myself, I get it for everybody else at the same time, you know?
Audrey: Yeah. That's, that's really inspiring to me. That's really admirable, um, how you've come to where you are and, you know, talking about your organization, the fruit basket, you just mentioned it. You do a lot of impressive work for migrant LGBT people in South Africa. Tell me more about the organization. Um, what, what exactly do you do? Um, and, and what have you achieved so far?
Thomars: So I created the fruit basket so that LGBT asylum seekers and refugees like myself can just have that place where they can run to whatever challenge or whatever problem that they may be facing. We now act as a referral system. So if somebody comes with whatever challenge and we are unable to help them as the fruit basket, we know where to direct them to. We know that if they can go to a certain place or a certain organization with a reference saying that the fruit basket referred us to you, they will be able to get that kind, that assistance.
You know, this is like a practical solution. Oh, okay. You need a place to stay. I'm going to help you to get a place to stay. You need food to eat. Okay. We going to do our best to help you to get food. That's what we are focusing on, on at the moment, providing practical solutions to people's challenges that they're facing on a daily basis. We want to focus on, you know, helping with, with this documentation issue, because then if you start looking at people and the problems that they're facing, most of them come from this, you know, this is like the root of, of all the problems. That's where they are coming from.
Audrey: Yeah. And as we are winding up, you know, you're pretty busy Thomars. Um, you know, doing a lot of work, really cool stuff. How are you taking care of yourself?
Thomars: Okay, so for me, like, I love, I love, love, love, love working out more than anything. So I do work out. I run like almost every morning, five kilometers. That helps me a lot.
Thomars: I know, I do. Yes. That really helps me a lot. I work out I, uh, but I know I need to, I need to do more. Like I need to talk to professionals because last year I got married, this was in July. And in November everything just came crumbling down and I am not married anymore. I think I need to contact Guinness World Record so that they can put my mine as the shortest marriage in the history of marriages. So yeah, that I have not dealt with that yet, I, you know, like a lot of like good things and bad things happened at the same time. And I didn't know. And I still don't know how to feel, you know, like by my divorce and my top surgery happened two days apart and the United Nations Innovation Award that the fruit basket won, the announcement came, I think about a few days after that. You know, so it's like the worst thing and the best thing happened at the same time. And I don't know how to feel. Do I celebrate my surgery that I have wanted for the longest of times that I have waited for? Or, oh okay I just got divorced, wowza’s oh I just won, we just won this big award we just got the recognition and the visibility that we have always wanted. You know at the moment I just feel like one day I will just explode and so yeah.
Audrey: Okay. Thomars what's your message for other activists doing the work of protecting LGBT people from violence on the continent.
Thomars: First of all, thank you guys for the work that you do. It is essential, you know. Um, sometimes people just need that person to look up to that person that can just stand in front of them and then lead them and take them to wherever that they want to go and you guys are doing that. And you guys are that those people for, for the communities that you serve.
Audrey: You have been listening to Power of the Streets, a podcast series brought to you by Human Rights Watch. I’m Audrey Kawire Wabwire in Nairobi, kenya.
That’s the end of our show. Check out our show notes for more about Thomars and his work at The Fruit Basket.
In the next episode we will take the conversation to Ethiopia.
To learn more about Human Rights Watch visit HRW.org. Follow us on Twitter @HRW and on Instagram @Humanrightswatch for updates about the show.
Join the conversation using the #PowerOfTheStreets and share your thoughts with Thomars or any of our other guests, and you can tell us how you’re speaking truth to power.
Our producer is Andisiwe May and this is a Volume production.
The main theme song, Au Revoir was produced by Young OG Beats
Till next time, thank you for listening.