More Details on the Malawi Couple’s TV Interview
June 4th, 2010
Yesterday, I posted a video from TV Malawi showing Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza speaking to a reporter. That video, which had been posted by the government-owned broadcaster has since been removed by Malawi TV. But not before an American expatriate living in Malawi emailed me to explain what was being said:
I speak Chichewa at an intermediate level, and while I had trouble picking up a lot of the dialogue in that video, I got the general gist. The whole thing looks like it was set up as a public humiliation for the two. They were made to recant their story and to apologize to all Malawians.
It starts with the presenter asking Tiwo why she, “as a man,” was taken as a wife to another man. The presenter asks why Tiwo chose to do such a thing. Tiwo says that AIDS is too rampant among Malawian women, so the presenter asks, to confirm, whether Tiwo has entered a same-sex relationship to escape AIDS, which Tiwo confirms.
Tiwo says Steven is the one who initiated the relationship (they met at church), and calls Steven her “da,” i.e. “darling.” The presenter clearly finds this amusing as he asks Steven to come over and stand next to his darling.
I’m having trouble following the next exchange, about the beginning of their relationship, but Steven does say that he had a wife prior to his engagement with Tiwo. The presenter asks if this was a “real” wife (mkazi weni-weni), to which Steven says yes. The presenter says “what about this one here?” and Steven says that his relationship with “this one” (Tiwo) must end. The presenter then asks Steven if his multiple relationships make him a polygamist; Steven says no, he’s ending his relationship with Tiwo.
Now, the presenter says, “What will happen with your real wife?” Steven says he’ll go to her and beg forgiveness.
Steven says he did the whole thing out of drunkenness, he was not of sound mind, and that he was tricked by “akunja” – foreigners – into marrying Tiwo, who he was told was a woman. He says that “today,” he will end the whole thing, and his message to all Malawians is that what he has done is a bad thing, an evil thing. He said he just followed what he was told to do. (the “foreigners made them do it” theory was widely circulated in the Malawi media).
The presenter asks Steven if he was after fame, or if he just wanted to mess around with the people of Malawi? He asks why Steven is ‘kukotakota’ (“flip-flopping,” in American parlance), one day saying he loves Tiwo, the next saying he did it out of drunkenness. Finally Steven “admits” that he just wanted to be famous, prompting the presenter to turn to the camera and say, “he admits it himself – he only did these things because he wanted to be famous.”
Now the presenter asks Tiwo what she thinks, and Tiwo says that they were just confused, and that it’s fine, no problem, they can end their relationship. He repeatedly asks Tiwo if she’s a man or a woman, prompting laughter from behind the camera. Tiwo says, “okay, I’m a man.” Under further questioning, Tiwo starts saying that she always identified as a girl since birth, but the presenter says, “look, a man can work in the kitchen, that’s called a ‘chef,’ that doesn’t make him a woman. Do you have the power to give birth?’ ” Tiwo says, no, she cannot give birth, and starts to try and explain further – but finally just says, “fine, I’m a man.”
The video is unfortunately cut off just as the presenter (I won’t say “reporter” – it’s widely known, anyhow, that TVM is nothing but a mouthpiece for government) asks Tiwo if she knows that she has done a wicked thing.
The reader requests anonymity, fearing swift deportation if his identity is revealed. He also suggests independent verification of his accounts, but with the video now removed, that won’t be possible.
Two things of note. First, it’s apparent that Steven and Tiwonge both are acutely aware of the dangers they still face for being re-arrested, particularly when Steven says that their relationship is “over” and Tiwonge acquiesces. Of course, saying anything else would subject them to new charges, trial and re-imprisonment. Perhaps this is intended to counter a possibly self-incriminating statement by Steven to the Malawi Voice shortly after their release. “Prison love cemented our love and whatever happened then remains the same now, ” Steven said. “I don’t regret falling in love with Chimbalanga. I love him and I will continue doing that.” As our Malawi reader suggests, this does appear to be set up to publicly humiliate the two and force them to recant.
The second thing to note is that if this reader got the conversation correctly, it appears extremely probable that Tiwonge is, in fact, transgender. In this exchange, the interviewer challenges her identity by pointing out that gender roles are immaterial, a point that she appears to reject but recognizes that any attempt to explain further will only result in further ridicule. As I discussed earlier, this element of her identification is key. When she says, “Okay, I’m a man,” or “Fine, I’m a man,” she’s clearly decided that this interview was going nowhere, so she just ends that part of it and hopes the subject will change.
It should be noted however that Tiwonge (and Steven) may not be aware of transgender as a concept, or if she is, it’s not something she’s all that concerned about right now. Steven still refers to Tiwonge using masculine pronouns. I doubt he would do that if she objected, but the fact is, staying out of prison and trying to figure out how to make a living are clearly far more important to them right now. Sorting out the proper etiquette of labels is undoubtedly far, far more important to us than it is to them. Steven and Tiwonge have far more pressing issues to worry about.