I am a bird girl
I am a bird girl
I am a bird girl now
She felt like she “was going crazy”. Her body, she says, “went numb”. It was a Sunday, “around 2pm” when the call came in. Refusing to believe the news, Selaelo Ramatlhodi* walked the short distance to her friend’s house. “But even as I was walking to the house, I couldn’t feel my legs. It was like I was walking on air,” she says. But stepping into her friend’s room, she saw it to be true. On the floor of the humble, rented room was the already decomposing and bloodied body, riddled with stab wounds, obstinate flies swarming around it. The incinerated bed, blackened and bare. The walls, covered in soot. The pool of blood had seeped its way so far across the tiny floor that it was near impossible for anyone not to step into its sticky redness. Nare Mphela, her mokgotsi (friend), Ramathlodi was forced to concede, had been murdered. And brutally so.
Ramatlhodi says Mphela’s neighbours became concerned after not seeing the young woman for a few days. “So,” she says, “they decided to send a child to go and check and see whether Nare was at the house. When that child got there, the door was locked but there were flies coming out from below the door.”
Realising “something was wrong”, the child “alerted the elders”.
“Nare’s car was parked in the front yard. The key, which was still in the ignition, had the house key on it. That was how they managed to open the door. And when they did that, they saw her body on the floor. The murderer burnt the bed, took burning blankets and tried to set her body alight. But only her legs were burnt. Her body was lying there with burnt blankets on her legs. And the murderer also took a big zinc bucket to cover her body. There was a lot of stab wounds. So that murderer was full of anger. A lot of anger. When I saw it … eish … My mind went blank. I was devastated.”
News of Mphela’s murder made headlines nationally. Transgender and intersex rights organisation, Iranti, issued a statement condemning the murder as one of a number of “stark reminders that the spectrum of the LGBTIQ+ existence is marred, irrevocably, by loss”.
It was not only in death that the young transgender woman made headlines. In 2014, she took the Department of Basic Education to the Equality Court, following years of discrimination at Seratile Secondary School.
Located in the village of Moletji, the school is little more than two dour, grey blocks housing what appears to be no more than six small classrooms. It was to this school – located roughly 5km from her home – that Mphela would walk, day in and day out, in her dark-blue school dress, carrying her bright-red satchel. It was also here where, with humiliating regularity, she was subjected to harassment.
“The principal would do things like ask some of the other girls to take me into the toilet and touch my private parts. He wanted to know what kind of genitals I had. He then told the school that I was actually a boy. I couldn’t focus. I wrote my matric exams but didn’t make it. It affected me very heavily. I was disrespected so much at that school,” Mphela told me during a 2017 interview I conducted with her for a report published in the Mail & Guardian.
Dressed in a flowing white dress, her make-up impeccably done, Mphela came across as shy but strong-willed as she added: “To win this case is very important for me. Also because it shows other young people that you can report these kinds of things.”
Her determination led to the Seshego Equality Court ordering the Limpopo Education Department to pay her R100 000 in compensation. The principal was ordered to undergo sensitisation training and the department was also ordered to put together trans-inclusive policies in schools.
Lebo Monama, an activist with the Limpopo-based queer rights organisation Capricorn Ignited LGBTI, says Mphela’s victory “uplifted the province”.
“Most [queer] people [in the province] at that time were not out. It was still quiet in the province … After her case, that’s when LGBTIQ matters started rising up. That’s when we started being visible and doing things more. Her case helped us come out of the provincial closet,” Monama laughs.
A unified farewell
On a Friday afternoon, in the Polokwane Library Gardens Auditorium, members of the province’s queer communities joined activisits, friends and representatives of the Commission for Gender Equality, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Department of Justice’s LGBTI Provincial Task Team in a memorial service for Mphela.
Here, activists took to Twitter – each tweet including the hashtag #NareMphela – while others took khoki pens to A3 sheets of paper. “Stop GBV [gender-based violence]” and “Why us? We also want to live peacefully” they wrote as gospel music boomed a little too loudly from the venue’s speakers.
Mphela was, after all, we were told, a deeply committed Christian. She was a woman who paid little mind to her fellow congregants’ possible views on her gender identity. Dressed “le doek, le stilettos (in headwrap and stilettos)”, she would attend the weekly services of the largely conservative Apostolic church.
I’ve been searching
For my wings some time
I’m gonna be born
Gonna be born
Into soon the sky
The following day, on a cold and grey Limpopo morning, at Mphela’s family home on the edge of Ga-Matlala’s Prospect Village, hundreds of Christian believers of various denominations joined queer folk of all types in laying the devout transgender woman to rest.
“Let us come together,” the service’s MC, Mosima Kola, implored in a deep, booming voice. Dressed in a bright blue suit and black high heels, Kola at one stage asks whether everyone was familiar with what each letter in the acronym LGBTI stands for. “Lesbian … gay … bisexual … transgender … intersex,” they responded, before breaking into song.
Later, a queer contingent made their way into the tent past men and women in colourful religious regalia. Ululating as the sun finally pierced through the clouds, they sang: “Makwala a tshetshele morago, go ye rena ba pelo tše thata ko pele. (Let the cowards turn and flee. It is us with resilient heart that will go far.)”
Leading the funeral procession to the graveside, located about 1km away, the same group of queer folk, fists in the air, led everyone in song. “Senzeni na? (What have we done?)” they sang. To the back of the snaking procession, religious devotees followed suit, drumming, singing and clapping as male devotees spun like stick-wielding dervishes alongside the slow-moving, coffin-carrying van.
“So this is what democracy looks like?” the queer folk chanted in protest as Christians sang dirges that felt, at once, both sombre and celebratory. Different as their songs were, they would, at times, seem to meld into one. The effect was heady.
Everyone eventually sang Senzeni na at the graveside as Mphela’s coffin was lowered into the ground and community and faith-based leaders pleaded for an end to the discrimination faced by LGBTQIA+ people.
Victor Raedane has been a queer rights activist in the province for 10 years. A funeral of this nature is, however, something he has “never seen”.
“I’m telling you I have never seen faith-based institutions in Limpopo unifying with LGBTI persons; seeing them open up to say, ‘Come ye all, we are one family.’ They took their time to … do a proper send-off for Nare, because Nare was one person who would go to church wearing stilettos and a doek – and they had no problem with that … This funeral was very touching. We are just grateful to have institutions that were willing to listen to us; that were willing to actually share this time to say, ‘You are allowed to come and say goodbye and do proper send-off to your sister and colleague.’”
Monama concurs. “This was one of the most beautiful funerals, because of the unity. I was very impressed [with the] different churches working together. They were even accommodating the LGBTI [community] within that group. This is something you don’t see happening in many places. At funerals they would rather give authority to one church, one what-what, one way of doing things. But here, everybody saw it, it was too diverse. Everybody was included. Nobody was left out.”
Monama puts this down to the fact that Mphela “stayed here, they accepted her here”.
Mphela’s nephew, Phuti Mphela, says that, although it was hard at first for the family to accept Mphela’s gender identity, they ended up accepting it. “He is my uncle, and he is our child.” (Despite accepting Mphela’s gender identity, Phuti still refers to her as “him” – a practice which, an Iranti.org representative says, is “quite common” among many families.)
The all-inclusive nature of the funeral, Phuti says, “makes me very happy”.
“Those [church] people were supporting Nare because they wanted to show other people that he is not alone. He is not the only person that was [queer]. There are a lot. There are people out their that are [queer], but people are not killing them. People are not jeopardising their rights. People are not discriminating against them. That is what they were trying to show.”
For Ramatlhodi, the funeral’s celebratory nature “was like a memorial service”.
“I was actually comforted from the pain I felt in the days before the funeral,” she says. “Because I was devastated. But now I feel relieved. I no longer have that severe pain in me. That funeral broke that pain in me.”
But it will more than likely be a long time before her pain wholly subsides.
Cause I’m a bird girl
And the bird girls go to heaven
I’m a bird girl
And the bird girls can fly
A room at number 030219 on a nameless, unpaved street in Mokopane’s Parkmore Village is where Mphela lived. Here, her blood still lies caked thick on the soot-covered floor. Her two-plate stove is still propped up on some bricks. Her toothpaste and toothbrush and lone bottle of perfume are blackened by the fire’s smoke. Her orange flip-flops – bright blue and white and flowers printed on them – are partly melted next to her bed.
“I still feel her presence. I miss her,” Ramatlhodi says. “Even my son misses her, always asking me where mokgotsi is. We were so close.”
Grief forcing her into silence, she pauses and stares into the distance before letting out a sigh. “Eish, Nare,” she says. “Nare, Nare, Nare.”
* Not her real name. The lyrics punctuating this article are from the song Bird Gerhl by Antony and the Johnsons, a band lead by Anohni, a transgender musician.