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Writes Catherine Murombedzi
Julias’ story reads like cruel fiction. Raised as a girl, Julias spent years conforming to societal expectations for girls and women. He got married and gave birth to two children.
But like many transgender people, Julias suffered in silence. He submitted to his husband and society for a decade, becoming increasingly depressed, until the weight of living a lie became too heavy. Julias’ last name is not being used to protect his family.
After Julias told his parents and husband that he was not the woman they thought but rather a transgender man, Julias’ family took him for an exorcism at a church, hoping to change his identity as a transman.
Eventually banished from his parents’ homestead in central Zimbabwe, Julias moved to Kadoma in 2019, leaving his family behind and starting a new life as an artisanal, or independent, miner. Kadoma is in the Mashonaland West Province of Zimbabwe, where several precious metals are mined.
“We soon realized that we were both transmen,” said Sonza, Julias’ friend and next-door neighbor in Kadoma. Sonza requested the use of a pseudonym out of fear for his safety.
“We talked of our difficult past. Unlike him, I did not have children,” Sonza said. “I felt his burden. His family called him demonic because he had left his husband and children.”
Sonza described Julias as often appearing lost in thought. “He would not eat and remain locked indoors and did not answer his phone,” Sonza recalled. “Being an illegal miner, making ends meet was difficult. I was not surprised that my friend would take sex work to supplement his living,” said Sonza.
Then, in early 2022, Sonza said he realized Julias was pregnant.
During this time, Sonza noticed Julias recoiled into his shelter and became worried when Julias did not open his door for days.
“I knocked, and the door was locked. I forced the door open,” Sonza said.
“There he lay, unconscious, in a pool of blood. He had given birth alone.”
Sonza shouted to neighbors for help. Julias and the baby were rushed to a hospital. Julias required an emergency blood transfusion, but his blood type was in short supply. He died three days later, leaving behind a healthy baby girl.
Sonza informed Julias’ mother about his death and the baby, but she refused to come to Kadoma to claim Julias’ body for burial.
She told Sonza that she was not the mother of the transmas named Julias. She would only reconsider coming if Julias’ friends acknowledged that her child was not a transman.
After hitting a brick wall, the local transgender community gathered together at Julias’ place.
“Is this the way we should live?” Sonza recalled members of the transgender community asking. Instead, Sonza said the tragedy of Julias’ death and his daughter’s birth was a turning point for them.
Nobody in the community knew what to do with the baby or who the other biological parent was. Regardless, as a community, they bought baby clothing, milk formula, and diapers. Next, some good news arrived.
“One of our friends who had traveled to the rural area managed to persuade Julias’ mother to come. We were so happy when our friend phoned to say they were on their way,” Sonza said.
Julias’ mother asked that he be buried in Kadoma because she could not afford to transfer his body to the village.
The community told Julias’ mother that they would pay the transport costs. They took her to the funeral parlor to make arrangements and then went to the hospital to see the baby. That’s when Julias’ friends were informed that the baby’s stay was temporary. The hospital would have to hand the baby over to the Social Welfare Department if no parent or guardian was found.
“As a community, we assured the (head nurse) that we would be back in a week or two to collect the baby. We processed the necessary papers and traveled to the rural home to bury Julias,” Sonzo said.
“We arrived at midnight. We sang and danced until sunrise.”
As per tradition, an emissary was sent to the village headman at daybreak to keep the headman informed of the burial.
“We were fined two goats for bringing a corpse into the village without permission. As if that was not enough, the headman demanded a cow, as we had defiled his region,” Sonzo explained. The headman viewed transgender people and Julias’ burial as a defilement.
“We promised to pay the cow later. He gave us 14 days to do so,” said Sonzo.
Gumisayi Bonzo, founder of Trans Smart Trust, helped after learning of Julias’ death. Trans Smart Trust is an organisation that works to promote the inclusion and integration of human rights issues affecting transgender and intersex people in Zimbabwe.
“I had known Julias for six years,” said Bonzo. Julias had confided to Bonzo that he was a transman.
Bonzo had invited Julias to attend Trans Smart Trust meetings and was pleased to see him networking after relocating to Kadoma.
Bonzo said she thought Julias was doing well and sending financial support to his mother and children. Bonzo said she never knew of Julias’ new pregnancy, despite chatting with him often.
Bonzo was among those who attended Julias’ funeral.
“We traveled to his home area. We buried him with a handful of neighbors…showing no signs of bereavement,” said Bonzo.
The neighbors cursed the transgender people with falsities such as, “We are having droughts because of the evil deeds.”
“It was very sad to face stigma head-on,” she said.
Bonzo was part of the team that returned to Julias’ village 11 days later to pay the headman’s fines before the deadline. Julias’ mother was happy to see them but had expected to see Julias’ baby with them.
“We all had tears of joy. She asked us to name the baby. We named her Julia,” Bonzo said. Julias’ mother’s heart had found love for the baby. Back in the city, Julias’ friends got the baby a birth certificate with the grandmother as the guardian.
“It is not easy, but Julia deserves a life like all other children,” said Bonzo. The group felt it important that Julia did not suffer as a result of the sad circumstances of her birth.
In December 2023, some of Julia’s friends visited Julia and her grandmother again, bringing Christmas goodies.
Although baby Julia eventually found a welcome at her grandmother’s home, Zimbabwean LGBTQI+ activists agree that transgender people like Julias have a long way to go before acceptance and the prevention of more unnecessary deaths.