Oslo Pride Interview: The Chaos of Belonging by Frank Malaba

Photos: Jonathan Rogne / Oslo Pride

Frank Malaba is a Zimbabwean storyteller, writer, poet, and LGBTQIA+ artivist based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is known for his works on queer identity, African masculinity, and mental health. Malaba’s writing and performance often address the experiences of being a gay man in Africa and the challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ individuals in the region and beyond. On Sunday 25th June, Malaba performed a storytelling-theatre fusion piece, The Chaos of Belonging, as part of Oslo Pride month. He currently has two touring productions: Stories of My Bones and The Chaos of Belonging. In 2014 Frank was recognized by Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans as an Achiever in the category of Arts & Culture.

What is The Chaos of Belonging about?

The Chaos of Belonging is a piece about the desire to belong to a society that doesn’t know what to do with us, the LGBTQIA+ people. It aims to highlight the pains, joys, struggles, questions, and victories of trying to merely be respected and seen as humans in a world that continually tucks us into graves without noticing its hands and footsteps are red with our blood. I explore this premise by inviting the audience to participate in witnessing snippets of the lives of four characters: Frank (me), Edwin (a Zambian gay man forced into heterosexual marriage), Joe (a non-binary human in Zimbabwe), and Zandile (a transwoman from South Africa). Their stories are diversely intricate yet a thread runs through them… the need to belong to self, family, community or they’re battling with the struggle of trying to live an ordinary life. 

Working on these characters was a great joy. They are all vastly different with their own regional accents. Some are made up of a combination of stories of people merged to create one character’s experience, others were told as their stories are. It shouldn’t really be called theatre because that gives an inaccurate expectation of what I do as an artist. Maybe one day I will be able to coin the word! 

Why is the topic of violence against LGBTQ+ so important for you?

This theme or queerphobia and hate crimes is extremely important to me because it infuriates me that most of us can’t see how increasingly intolerant and hateful churches and governments are becoming towards us. Even in a country like South Africa where the country’s constitution recognises and affirms the inalienable rights for LGBTQIA+ lives, the hate crimes towards black lesbians, nonbinary people as well as black and coloured* gay men are quite prevalent. This work is my way of lending a voice that attempts to humanise, affirm, educate, and build a safe space for questions to be asked and answered or for positive interest to be built around our existence in the world.

In the beginning of the performance, you had us all wash our hands with salt and then read the names of those who were murdered because they belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s really powerful, what is the significance of this ritual to you?

As a Southern African, and coming from a long line of healers and rainmakers (along with storyetellers), I was raised around the understanding of the use of coarse sea salt as a cleanser of space, spirit and intention. So in cleansing hands, we were preparing for the intentional reading of the names of those we had lost to queerphobic murder over the last several years. Washing of hands was symbolic of handling their memory with care. I took care to handwrite each name and say it myself. Then I transferred each paper into the hands of each audience member to make it very personal and an act done with care. It was significant for me for the names to be spoken by tongues of the living, loving and compassionate. Their lives mattered. I am thankful for Luiz De Barros of www.mambaonline.com for assisting me with the archive of names of the deceased.

How did you build the four characters? Where did you draw your inspirations from?

My creative process always stems from sitting in a quiet room and listening. I meditate and start with movement and asking my “creative eye” to seek permission from the voices that want to be heard. I have thousands of stories jumbled in me like a large ball of yarn in different colours, so the first two days of my character-building and world-building untangling and unraveling each story, character and world they find themselves in. This is often a 2 day process. For this particular work, I drew from the lives of people that I have met. From stories that I had heard. From memories of my own life growing up in Bulawayo.

Each of the characters was unique, displaying experiences that were drawn from real-life stories. Two of those characters depict dramatic scenes of a transwoman raped and the other, a gay couple killed. How do you manage the emotions, jumping from one character to the other?

I am glad you asked this question. The best way of describing the process is that it often feels to me like I am channelling their essence into the room. For that moment that I am “them”, I am fully immersed in the work of representing them with my body as an instrument. This means that my vocals shift scale to accommodate the mimicry of the gender I’m playing in that moment. I go on a journey with that character and when we reach our destination, I release them gently and proceed with the next character and so on. But at the end of the performance I have to thank them for allowing me to portray them.

How much of these characters speak to your own lived experiences?

I think they all have an element of me in them and I in them. We have the same needs and wants as human beings. It is only in the trajectory that presents itself that actions to acquire those needs and wants that separate us.

I find that the stories through the characters were also educational. One of the characters spoke about PEP? Could you go into that?

PEP is an abbreviation for Post-Exposure Prophylaxis. It is a preventative treatment aimed at reducing the risk of acquiring HIV. The treatment regimen involves taking antiretroviral medications after potential exposure to the virus in order to prevent the establishment of HIV infection to people that may have been exposed. It has to be administered within 72 hours after the event. It typically takes about 28 – 30 days of treatment.

Photos: Jonathan Rogne / Oslo Pride

Despite the tragic moments, you also weaved in humour, was this intentional? 

Yes. It was. Humour is often weaving itself even where tragedy abounds. In my mother tongue, Northern Ndebele, we have a saying, “Kuyahlekwa la nxa kufiwe” loosely translated as “Even in death there is laughter”. Although some of these characters are experiencing pain, hurt, and discrimination, they still experience laughter and humorous moments. I think that in itself holds a certain beauty.

I understand that Uganda has recently passed an anti-gay / anti-LGBTQ law, how has that affected you?

It really hit me hard. I marched with hundreds of other queerfolk in Cape Town in protest when news reached us that the Ugandan Parliament was pushing for this law. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, they went ahead with it. I have friends there in Uganda. I know of some that are in Camp Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, facing terrible treatment and violent attacks from fellow refugees. I am a firm believer that when others aren’t free, none of us are. It occurred to me that governments and churches in our continent are willing to sacrifice our lives for votes and whatever it’ll take to get the support they need for whatever their needs are for the season.

What messages would you like the audience to take away from the performance?

The simple message that we ARE people. There is often this notion that our lives are cheap and can be snuffed out at any moment and nobody will miss us. We come from families. We are fathers, children, uncles, siblings and we’re here. We’re present in praise and worship teams in churches and other places that are so vocal in their hatred for us.

Have you always liked to perform?

Yes! Since I was 8. I was that age when I got cast in my first play at school.

If we could turn back time, what would you say to your younger self?

I would say, “Listen more. Speak when you really have something to say.”

Now that you are finding your ground in Norway, reuniting with your husband, what are your 3 favourite places in Oslo so far?

Vigelandsparken, Ekebergparken and our home in Gamlebyen.

*Coloureds (Afrikaans: Kleurlinge or Bruinmense, lit. ‘Brown people’) refers to members of multiracial ethnic communities in Southern Africa who may have ancestry from more than one of the various populations inhabiting the region, including African, European, and Asian.

Ka Man Mak

Ka Man is an investigative journalist, documentary photographer, and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of The Oslo Desk. She is a British-born Hong Konger residing in Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master in Environmental Geoscience and have taken numerous diplomas including child psychology, and a course in big data analytics at OsloMet. Made numerous publications in newsletters, magazines and Norwegian newspapers. Interested in edtech, constructive journalism, women in migration, Cantonese language, alternatives to capitalism and asylum policy.