Interview
Courtesy of Babalwa Mtshawu.

INFLUENCED: Meet Babalwa Mtshawu—The YouTuber Unapologetically Sharing Her Intersex Journey With the World

'I grew up thinking that my story was insignificant and that no one wanted to hear it,' says Babalwa Mtshawu.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

When she's not sharing her personal experiences in the hopes of educating her 3000 YouTube subscribers, you can find Babalwa Mtshawu jetting across the world. From Nairobi, Italy to Nepal, Mtshawu documents every exciting minute of her adventures and mishaps: the good, the bad and the really awkward. On her YouTube channel, she talks about her journey as a female-presenting intersex individual and the challenges she often faces in a society that seems adamant about keeping the intersex community completely invisible.

At other times, we're allowed into the romantic life of Mtshawu and her girlfriend, Thando Hlophe—who is also a YouTuber in her own right—and they talk about what any normal couple talks about online. But for them, there's the added dynamic of having to shield aspects of their lives as they live in a world where queer love is always forced to explain itself.

Mtshawu's content has landed her many gigs she never imagined she'd even be offered. She's taken part in various conversations, panels and even a viral BBC interview, where she's shared her views on gender, the queer community and more. Through this, she's earned a seat at the proverbial "table" that Mtshawu has always wanted, but wasn't sure if she was worthy of.

When she's not in front of the camera, Mtshawu is teaching military geography at the University of Stellenbosch.

We sat down with her to talk about what her YouTube channel means to her, where she sees it going in the next few years and the bigger picture of her work within the LGBTQIA+ community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How would you describe the engagement that you've had so far with your community of followers?

Well, I don't have a very big following so it's very easy for me to keep track of who's commenting the most and that kind of stuff. I've gotten very mixed reviews from my subscribers but mostly very positive. My channel is educational as well, because I remember my childhood was about education more than anything. A lot of people are saying that they are learning quite a bit. I just give the crux of the topic and then it's up to the person to do research for themselves because in 10 minutes I can't really tell you everything about that particular topic.

What prompted you to start your own YouTube channel and decide on the type of content that you wanted to create?

I got diagnosed medically that I was intersex when I was 25. I lied to a bunch of my friends and I said, "Oh no, I have cancer," when I was going through my treatment. I think I got to a stage where I wanted to come out to them, but I just didn't want to come out to them one by one. So I decided to shoot a video and put it online. Initially, I thought this video was going to be just for my friends because I just gave them the link. I was shocked when the initial video hit 20k views. That led me to releasing similar content, but because I didn't want it to be a very morbid channel, I tried to diversify the content and include new things like traveling, my career and that kind of stuff.

My Intersex Story || Intersex Awareness Day|| www.youtube.com

Your content is very personal. What have been some of the challenges to creating the kind of content?

Well, the fact that people feel like they are entitled to your life is a challenge. When you don't want to talk about something, people still feel entitled to that particular topic. I'll give you an example. I've made content about being intersex, but there are certain things I don't want to talk about. I'm intersex but I don't advocate for surgery although I went through surgery myself. A lot of people still want me to make a video about surgeries within the intersex community but that's not a topic I'm ready to talk about right now. You also get a lot of people who see my relationship and think that they have a say and can demand content about that too.

What conversations are you hoping to start or to continue with your YouTube Channel?

Basically, I really want to start advocating for intersex bodies and I want to focus mainly on legal work. That's the direction I want to go in. It's very difficult to venture there though because that's not what my followers are necessarily interested in. They want to be educated in a sense and the whole "let's stand together and support intersex people" kind of content may not align with what they want.

How do you navigate what (at times) seems like a trade-off between what you want to talk about and what your listeners want to hear?

What I realized with subscribers, is that you can sway them in the direction that you want them to go so long as you are not very abrupt about it. In almost every video that I've been making lately, I make it a point to let them know that while the channel is about them, it was also never about them at the same time. It was always about me and having a place where I can go back and reflect, put my thoughts out there. In essence, it's my diary and they are lucky enough to get a glimpse into my life. At some point I need to do what I want to do because it's not about the numbers for me, it's mostly about the message.

BEING A TOURIST IN NEPAL|| PASHUPATINATH TEMPLE www.youtube.com

Just within the South African context, looking at Castor Semenya and all the trouble that she's going through, how do you think that society is failing intersex individuals?

I think in most cases people are not ready to learn. And that's partly because we as the LGBTI community, sort of threw everything at everyone all at once and now it's kind of difficult to focus on specific issues. You know, every time that I tell people that my partner is a female and I'm also female-presenting, people call me lesbian, but I am not, I identify as intersex and that is a whole topic on its own. There are just a lot of misunderstandings as well as exclusions that happen within the bigger spectrum. Part of the LGBTI community itself is not supportive. There are exclusions within the community. We as intersex people barely have allies. You can call any LGBTI movement and ask them do they have a division for intersex individuals and there's absolutely nothing.

Are there any particular moments in creating content for your YouTube channel that have surprised you?

Yes, like there are quite a few. I think later on in August, I am talking at the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape. I am part of the panel that's going to be talking about bodily integrity and gender topics. And I feel, for me, for someone who's in the hard sciences to be included in university platforms that are sociology in nature is huge. I don't "qualify" to be there but I'm there. And I feel like those are the moments that I think, "If I didn't create content, if I didn't put myself out there, no-one would have known that I belonged on that particular stage."

The travel that comes with it as well is great. This year I went to Kenya and Nepal and I was sitting on panels, doing podcasts and all of those things are for me, surreal moments where I sit and just take in the many people that are actually listening to my story.

"It's a very important thing for me because I grew up thinking that my story was insignificant and that no one wanted to hear it."

Have there been any pitfalls in talking about being intersex, your journey and everything that comes with that?

Oh yes. A good example would be the BBC Africa interview. What you probably saw was a short skit to sort of get people interested in going over to the main episode which is about 30 minutes. Right? They posted the skit onto their Twitter account and it went viral. I think it reached half a million views in a few days and I didn't even read the comments because the comments were quite brutal. People were very rude and very mean. You know, someone will tell you that they are a biologist and what you're talking about is ridiculous. And some people would be like, "The Europeans have infiltrated Africa now 'cause now we're having European problems", you know because clearly I'm a problem.

There's a lot of negativity associated with the number of views that you probably get because smaller crowds tend to be nicer and bigger crowds tend to be very mean. And when you're talking about your journey within a particular topic that is regarded as taboo in Africa, you're going to deal with a lot of backlash.

'I'm intersex, I don't get periods and I'm going through menopause' - BBC Africa www.youtube.com

How have you managed to carve out a space for yourself where you can disengage from all the negativity?

Actually, there is no running away from it. I think you have to deal with it head-on. I mean, even though I did the eNCA interview not so long ago and that was like a guaranteed 4 million views, people couldn't comment on the eNCA video 'cause it was playing on national TV. However, with the BBC video, could comment and that opened up a whole can of worms in terms of things I thought I had dealt with but I hadn't. So I found myself having had to seek mental health care.

Now I've got a psychologist that I see almost every week and we talk about my journey because even though I am public with my story, my family doesn't like the fact that I am out there like that. I don't even think that they know that I'm on these different social media platforms because for my family, that's not a topic to be discussed openly. But unfortunately for them, this is my story and not theirs.

Amidst all of this, can you think about some really fun moments that you've had creating your content?

There's a video I did entitled "The reason why I hate doctors". I mean, that whole story-line is very sad, if you're presenting it in a sad way but for me it has always been funny. So, there are some videos that when you're thinking about them, they bring tears to your eyes, but the more you shoot the content, the funnier it can sometimes take. I think by the 10th take you can probably find funny elements within the content. And I feel like for me, that's when I actually realize that some topics, as morbid as they may seem, they can also be very, very funny.

What are some of the hopes you have for your YouTube Channel?

Right now I'm currently involved in a lot of academic work pertaining to gender studies and intersex work. So that's the direction that I'm looking at going into. I'm thinking of producing content that is extremely educational. It won't necessarily be in the intersex space, but generally centered on gender-based discussions and mostly from an academic point of view.

Culture
Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

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(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.


This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:





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