In April 1981, Landa Mabenge enters this world, trapped in a girl’s body. From an early age, Landa is aware that he does not relate to his female form, despite being socialised as a girl. In this groundbreaking and brutally honest memoir, Landa Mabenge establishes himself as a resounding and inspirational voice for anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. In mesmerising detail, Becoming Him lays bare Landa’s tortured world, growing up trapped in the wrong body, while unflinchingly tracing his transition from female to male. His childhood in Umtata is brutally shattered, when at age 11 an angry woman and her zombie-like husband unexpectedly arrive to force him to accompany them to Port Elizabeth. Life in PE with "The Parents" soon morphs into a Dickensian nightmare. Landa is subjected to horrific physical, emotional and psychological abuse as he descends into a world of isolation and shame. He recalls his prison of powerlessness: “I count the years I will have to remain a slave. There are seven before my redemption: 7 x 365 = 2555 days. Today is nearly at an end. By the end of tomorrow there will be 2554. By the end of the week, 2548. And so I will myself on. Eventually the day will come when I will be free.” At 18 Landa is finally able to escape PE to study at UCT, where he tries to embrace life as a butch lesbian, but he remains tortured by his female body. After a close-to-death break down, Landa finally finds strength to embark on an arduous four-year-long journey to physically and legally become “him," relentlessly researching what it will entail to embark on gender alignment. In 2014, Landa makes history by becoming the first known transgender man in South Africa to successfully motivate a medical aid to pay for his surgeries through the Groote Schuur Transgender Clinic. Both heartbreaking and uplifting, Becoming Him is a unique story of torture and triumph, bravely opening the lid on cultural shame and abuse against those who choose a path less travelled. In 2017 Landa was selected out of over 60,000 African applicants for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Today Landa lives a transformed and happy life as a transgender educationalist and consultant.
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About the Author
In April 1981, Landa Mabenge enters this world, trapped in a girl’s body. From an early age, Landa is aware that he does not relate to his female form, despite being socialised as a girl. In this groundbreaking and brutally honest memoir, Landa Mabenge establishes himself as a resounding and inspirational voice for anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. In mesmerising detail, Becoming Him lays bare Landa’s tortured world, growing up trapped in the wrong body, while unflinchingly tracing his transition from female to male.
Read an Excerpt
I love my Ma with all my heart, even though she dresses me up in rather glamorous dresses with lace bibs and elegant shoes with round toes and little buckles. I don't like them. My favourite shoes are a pair of yellow Elefante open-toe sandals identical to the sandals my boy cousins wear.
As I get older, Ma and I argue a lot over the types of clothes deemed acceptable for a young girl. I simply refuse to wear dresses, insisting rather on long pants and shorts for all occasions.
I begin my schooling at the age of six at Vela Private School, situated in Thornhill, on the outskirts of Umtata, a significant drive from my home in Ncambedlana. But school has rules. I plead with Ma, often with tears streaming down my face, to allow me to wear the summer blue shorts and winter grey pants uniform like all the other boys, but I am always called to order and reminded that I am not a boy, but a girl. I don't believe her. When Ma insists on buying me Barbie dolls, I dismember them, leaving legs, arms and torsos strewn around the yard, while I long for toy guns and cars.
My grandparents, who also live in the house with me and Ma and the cousins, are both teachers, although my grandmother left the profession after she married in 1947. They are both very clever. Miss K loved studying and obtained a diploma in teaching from Dohne College in the small town of Stutterheim. A long time ago, against all odds, my grandfather obtained his Bachelor's degree in the Arts, majoring in English, Xhosa and Latin and an Honours Degree in English. I love listening to him telling me how they met as young teachers at a convention in Port Elizabeth, where they were both teaching.
"I was drawn by her lovely eyes, which she batted almost instinctively, whenever I tried to get an audience with her."
A year after meeting they were married, he was offered principalship at a high school in a small village called Rode, on the outskirts of Mount Ayliff, and it was decided that Miss K would became a housewife and homemaker, while he built his career in education and became the provider. When his tenure was done at Rode High School in 1966, he accepted an opportunity to move his family to Umtata, where he eventually became a schools inspector, under Prime Minister KD Matanzima's government in Transkei.
Each morning homely smells greet me when I awake. My grandmother is an expert coffee brewer, and always has a pot of Mona on the stove, ready to kick-start our day. This is accompanied by fresh oven-baked bread, and on weekends heavenly made roosterbrood.
Besides being a homemaker, my grandmother has an undeniable passion for music, and ensures that all of her children and grandchildren are exposed to and influenced by it. Whenever an opportunity arises, we break into song, and she takes it upon herself to train us through note bashing, so that we can follow the music on a score. It is thus through her love for music that I am magnetised by Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Requiem, which during my early years are Sunday favourites whenever we are ferried to and from church, or taken on lazy afternoon drives with my grandfather.
Then all of a sudden, when I am ten years old, my grandfather goes missing in action. A few days later, not knowing where he could have gone, I learn that he has been admitted to the TB in-patient section of the Umtata General Hospital.
The hospital is a gigantic white building behind a tall barb-wired fence, with security guards manning the entrance. It feels like he is destined to stay there forever. I spend most of my visits perched at the edge of his bed eagerly awaiting whatever gift he might whisk out of his bedside cabinet for me, which is almost always a perfectly ripe, juicy Granny Smith apple.
By now, I am the only grandchild at home, as all my cousins have been returned to their respective parents across the country. Now the sole benefactor of affection, one Sunday morning, on a reprieve from daily chores, I find myself still snuggled up in bed well into the business of the day. I hear voices in the kitchen. Feeling guilty for lazing in bed so long, I peel back my blankets and sheepishly shuffle my way to the kitchen. I walk in to find Ma and my grandmother in heated discussion with a stranger I remember seeing once or twice before. The woman has a round chubby face, dark piercing eyes and a frown cut into her forehead between her bushy eyebrows.
She is highly irate. Her voice clangs like a broken bell.
"When we leave this afternoon, this child is leaving with us. We have already secured a school for her in PE."
Oblivious to the fact that I am in fact the child being referred to, I climb up onto Ma's lap and snuggle into her arms as I watch the heated scene unfold. I smell her comforting skin and rest my head against the nape of her neck as I have always done. But on this grey, cloudy morning she does not return my affection. I turn towards my grandmother, only to catch a hawkish glare from the PE lady.
My Ma is close to tears. "There is no way you can take this child without proper channels. You cannot give a child away and then magically decide that you want her back when it suits you. If you insist that the child's family is after her then you need to ensure that they come and request the child."
But the church bells are ringing. God is calling us to leave the anger in the kitchen and head off to the Sunday service. When we return from church, my lone suitcase is packed to the brim with all my clothes, including my school uniform. I walk into my grandmother's room to find my cousin Minky, who is here on a weekend visit, folding the last of my vests from an untidy pile.
"Who asked you to pack my clothes?"
"Miss K told me to put all your clothes in this suitcase."
I am a thunderstorm of emotion as I storm out of the bedroom into the kitchen in search of my grandmother. The kitchen is empty, but there are voices coming from outside. I find my grandmother in deep conversation with Uncle JS, Ma's younger brother, who stays with his wife and young son on a farm just down the road from us. I plonk my behind on the stoep, forcing myself to wait my turn to speak, to find out why I am packed and ready to leave.
My grandmother's voice is tired and strained. "Please make sure you come back this afternoon as I foresee issues with your older sister and Lolozi."
The angry voice of the Lady from PE bolts through the house from a point unknown: "I can hear what you are saying about me. Ultimately, Lolozi is my child and I can take her with me if I so wish!"
Uncle JS gets into his royal blue Opel Rekord and drives down the narrow driveway, out the gate towards his farm. My head droops heavy in despair and confusion. By now I know that the child they are referring to must be me. My world is beginning to shatter. As my grandmother walks past me into the house, gently, she takes my arm and signals that I should follow her into her bedroom because she needs to talk to me. She closes the door. There's an urgency in her lowered voice as she tells me I need to very quietly and casually walk outside and then run up the driveway to the outside toilet. She instructs me to sit in there with the door closed until someone comes to get me. My eyes are huge. In a conspiratorial whisper I enquire about my packed clothes and whether or not I am going to be forced to leave home. She assures me that I needn't worry, that this is just a tactic to trick the lady from PE, who goes by the name of Nokuzola or Tilili, into believing that I am indeed leaving, but I am going nowhere.
But before I can make my move, the angry Lady from PE storms into the bedroom, cursing and snatching my luggage from the bed. She instructs me to follow her to the car. "We are leaving," she tells me. Now I really want to pee. I follow her outside. Her companion, Bhut Victor, a large burly man with a beard, has pulled his car into the yard and is sitting like a zombie in the driver's seat, eyes fixed on the gate.
The moment my feet step outside the front door, I dash like lightning towards the remote toilet in the far corner of the yard. Just like my grandmother told me. Out of breath, panting like a wild horse, I close the door and hide, placing my foot as a stopper against the wooden door to prevent anyone other than my grandmother from entering. But my escape is short lived. Within moments the door is attacked. The angry Lady from PE screams that I need to come out and get into the car. My mind races. Slowly I open the door under the pretence of heeding her instruction, but the second I am out I bolt left and dash into the empty plot next door. I race through the weed-infested overgrowth, my heart threatening to tumble out my mouth at any given moment. At the edge of the property, I leopard crawl under the razor-wire fence and leap across the road, paying no mind to the possibility of being driven over by a car. When I finally get to the open veld, I stop only to catch my breath and crouch behind the tall grass. And there I stay hidden, not moving, hardly breathing lest anyone find me.
From where I hide, I see Uncle JS return in his Opel. From behind the long grass, I watch as he parks his vehicle behind the PE car, which is now standing outside the yard. He gallops up the driveway. Seconds later, I see Uncle JS – along with his older brother and Minky's father, Uncle VS – half wrestling, half carrying the screaming Lady from PE towards her car where her zombie husband still waits inside. I watch as she is loaded into the front passenger seat. From my hiding place I see how Uncle VS sternly points them away from the house, in the direction of the capital.
As the silver PE car slowly pulls away my body dissolves into relief but my heart still races. I stay frozen in the veld. My safe world has been shattered. I no longer trust who else will emerge to remove me to places unknown.
Dusk settles and with it a cool summer breeze. I begin to shiver as the cold evening air closes in on me. After what feels like a lifetime, Aunt PP – Ma and Uncle JS's younger sister – waltzes out of the yard calling my name. I stand up slowly and respond with caution: "I am here."
"You can come back now; we need to leave for the hospital."
"No, I'm staying here. What if she comes back to get me?"
No amount of reassuring that the Lady from PE has indeed left convinces me, or coaxes me out of my secret spot. I have seen something terrible and sinister. Aunt PP walks across the street towards my hiding place but when she gets close, I run. Soon, however, I grow weary of the cat-and-mouse game, and as the night curtain descends, clothing the world in black, I finally surrender defeat. Together we walk hand in hand towards the house. All is silent. Nobody speaks of what has happened. Instead, I am offered a plate laden with the Sunday meal, now cold. Stuffed full, I am piled into my grandfather's car, driven by Uncle JS, to ferry us to the hospital. I sit in the back next to Miss K, making sure that my hand is firmly glued within hers at all times. I stare at the back of Ma's head as we silently make our way into the darkening night.
We arrive in the hospital parking lot and, lo and behold, the silver car is there. My heart instantly returns to a state of panic. I sink down, willing my chubby ten-year-old body to slip between the folds of the back seats. Perhaps I can make myself invisible in the dark space beneath the front passenger seat. In a hoarse whisper, Miss K instructs me to lock all the doors from the inside as soon as she gets out of the vehicle and implores me to remain out of sight. I do as instructed, braving only a glimpse out of the window to gauge what imminent danger lurks beyond the safety of the locking mechanism. The eyes that meet mine are emblazoned with fury, glinting with a hint of evil. The Lady from PE hammers against the back window with all her might. My grandmother, now outside the car, stands her ground, lashing back and declaring that "this child is going nowhere". The banging on the window continues unabated for what seems like a lifetime. Eventually there is silence.
When the tenuous sense of safety returns, I slowly inch my way out of my crouching position, back onto the seat. I peek out of the window to catch the PE accomplice, Bhut Victor, make his way into the hospital, closely followed by Tando, who I'm told is my brother and who once stayed with us, but has been living for the last few years with the angry Lady from PE, her accomplice and their two young children. From inside the car I watch Ma, Miss K and Uncle JS disappear through the entrance of the hospital, sucked into the cold corridors. A while later, Tando emerges and walks straight towards the silver PE car where he casually opens the boot and removes the suitcase containing all my clothes, stolen from my grandmother's bedroom a few hours earlier. I hazard a sigh of relief; surely this is an indication that my attempted kidnapping is now over.
He walks a few paces between the two vehicles and neatly places my suitcase on the closed boot top of our car. I try to catch a glimpse of his face, if only to thank him for returning my clothes. No eye contact is made. He walks back to the silver car, climbs inside and waits in the backseat with the two small children. From where I am hiding I realise that the Lady from PE is sitting in the front passenger seat. I crouch even lower between the seats. The giant of a man, Bhut Victor, emerges from the hospital, exchanging what seems like pleasantries with Uncle JS. He gets into the silver car, and a few seconds later the car pulls off.
Only when I am absolutely certain that they have truly left, do I unlock the car and slowly get out. I follow my Uncle JS into the hospital. For now the nightmare of the day is shelved as I perch myself on the edge of my grandfather's bed, waiting for whatever he will gift me. As always, he rests against a mountain of white pillows. With a gleam in his eyes he beckons me closer with an affectionate "Sondela mzukulwana wam" (Come closer, my grandchild) and pulls out a sparkling green apple. I devour it. An apple has never tasted this good. Between my crunching I become aware that a dampened mood has descended on the room. All the adults are trying to speak in code around the events that unfolded earlier but I hang onto every word, trying to piece together what little I can. I manage to discover that there is a possibility that I might soon have to move to PE. I work out that the furious Lady from PE is in fact my grandparents' eldest daughter and the zombie, Bhut Victor, who accompanies her, is her husband. I manage to piece together that they have come to demand that I go and live with them and that my grandfather has requested that they give me enough time to finish the current year at school and only begin my transition to them within the following year or two. I search for Ma's eyes but she looks at everyone and everything but me.
At the end of visiting hour, we all bid our goodbyes to my grandfather and return to our car. I stay glued to Ma's hip and insist on sitting on her lap in the front passenger seat as we make our way home into the dark night. It has got much colder.
The minute we get home, eager to continue the adult conversation that has been held in code in my presence at the hospital, I scurry about the house, desperate to complete my Sunday-night chores. I need to speak to Ma; I need to make sense of why it is that I will have to leave the only home I have ever known.
"Ma, am I going to have to leave? Who was that lady and why is she so upset?"
Ma turns her head away from me. She tries to swallow back the tears now welling from her eyes. I move closer; I want to know. I want to know everything. But most of all I want to know why she is willing to give me away to someone so angry, so ugly, someone I barely know. I cup my left arm within her right one and rest my head against her warm chest.
Finally she speaks. Her tone is quiet and sombre.
"I remember the first day I laid my eyes on you. The year was 1981 and I had recently started teaching at Misty Mount. One day I got home to find your grandmother had packed a small overnight bag for me with instructions to go and see my older sister Nokuzola in Port Elizabeth. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me she had received a call that my sister was not feeling well. Your grandmother had decided that I should go and visit Sis Nokuzola so I could assess the situation."
I snuggle in closer to Ma. The closer I get the more I hope I will be able to understand this story. "Your grandfather took me to the bus station – they were called railways back in those days. I bought a ticket and soon was informed by the conductor that the bus was about to leave. I waved your grandfather goodbye. When I got on the bus I showed my ticket to the driver and walked down its dark narrow passage and found a seat close to the back."
This story is taking longer than I thought. I want her to get to the part that is about me.
"I got to PE early the next morning and was picked up from the bus station by Bhut Victor."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Becoming Him"
Copyright © 2018 Landa Mabenge.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Home 3
2 Relocation 14
3 The New House 21
4 Escape 25
5 Aftershock 32
6 "You are a girl, not a boy" 41
7 Going Home 48
8 Purple Black Bruises 52
9 Body Shame 56
10 Sweet Sixteen 60
11 The Gold Suit 65
12 Feast and Famine 76
13 Cape Town 84
14 Going "Home" 89
15 A Year Later 94
16 Birgit 99
17 No Answers 104
18 Stitched Up 107
19 Homeward Bound 113
20 Healing in Mthatha 117
21 Pandora's Box and The Letter 122
22 Eye off the Ball 130
23 Revisiting the Monster 136
24 Free to Be Me 142
25 Trans-ition 148
26 The Bureaucracy of Gender 156
27 Blackout 160
28 Hidden Things 165
29 The Beauty of Flat 173
30 When Love Turns to Ash 179
31 Operation Landa 185
32 Loving Landa 191