A group of young lesbians particularly from the disadvantaged communities in Cape Town, SA are telling their own stories through the lenses of a camera. Most of them are coming from the poverty stricken areas like Gugulethu and Nyanga and where the unemployment is very high. And they’ve never set a finger on a camera in their entire life and they were very fascinated by it.
Zanele Muholi is a well known and established black African lesbian photographer and she’s been taking pictures for many years. Her wonderful work has been shown in various galleries like Le Case d’Arte Gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
She recently initiated a project called “Indawo Yami – Thru Camera Lenses” based in Cape Town. In her project she is training 7 young women from the Gugulethu & Inyanga townships. The women are being introduced to camera techniques and the importance of taking pictures and what does it mean to them. The project is part of Zanele’s community work which started in 2004 in Johannesburg to enhance the participant’s self-esteem and their participation in social development. Since the start of the project in 2004 Zanele has trained some 20 women.
She said she also saw a dire need to share her camera skills with these forgotten and less fortunate young souls- who will probably never be listed as women who make histories in our democratic South Africa. This month, October is a photography month here in Cape and she’s visiting some galleries and talking about her work. While she was there she was interviewed by Martha Qumba(MQ)
MQ: Why did you initiate this project?
ZM:”In September I attended Out in Africa Gay & Lesbian festival at the Waterfront in Cape Town and I saw these youngsters enjoying their drinks. I asked some of them what were they doing and they said nothing. I told them that I want teach them photographic skills in their townships. They agreed. I visited their homes to explain and talk about other big events (like soccer) that were taking place at a local and international level.”
MQ: Why did you particularly choose these young women?
ZM: “Black lesbian’s herstory has been recorded or written by other people. There’s nothing on young African lesbians. They need to do – with the help of experts wherever necessary – through non exploitative mentorship. I’m very pleased to share my skills with them and if not me who else can do it? We’ve some African lesbians who are working and educated. And where are they? Are they helping these poor kids? I don’t know.”
“These young women are only remembered when there’s picketing and toyi toying. It’s high time for them to tell their own stories by using a camera. This is “herstory” in making. Some of them think that drinking and smoking is good. We are the role models and they must look up to us.”
MQ: What do they actually do in this project?
MZ: “They take pictures of what’s happening and interesting in their communities. They must understand taking pictures is recording the history. I want to have an exhibition of their pictures just to encourage other youngsters as well. We also visit r places like boardroom in certain offices Cape Town. They must have a feeling of it.”
MQ: Why did you choose boardrooms in all places?
MZ: “” I used to be a cleaner at the bank. Every time I cleaned there I used to picture my mom doing the same and not being part of it. That’s when I understood how painful it was to be a cleaner and be excluded from the rest. They don’t know what’s a boardroom and some of them have never set their feet there. These youngsters are from areas where opportunists are scarce.Some of them think their sexual orientation is the most important thing in life. They don’t worry about other things. I don’t blame them. They need people like us to show them the way. I know it’s difficult when one’s not educated and opportunities are slim. One’s sexuality could become a hindrance if one’s uneducated and with no skills to.”
MQ: Did you choose any particular boardrooms?
MZ: “Yes certainly. We went to boardrooms where they were gay people. We first went to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I wanted them to market themselves and tell their own stories not me. I noticed that some couldn’t express in English and they were comfortable in Xhosa. When they spoke Xhosa people at IGLHRC couldn’t understand them as well. They must understand how do these young women felt when they were speaking the English? Can you see what role does your language play? This is what I’m talking about-exposure.
MQ: What do you say about education to these guys?
MZ: “These black queer youth need to have education and be assisted with finance and morale support in order for them to realize their dreams in life. With education there’re many opportunities in life.”
Hear what some of these young women have to say about the project:
Bellinda Nwabisa Ndandani,
“I’m 23 years old and I grew up in Gugulethu and I live with my mom and my three brothers. I’m a soccer player and I started playing when I was young. I played for Winnie Football Club in Gugulethu, one of the famous soccer women’s club in Gugulethu. My greatest dream is to play for Banyana Banyana.”
“I was very stout and I used to drink alcohol and smoke cigarette but now I’m no longer smoking. This project has changed me and my family is very happy to see me being involved. Now I’m doing positive things and I want to go back to school next year and finish my matric.”
“It was my first time touching a camera and I couldn’t even hold. I didn’t know the importance of it. Now I know and I’m becoming very confident and attached to it. I never knew that taking pictures is to tell a story. Now I can see many interesting stories that I didn’t know before. I used not to give a damn about what’s happening in my area, now I know. I’ve another eye now.”
“I’m happy to be part of my own history and other people have been writing about our history. It’s my first time to set my foot in a boardroom and I felt great and excited about it. I thought a boardroom is only for educated and bourgeoisie people. The mood and the atmosphere were totally different. I was in another space,” she laughs.
“I’m 18 and I grew up in Gugulethu. I live with my mom and my younger sister. My parents are divorced. I left school in 2006 in grade 10 because of my parents’ divorce. It traumatized me. I couldn’t concentrate on my books. I’m a camera first timer. At first I was shaking and scared. Zanele taught me and now I’m fine. I walk around and taking pictures in my area. I take pictures of people socializing. There’s hostel here in Gugulethu called “Khikhi” and men who are from the Eastern Cape used to stay there. Also there’s a big braai place and most people like it. I’m happy to record our history.”
“My dream is to go back to school, finish her matric and go to College or Varsity. I want to become a businesswoman and own a business. My first time in a boardroom and I used to see it on TV. I felt like a better person and encouraged.
I’m 29, I grew up in Gugulethu. I live with my aunt and grandma. My mom died while I was young and my granny looked after me.
I started playing a street soccer at the age of 14 with other boys in Tsakane, Johannesburg. I became very hooked with it till today. I played for Batshana FC and for Winnie FC for many years and now I play for Sizwe Football Club also based in Gugulethu.
“I used to take pictures just for fun not involved in a project like this. This project is great and it gives an opportunity to tell my own story. We don’t have any recorded material about young black lesbians and I think it’s a good thing. I wish I can have my own camera and take pictures everyday.”
“It was nice to be in a boardroom and to speak and listen to successful people. When I take pictures I look at things that are important to the people. I took Nyanga Junction it’s the first shopping centre in Gugulethu and most people make use of it.”
I grew up in Gugulethu and I live my grandma. I’m an artist and a soccer player. I started playing soccer in 2003 in Ladies Club in Gugulethu. Taking pictures has taught me a lot of things like recording one history. I never knew these things that are happening in our areas. I took a picture of two people fighting here in my area. I felt confident afterwards. Now I feel good about myself and I want to carry on doing this. It’s exciting. I wish Zanele can stay in Cape Town forever. I want my own camera now.’
In their boardroom field trip they were introduced to various people like Thobeka Phongoma, Viola May and Jacqueline Tamri. They were allowed to express themselves in their own language.
Jacqueline is a field worker and she’s been working with grassroots women for 25 years. She told they must do what inspires them in life.
Thobeka and Viola work for the Economic Development & Tourism Department, local government in Cape Town.
TP welcomed them and she asked them some questions regarding themselves.
She indicated that life’s not easy and they have to have dreams in life. She told her about her challenges and her dreams in life. She encouraged them to keep on dreaming and not waver.
These soccer players participated in the friendly match for the Federation of Gay Games delegates after an annual meeting held at Ritz Hotel, Cape Town a week ago and they are looking forward to participate at the 2010 Cologne Gay Games, if not the 2009 World Outgames, Copenhagen, Denmark.
Report and interview by Martha Qumba