by Sly Mannya
I have known Zanele Muholi since 2003 when I was a 15 year old lesbian, in need to belong in a space where my sexuality (or whatever it was, I didn’t know at the time) was not my point of reference. I was tired of not being girly enough, and having my identity not so visible gender being under scrutiny.
I was tired of it!
So after thorough research, I came across Zanele Muholi and her work.
I called the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW), an organization she co-founded, and arranged an appointment. The organization and the people I met there became my home and family.
Fast forward to 2014, and she invited me to travel with her to Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa (Feb 21–Jun 29) at San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts (SF MoMa).
Muholi’s Faces and Phases portraiture series is part of the exhibition and I am featuring in it.
Sly Mannya as ‘Lo Jones’ in Muholi’s Faces and Phases, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2010
At first it seemed a bit far-fetched that I would be put forward for such a life changing opportunity. I moved at a very slow pace in not only preparing myself for the trip, but telling my colleagues about my two week departure.
Muholi’s assistant called me in panic mode, four days before our set boarding day, asking about my visa application. I had not applied for it yet. Maybe the fear inside me was still negotiating if indeed I should go on this trip. After meditating, I went online, filled in the form, paid and secured an interview at the US consulate.
I woke up and headed to my visa application interview; let’s just say sweat from nerves was like an accessory on my top!
As humans, we tend to feed into our fear of the unknown. We let it overwhelm and overcome us that by the time we face whatever it is, it has drained us and eventually our attempts are unsuccessful. I defied this.
My third sense became the middleman between my heart and my mind. Something had to take charge.
I packed, said my goodbyes and headed to what is yet to be the most experiential trip of my life. By simply checking in at the OR Tambo airport, I waved my comfort zone goodbye and became an adult. I finally journeyed on without my mom, sister, brother, neither lover nor friends. I took a 17 day break from a job I had made my end all because it is the only avenue in my life whose comfort I entertain. I became the little girl who had the excitement of carelessness and at the same time there was that need for responsibility.
This is a story about 3 cities in less than 30 hours. My traveling companion missed her flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. I was made aware of this by her partner, who called me to find out about my whereabouts. Her tone about the flight sounded like a prayer request that Muholi makes it in time to check in and board the Frankfurt plane.
I met Val, Muholi’s partner, at Of Love and Loss exhibition opening on the 14th Feb. 2014. I didn’t even know what her full name was, but utilized the hour we spent waiting for Muholi to do just that.
We went to get juice and I got to know her mind frame, ok, not entirely, but just enough to fit in an hour. We spoke about sexual violence, and she asked for a South African opinion as to why, in my observation, they were occurring.
I gave her my opinion, which I will not share here, and Muholi landed, called and we went to welcome her.
We all discussed our destination’s weather, and Muholi had to buy warmer shoes because she had no time to pack them. It was during this shopping stop that I realized that the need to be warm when at the airport can set you back about R1500. It had my brain weighing and calculating hospital fees vs being warm. She chose warmth, and then we realized that our boarding gate was nearly closing and made a run for it.
We made it, got our tickets checked and passports stamped. The journey was more real than when I woke up. As I made my way to the plane, I handed my ticket so that I could be directed to my seat, the air hostess took a look and said, “Sir, enjoy your flight, turn right and you are in seat 88.”
Then my life predicament began, my eyes looked at the man who was next in line, knew that I had 20 seconds to respond to this woman, but to correct her or to not correct her became the real question that drained my 20 seconds I had budgeted to use for responding.
I decided I had to get moving. Muholi was also addressed as sir. Is it the dreadlocks or the chinos? I get called Sir, bhuti and boy so often, but this time it sounded very meaty, excuse the pun. What is to follow will maybe help you figure out why this foreign woman’s misidentification of me got to me. It is the Western culture I tell you.
While my head was trying to find reasons this whole me looking like a sir thing, I needed to put my hand luggage in the cabin/goods compartment.
A tall, light, gay mannered man, who also happened to be a flight attendant walked past me and I beckoned for him. Let me let you in on something, when you work in the service industry, your personal interests/opinions should be left in your luggage, to be retrieved when we land. But not this guy, he had his in his pocket, that when I called him to attend to me, they were painted on his face, as if he was at a costume party.
He made up his mind as to how he was going to treat me. I asked for his assistance with putting my bag in the compartment, to which he responded by saying “sorry, but I’m not insured, therefore I cannot help you.”
I was so shocked by his response that I asked him to repeat himself. To which he did, with more affirmation the second time around. Excuse me, but I’m a strategist, my logic pays my bills, you serve tea on a plane, what does your insurance or lack thereof have to do with me?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not implying that being a flight attendant is not important. I assumed that those who work in that field could measure and justify it is importance. But as a customer on a flight you were hired to serve on, when I ask for your help, I would not want you to ruin your posture nor for you to go beyond your comfort zone and smile at me. I just expect to be treated equally and for you to serve me, offer a hand. Not a smile or an “enjoy your flight” bid; I have done well without it. Just put my bag up and help someone else.
While on the plane, the time for attendants to show off their special skills came. Domestic flights food is nothing special because flights are usually 3 hours, maximum. The one that baffled me was the international in flight food options being between chicken or pasta, with that boarding school taste, and in other instances, school feeding smell. It is an eleven hour flight, so one does not really have choice. You could choose to starve and practically cause more delays as this option might lead to sickness or death, in which an emergency landing would happen and in your being sick or God forbid death, you would have inconvenienced so many people and or made world news.
After much consideration and thought processes, I settled for the chicken breast. I love breasts, big ones, not the small, tasteless ones I was presented with. Actually the discovery of how small the breasts were had me regretting my decision and wishing I had asked for vegetarian pasta. I’m visiting your country; the least you can do is entice me with good food. Anyway, I slept through the flight and woke up in Germany’s Frankfurt. I was bid goodbye as a mister. I was too tired to deliberate and answer so I just walked off.
I got off in Frankfurt to go check in for my San Francisco flight, which meant three hours of waiting. Muholi and I decided to go sit in the premium lounge, so that we could eat, keep warm, charge our gadgets and use the Internet. As we approached the reception area, the lady’s facial expression changed from ecstasy to constipated, she was narrating how she was going to tell us off and politeness did not make part of her list. We stood there, for seconds, waiting for her to acknowledge our presence like she did everyone before us.
We were demanding the equal treatment that was due to us. The staring game got tiring so we greeted her and stated our business there and she scanned our tickets, handed them back and we went to find a spot to sit. As we about to get over the shock or weird treatment that seems to be racially motivated, a man comes to us, no greeting, nor acknowledgement of our commitments at that moment, he stands firm and says, are you from Zim?
To which we, without taking offense say, no. He says he is from Nigeria, the same country that has an anti-gay law. He asks us if he can use our charger, we hand it over to him, even though he was rude enough not to greet us.
South Africans are nice people. Keep this in mind; we were two black, dreadlocked lesbians.
Would he still use our charger if he knew that we were lesbian?
That, we are women who fuck other women?
The lesson here is that homosexuals are normal people, just like any other. We are natural, typical human beings, until you ask and we decide to be honest with you and tell you that we are gay. And this could happen after you have sat next to us at a dinner table for hours. You would have treated us ok until bedroom talks that have nothing to do with you. So the question becomes, would a homophobe regret getting help from a lesbian, once made aware?
Thing is a child does not have to know the logistics involved in a travel. But s/he will appreciate the arrival and more importantly, the experience. I have learnt that happiness does not require a reason, it should come naturally to humans like breath to a new born after being spanked.
After about ten and a half hours on a night flight from Johannesburg to Frankfurt en route to our final destination, which was San Francisco, I got restless. Having packed on the day of departure, flew for hours, rested for only three hours to be on another ten hour flight; I decided to do a walk about, stretch my feet and get my blood circulating. After my 5 minutes of people watching, being stared at and stretching, I retired back to my seat. There was a guy at the back of the plane whose eyes were glued to the window, with this, the pace of the camera clicks increased. I wanted to know what gotten this stranger’s attention.
I slid the window cover up and I saw God. In her entire form, how I see her, define her and my imagined scent for her. Her pure form that I saw through that window far beats the behavior of those who have, over the years, claimed to know her. Even though I had never been to this place or experienced fully the presence of God, I was reminded of my childhood – a place where happiness fills the house like the aroma of pork trotters or tripe on a cold winter’s night.
A place of sheer pleasure and sensuality; A safe place where we’d sleep with doors wide open to let in the night breeze.
It reminded me of the simple pleasures of childhood, filling up balloons with water at the beginning of Spring to throw at each other?
Even though we knew of the end of day beatings from our elders for wasting water, the long wait for the sun, blossoming plants and water splashes were worth the abuse. Or memories of getting the perfect peep hole to watch a show you weren’t allowed to watch, and where your parents could not see you – that kind of joy.
All these memories, including many, rushed through my mind, by just looking out the window. Given the pleasures that my view brought me, my heart and mind retreated to a happy place. And yes, I chose to attest this place to Godliness because there has never been a Psychological beacon of hope, and holding on like that of God for me, at that moment, or any other actually.
And the best thing about God is that each of us defines her, describe, classify and rationalize her according to our own understanding. Trees, the ocean, snow, wind, fire, volcanoes, child birth, children, music, sex, orgasms, warm kisses; these are some of the aspects that make me accept that before me, all this was perfected for my enjoyment or discovery by God.
I do not know if I believe in the matrimony of marriage but if it ever happens that I get love drugged. I’d consider my wife special enough to declare my love in the middle of this holy place. Not only would those vows be a commitment mantra to her, but I’d also be making a promise to God, at God’s doorstep.
I’d want to lick her lips and let her warm my ears with her inner thighs, to have her lock eyes with me as I thrust to increase her moisture, for tears to roll down her eyes, to drop on my skin as she grasps for breath because the beauty of our view and my sensual connection to her, my understanding of her body will result in a mind fuck of an out of body experience; at this place.
To be continued…
Sly speaking to a group of students in Curatorial Practice class at California College of the Arts. (2014/03/04)
At the Golden Gate Ferry Terminal at Port of San Francisco…
About the author
Selaelo “Sly” Mannya was born on 8th Sept. 1988 in Polokwane but has been a Jo’burg citizen for 10 years.
She was raised in a Christian home by her grandmother who has been so inspirational to her. She has her grandmother’s name tattooed on her arm. She has a little brother who is not so little anymore, and a four year old niece who is currently the leading lady and number one priority ‘in my life.’
With an original passion for dance Sly now focuses on writing and teaching in order to inspire others, as well as documenting her travels with her iPhone.
Sly is a Pan-Afrikanist lesbian as well as a Communications and Media Management graduate with a degree from the AAA School of Advertising.
She works as part of a political party’s research team to bridge the gap between government and the LBGTI communities.
She has also facilitated workshops in the townships of Pretoria to help educate young men about homosexuality in order to minimize ignorance.
Her motto is to not invest for monetary gain but for the benefit of those who will come after her time is over.
The number 8 has played a big part in her life, having been born on the 8th and her father had been born on the 18th but unfortunately passed away on the 8th.
She also loves bacon.