Every time I meet a fellow Zimbabwean in Cape Town, they ask me a quick succession of questions: “Are you really from Zimbabwe? Which city? Which part of Harare? Which school did you go to?” It’s a rapid-fire test of authenticity, and also serves the purpose of surmising just how different or similar we are.
When I met Cola, it was no different. She narrowed the criteria down to which high school in Harare I’d been to, and when I answered, “Speciss,” an awkward smile broke across her face and her suspicion fell away.
Now I’m sitting on the floor of her room in Salt River. It’s four times as big as my room in Tamboerskloof, but with just as few possessions to fill it. Her laptop is open on her desk with a Youtube playlist up, cycling through pop songs. Cola is seated on an upturned paint bucket with a thin slab of wood across the top for the seat.
“I’ll be getting some furniture soon,” she says and asks me if I’d like a pillow.
Sitting there, looking at Cola, I feel as though I’m seated in front of a different version of myself. A version that finished high school in Zimbabwe. A version that came out there. A version that surely had a profoundly different experience of being a sexual minority for having been black and for having come out in a country where being gay is illegal. It was our similarities and differences that led me to organize this meeting, and here we are, sitting in a room in Cape Town, a city we now both call home.
Cola and I are almost the same age. I wonder why she and I never crossed paths at high school, but it turns out she only moved to Speciss after my family and I had moved to France following the country’s economic and political turmoil.
“I’m dyslexic. Education and numbers aren’t my thing,” Cola explains.
She failed her O Level exams at Westridge, a Hindu high school in Harare, and moved to Speciss Study Centre in the hopes that she’d do better there. From age 16 to 20 Cola struggled through her exams, finally passing her A Levels in 2010. It was a difficult time for her in terms of studies, but her move to Speciss was also a blossoming of sorts.
Cola’s first sexual experience was with a guy, but “I just knew it wasn’t for me.” It took her several years and a move to Speciss before she had the courage to pursue her interest in girls. “I came out of my shell. I didn’t want to be the person I was at Westridge; The dork. The skinny kid with acne. I was the ugly duckling.”
Cola kissed her first girl at 19, but “within one week, I had kissed the whole stream. That’s when I realised, ‘OK, this is a thing.’” She laughs. “I was catching up, OK?”
Cola’s story makes me think back on my own. My realisation came during a ping-pong lesson. I was 16, living in Bordeaux, France. I’d made it into the International American Section at the Lycée François Magendie, and I was watching a classmate play against another girl on the table next to mine. They were mucking about and playing badly on purpose. At first I was just laughing at their silliness. Then something happened. It’s like the way I was looking at her changed. I liked the way she moved, the way she smiled. It came over me slow and steady, as if someone were pouring a bucket of treacle over my head. I’d never looked at a girl quite like that before. I was stunned. I think I started trying to show off at ping-pong.
It was a Monday, and every Monday after school a bus would come to pick up the boarders with their suitcases to take them to the off-campus boarding-house. I climbed onto the bus and was waiting to go when I saw my classmate walk out onto the street. The bus pulled out, but I turned in my seat and I couldn’t stop looking at her until she was out of sight.
That was the beginning of a fraught journey through French high school.
I look at Cola and I’m filled with questions. “How out were you in Zim? What was your journey like? How hard was it? What were the challenges? How secretive did you have to be?”
I realize I’m firing questions like rounds out of a machine gun and stop short.
“It was kind of easy,” says Cola, and I’m floored.
She goes on to describe a world of cliques and popular lesbians, of meeting girls in private corners of the school, of being open on social media and being unable to contain her affection and excitement even in the street.
“I had my fun.”
It couldn’t be further removed from my angst-ridden experience of crippling secrecy, paranoia, shaming from classmates, and loss of friendship. The irony that Cola felt so free in a place where being gay is against the law, and I felt so trapped in a place that claims to be so progressive, doesn’t escape me.
“Does your family know?” I ask.
“My mum knew what I was even before I did.”
Cola’s mother got a job as a diplomat’s assistant, which took her and her children to New York. Cola lived there from the age of three to eleven. “My mum was exposed to a lot over there. She just doesn’t want me to parade it. She could get fired because of my sexuality. I’m supposed to keep a low profile, but I’m a DJ. I’m doing the complete opposite of what she asked, but she just wants me to be safe.”
Cola’s mother even suggested she move to London. “In her mind, that’s the safest place to send your gay child… I have to fight a little bit harder compared to my brother and my sister, and she knows that. I think she’d rather have me be the gay one in the family, because I’m like her. I’m a fighter, so she knows I can handle it.”
Cola didn’t move to London. She moved to Cape Town instead. She describes entering into the lesbian community here like finding a home. “You’re immediately shielded. It’s like, ‘You belong here. This is your crowd.’” And this crowd has certainly acted as a springboard for Cola’s talents.
She and I move our discussion to the tiny kitchen she shares with three other housemates. Cola prepares some Mexican bean tortillas with all the ingredients I brought with me. She works calmly and confidently. It’s no wonder – she trained under chef Nikki Botha and Adien Aggenbach of Plant Café to become a vegan chef.
“I can’t believe I’m getting a private meal made for me by the ex-head chef of Plant!” I say and watch her hands slice the green peppers into fine slithers.
While not vegan herself, Cola believes “being vegan is the future,” and notes that both Nicki and Adien have changed her life. We sit down to eat lunch and our conversation turns to DJ-ing. Cola’s playing the late-night set at tonight’s M.I.S.S party. According to her, chef-ing and DJ-ing are very similar.
“You can just do your thing and you don’t have to deal with people. You’ll see. M.I.S.S is going to be packed tonight, but I’ll be by myself, behind the decks.”
When Cola told her family it was her dream to be a DJ, they laughed. “My first mixtape was terrible. They thought, ‘Maybe she’ll take a hint and just stop.’ But I didn’t.”
The lesbian scene in Cape Town has given Cola space to grow as a DJ. She’s been welcomed with open arms by M.I.S.S, and even by the Mother City Queer Project.
When I ask her about her experience as a black lesbian in Cape Town she says, “Look, I don’t know anything about the hood. Not in New York, not in Harare, not in Cape Town. Some of my black peers even call me black privileged. They think, just because I don’t know about the hood that I didn’t suffer. I did.”
Cola shows me a gap in her smile where a tooth once was. “I lost that from malnutrition. New York was the life, but when we went back to Zimbabwe, my mum quit her job and shit went down.” Cola’s tooth fell out roughly in 2008, when Zimbabwe’s hyper-inflation was at fever pitch.
When it comes to racial divisions in the queer community, Cola says, “Let’s not lie. There’s an elephant in the room. There are white parties, coloured parties and black parties.”
Despite being blunt, Cola isn’t cynical. “The people throwing parties right now, they’re about 15 to 20 years older than me. They’ve paved the way and opened up a lot of doors. Because of them, people like you and me are able to work together. Now it’s our turn to make things even better for the next generation.”
Cola’s got big dreams for the future. In 2012 she launched a three-pronged creative company called African Inspired Dreams. It has its own clothing line called Homeland Authentics, designed in Cape Town and made in Harare. It’s a platform for artist and talent development, and has hosted events such as Twenty First Century Creatives, which brought together 20 plus poets, rappers, lyricists and musicians, blending established artists with new talent.
Through A.I.D Cola hopes to create a queer event in Cape Town that unites people from across the board.
“With time, it’s going to change.”
I switch off my voice recorder and start to pack it away. Cola asks me about the tattoo on my wrist. I tell her the story and ask if she has any tattoos of her own. She pulls her t-shirt collar down to reveal the words, “Don’t ask permission. Just ask forgiveness.” I picture Cola creating mixtape after mixtape until she came up with something good. I picture her cooking for 2000 at a TEDx event. I picture her boldly posting photos of herself kissing old high school girlfriends to Facebook. I know, unlike Cola, I’ll be the first one on the dance floor at the party tonight, but I still cringe at the thought of being too open about my sexuality online. Even though I’m out, I have to fight the urge to compartmentalize and hide aspects of myself. It’s people like Cola that inspire me to move towards being the same person in every context.
Later that night at the M.I.S.S party, it’s just like Cola said. The minute she steps behind the mixing deck and puts her headphones on, she all but disappears, leaving nothing but the music – and me, dancing in the crowd.