Why it's tough to be this beautiful in Africa

Declan Walsh
Saturday 13 September 2003 00:00
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At first glance, Tamara cuts the figure of a striking African woman. She is tall and slender with dark ebony skin. Long black tresses fall to her shoulders, and a lipstick-coated cigarette dangles from fingers coated in violet nail varnish.

Perched cross-legged on her seat, the 27-year-old flicks through a ragged copy of Hello! magazine and enthuses about clubbing, gossip and the merits of "strong men". But it is a deception, of sorts.

Under the made-up cheeks lies a pale shaving shadow. Her voice has a creaky high pitch and there is a modest bulge in her jeans. Because beneath the perfumed feminine gloss, Tamara is a man.

In many African societies, homosexuality is seen as a devilish aberration. If possible, transvestites are regarded as even worse. Whereas in Britain she might be accepted as a transsexual, in Africa Tamara - not her real name - betrays her secret only to friends and lovers. Carelessness has a cost: being hounded down dark streets, stripped, shaved, beaten and jailed.

It is a tough life, but not one of her choosing, she says. As the son of Rwandan Tutsi refugees exiled in Burundi, childhood was confusing.

The young boy found he preferred dolls to balls; later he attended matches only to sneak a peek at the players' muscular legs.

When Tamara started experimenting with wigs and dresses in her teens, relatives were scandalised. But her mother, after some pain, has accepted her. "She loves me so much," she says with a smile.

Not everyone else does, as she has discovered in subsequent travels around east Africa. At 20, she left home. In Zanzibar, policemen denounced her as "sick" and chucked her in prison, where they shaved her head and confiscated her dress and jewellery. Inside the grimy jail, her saviour was a sympathetic and "rather handsome" warden who saved her from beatings and shared his food.

A month later she got out, after a Norwegian boyfriend greased the magistrate's palm with $200 (£125). Returning to her parents' homeland, Rwanda, there was also trouble. Officials delayed her passport application for two years, scorning her as a "queer". Soldiers threatened to kill her. One night police hauled her from a hotel bar and beat her to a pulp. As she languished in prison, her father died. They released her the day after his burial. Now she dresses as a man when she is in the capital, Kigali. "You don't play with the Rwandans," she says. "For them, you are nothing." In contrast, folk across the border in war-torn Burundi are more tolerant, she adds.

White men make the best boyfriends, because they are more "civilised". For a time, Tamara lived with a French aid worker in Uganda. But Africans are bad news. "They are hypocrites," she says. "They can make love to you at night but the next day they won't look at you."

A few times men have chatted her up, believing she was a woman. On discovering the truth, some have accepted her identity calmly, others with violence.

"Usually I tell them the truth at first. But not always," she says coyly.

Tamara feels complete only when dressed as a woman. Every day she softens her skin with creams and almond oil. She shaves carefully, masking the shadow with foundation. The appearance of breasts comes from a special bra filled with water. She makes money from trading clothes and make-up, and from the men she dates.

Wealthy businessmen pay for beach holidays, rent and food. An elderly Englishman living in an upmarket Nairobi suburb is a current boyfriend. There are others, too. Tamara claims to have slept with more than 100 men. On a recent holiday on the Kenyan coast, she gave eight Indian teenagers oral sex in her hotel room.

But more often than not, it is a lonely existence. A circle of friends offers support, but Tamara's happiest moments are alone. "I often feel closed in, not at peace in my heart. I love being on my own, with music. That's how I feel alive." She wants to flee to Europe, where she feels she will find acceptance and perhaps that elusive sex-change operation. "I want to be a girl. I dream of it in my sleep," she says. A friend is helping her apply for a visa, but there are many complications. Yet Tamara is hopeful. "If I leave I'm never coming back here," she says. "I want to live in another world."

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