The Cape Flats are cold and wet, but it’s warm and welcoming in Bra' Mo's* place in Crossroads. From outside a faint glow is visable through a slit in the curtains. A stack of empty bottles lies near the front door.
But when the door opens, laughter and shrieks of excitement spill out over the pavement.
``Hola! I’m just fetching more chairs from next door,’’ 52-year-old Mo explains while rushing past into the rain. When he returns, another five men have arrived.
Mo runs out again.
For the rest of the evening, men come and go, sometimes disappearing two at a time into one of the two small bedrooms in the back.
It’s not easy being gay in the township. Mo is seen as the big daddy, the ``queer mother'' of Crossroads. He provides a space for gay men to be themselves.
``To us! We who have to look out for each other’s wellbeing,’’ Mo says, lifting his glass. ``May no-one here ever get sick or die alone . . .''
Bra Mo’s home in Crossroads is a few blocks from the clinic where an HIV vaccine is being tested. He works as an administrator at the clinic and dishes out advice to his guests, together with food and drink.
A friendly welcome
Mo’s house rules are very clear. A framed hand-written wooden sign a few inches above the TV reads: ``Ndincede mutakwethu yenza ozokuyenza apha kuba enyenenye. Ayifuni wena itsho into khululeka.'' Loosely translated it means: ``This is my house, don't judge what I'm doing.'' Another sign tells guests that higher powers are always visiting - God the Father and the ancestors: ``Imizamo yam yophela ndakuti ka kuwe.''
Bra' Mo's door is always open.
It’s 10am when Mo opens the door, a Black Label quart in hand.
``Come in. They don't allow me to sleep. I'm so tired. But I can't miss out on anything.''
Bra Mo says he has known he was gay ``since that photograph was taken''. He gestures at a framed, black and white photograph of himself at sixteen.
``But at that time I couldn't say anything. Men don't do these things. But as young boys we sometimes had to sleep very close together at our homes in Cathcart. And then we did do something.''
He worked as a policeman in Tilden for eight years. In that time he got married to a police clerk. ``She was sixteen when I met her.’’
They were married for 12 years and had two sons before he fell in love with a nurse and followed her to Cape Town. But she left him when she caught him in bed with a young man.
``She was broken. I won't ever forget her face there in the doorway. I don't want to forget that face. No other woman I care for should ever look like that again.''
A very respectable explanation
Over lunch Mabhuti Mkangeli (36) arrives. He is a respected, soft-spoken gay activist from Lower Crossroads who works at the Triangle Project.
He is just explaining the concept of MSMs (men having sex with men), when two young men arrive in a blue Mazda.
``They love having sex with gays,'' someone announces just before they walk in.
Fanie* (30) kisses Mabuthi on the lips as he enters and sits down across from him. His friend Tshepo* (24) sits on the floor in front of the TV watching Leon Shuster's You Must Be Joking.
``We know you are moffies, but we feel comfortable here. You are good to us,'' says Fanie.
``And if I like to be on my own, I sit and watch TV,” Tshepo adds. “No-one bugs me, no-one pushes me to do something I don’t want to.''
Mo, who slipped out earlier, now arrives back with another boot-load of beers. ``See how nice it is here?'' Tshepo exclaims.
Pushed to explain what they get from sex with men, if they are in fact ‘straight’, they clam up. ``That's something private!''
``It's a problem,'' Ronnie Ngalo (44), a respected community leader says. ``Men having sex with men do not like to use condoms. It makes the experience less pleasant, they say. And then they go back to their wife or girlfriend who says: `Why do you want to wear a condom if you only have sex with me.' This is why these men also don't use condoms to not make their wives suspicious.''
Mabhuti steers clear of men with wives and girlfriends. ``As a gay activist I don't want to be part of that stigma that gay men want to turn all straight men gay. I keep to gay lovers. ''
Thursday is big party night in the townships
``We call it Hlamba izipaji. Washing of wallets. People are drinking to prepare for the party of the weekend,'' Sammi (29), one of Mo's neighbours explains.
Again, there are no women in sight.
``Sho, sho, sho! It will lead to cat fights,’’ Ronnie says.
``We have sex with men but we say it’s our friends,” Sammi adds. “Some of their wives know, others don't know, some will fight back.
``I'm from Gugulethu. My sister is a nurse and accepts me as a gay man, but the rest of the family don't know. My lover stays with his parents in a hokkie in the back yard. There we can meet alone.''
Sammi walks over to a man hidden in the corner and hugs him. ``This is my lover. He is a teacher at a school here nearby.''
Buthi* (37) is the big, silent type. He wears a long black leather trench coat and sits in the corner dragging on a long beaded pipe, usually reserved for the elders in Xhosa villages.
In the late afternoon Themba (37), makes an entrance no-one can ignore.
``On Saturdays I’m gay and do boys. On Sundays I’m playing straight and go for girls,’’ he sings with a Savanna in one hand. He's a lecturer at a Cape Town university and has a fifteen-year-old son.
``He looks like me. But he is stubborn. And he has a big problem with my lifestyle. He will tell me: `Please don't talk like that, don't do that. I'm fed-up with your gayness’.''
Themba's partner is Victor (23), a young Usher look-alike behind trendy sunglasses. They met four months ago at Rosie's in De Waterkant.
``I like him because he's so self-assured. When he asked me to get married, it felt like a good idea at the time.''
The two are engaged, although men hover constantly around Victor, forcing Themba to intervene. Victor stays in Phillipi with his aunt and works as waiter in Cape Town.
``To move in with Themba in Wynberg? Not yet. We have to be very sure before I do that. But it's difficult to be myself staying with the family.''
At this point, Themba announces: ``The constitution protects my rights. I have the right to drink this. I have the right to love this man.
``We grew up in such a restricted society. When we come out the closet, we fall out. You will know I'm gay. I'll make sure of that.''
At Phuga’s restaurant and pub in Gugs, Bra’ Mo and friends have just finished an afternoon of drinking. They had a braai at the world-renowned Mzoli's next door and are walking back to his place.
Losing a friend
It’s Saturday afternoon and, in at least three houses within a block, people have gathered under tents for funeral services.
``We lost five friends to Aids, but we found that out only after they were buried. They had to die alone,’’ remarks Mo.
``You never really know how many of your friends are busy dying of this sickness. There is still a huge stigma here in the township.’’
In the front yard of one of the new houses in White City, Nyanga, a family is slaughtering chickens – five feathered corpses already lie to one side waiting to be boiled in a pot.
In the graveyard nearby, kids are playing cricket among the headstones.
Life and death live side by side here.
A car drives by: ``Molweni moffies!'' the drunk youngsters shout.
``Ag, we know,'' Mo shouts back. ``Tonight. After nine we’ll see you. You will come knocking on my door!''
* Pseudonyms used…
(Health24, August 2010)
Loving a man with HIV
Pieter van Zyl is a fellow of the HIV/AIDS & the Media Project, a partnership between the Perinatal HIV Research Unit and the Journalism Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand. This article is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of USAID/Johns Hopkins University Project South Africa and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.