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Being Kat Kai Kol-Kes: A Motswana Trans* Woman’s Art and Activism

 

She describes herself as an ARTivist, who writes plays, sings, is a member of the arts collective Inside/Out, once appeared on Botswana’s largest talent competition, MyStar, which propelled her into Botswana’s “popularity sphere” and got her noticed elsewhere, and she wants to make the slogan “All you need is love” international law. She has been nominated for numerous awards including the 2015 Chevrolet African Feather of the Year Award , is a Wits graduate, a 2016 Chevening Scholar, a 2016 YALI Regional Leadership Centre Southern Africa Fellow, and she recently joined the advisory team of the Troy Perry awards.

She is Botswana’s first openly trans* identifying public figure and not only has a lot to say but is doing necessary social justice work through her art.

If there is anything she can’t do, we wanted to find out, so we decided to ask Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile, also known as Kat Kai Kol-Kes, a few questions.

As a Motswana transgender woman, as an African, what do you hope that your personal story, and your activism, will do for others in Botswana and on the continent as a whole? 

One thing must be said and that is “I am not in this for me”. In the words of a beloved Setswana Christian hymn: I am just a guest passing through this world. For Botswana I hope that some 11-year-old trans-identifying child out there – ravaged by pubescent confusion and rage – will understand that they are not the first to think, feel, or be the way they are; and that there will be allowances in place to support them through their journey. For those of the generation that came before me, I hope that they see that their efforts have resulted in a more vocal and deeply academically and politically invested generation of change makers focused on making our lives matter on a national level. For who will follow me, I want them to see everything I have ever done and achieved as nothing – in the most respectful manner. I want them to set their own goals and make sure that their wildest dreams become someone else’s baseline reality. I’ve written before that trans* lives matter, in Botswana and in Africa as much as anywhere else in the world; and I sincerely want more people to believe and drive towards this truth being a mantra.

What’s been the most touching thing you’ve experienced as a result of your ARTivism, as you call it? 

There’s something special in watching your work open people’s minds and I’ve seen that over and over again. These experiences unfold when I least expect it and each one presents a new dimension of looking at the work I do. Right now, the three top experiences are:

-I got to speak to world leaders about developing an inclusive Africa using the arts as a communicative medium – and they all endorsed the vision I presented.

-Someone I revere sent me a message saying: “I have been seeing you in my meditations, and I just want you to know that your work is educating us bit by bit. Keep up the good work.”

-A brother to a lesbian-identifying woman told me how much he wishes he had the voice I have because he wants the world to see his sister as just a human no matter what; and this broke my heart because the world isn’t inherently a mean place but for as long as we teach that difference is an evil, we will keep inflicting suffering upon ourselves and others around us – we really just need to change the way we teach and I’ve seen the new ways taking effect bit by bit.

Recently, the Orlando shooting has been on everybody’s mind and we’ve all been talking about it, or should be. What in your words has it been like, still having to see that LGBT people face such violence? 

I’m happy that you said “or should be” because there were a lot of people who were ignorant to the massacre – myself included, until my producer asked me if I’d want to do a special episode of my podcast “Queer Me Out” focusing on the issue. Media has a way of alienating people, so as a person who is selective about the kind of news I access, I was out of the loop for a few hours but then once I was in I was all in. The sad truth is that we are still being killed and abused based on our ‘difference’ as LGBTQIA+ people but I think it’s all rooted in the fact that those who ‘other’ us don’t want to see the humanity in us.

You don’t see gay people unleashing attacks on ‘straight’ places, because as LGBTQIA+ people, we know that we are everywhere and everyone deserves the right to life.

What about your art is a space for healing? 

My creative motto is “Art is Truth” and I have it tattooed on my arm. Truth is inevitably freeing, but it’s also very subjective. One must bear witness to it, one must attest to it, one must believe it wholeheartedly, and these can all happen through different means and at different moments. My one-man play, Sakeng, is an observation of the burden of masculinity on different generations of the Motswana male – something we have little interrogation of. We assume that all young men want to, or must want to, become farmers and heads of households and breadwinners and super athletes and all the sort, but what if they don’t – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identities? What if traditional leaders want more Queendoms in Botswana? Would we as their subjects allow them to enforce the rule of women without calling them lazy or weak? I think the healing space is created in the fact that every question is rooted in honesty and a desire for discovery, which in essence disrupts everything but brings you closer to freedom.

Describe Queer Shorts Showcase Festival and what its aims are? 

The Queer Shorts Showcase Festival is a family friendly, short form theatre festival which also happens to be the first LGBT-themed theatre platform in Botswana. It was founded in 2014 as a way of bridging the space between contemporary queer livelihoods and how they are understood and discussed in Botswana.

We take issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity and put these on stage in a Botswana context – the festival isn’t about promoting the ‘gay agenda’. I grew up with only US-based examples of queer characters and my parents didn’t have spaces they could go engage with their age mates to talk and hear other people’s opinions and experiences about queer people in Botswana, and so I decided to offer Botswana this platform for us to not only promote original content from Botswana, but to also start creating an archive of LGBT-themed work produced in Botswana which can be used for entertainment as well as educational purposes, and travel the world. The works produced and showcased are limited to 20 minutes running time to keep them bite-sized.

At the end of each performance festival we host a dialogue between performers, writers and audience members so any questions or burning issues can be addressed in a style similar to a traditional kgotla convening.

Photo: Faith in a Jar (by Neo J Mokgosi)

Photo: Faith in a Jar (by Neo J Mokgosi)

You are highly quotable, and talk about knowing that you were destined for success because of your name. Who has shaped this innate wisdom? Who have been your mentors and those who you learned the most from?  

I believe that only fools declare themselves wise, it’s a narcissism I try steer clear of – unlike others which I think are healthy for self esteem and confidence. I think that what you call wisdom is born of the humility instilled in me by my mother and those who invested their time in watching me and preserving my shine. I am very fortunate to have my name as a guide and to have received it from a man who shaped and changed lives immensely. My friends continue to teach me through life so I can’t ever miss the role they play in my aspirations. But what I use to gauge success is always evolving – right now, it’s striving for and maintaining a sharpness of mind, and clarity of spirit and purpose; which are harder to get to than you might think.

As for mentors, I’m that child it took a village to raise. My parents, my mother and her sisters, my school principals, my primary school PE teacher, my high school Setswana teacher, and all my music instructors have been amazing sources of exemplary discipline infused with the joy of life which is art driven. I’ll talk again about my father to say that I learned a lot from and about him after his death, in the way that people still hold him in such high regard. The way that people compare what I am doing with what he did. He’s been an amazing benchmark and I consistently work and hope that my legacy one day glistens with moments of honest excellence the way his does.

 

(Chasing Jaykb is the band project Kat sings in, and the name is a tribute to her father, Jacob Koko Kesupile.)

What in daily life might have been a barrier to that and how do you keep those potential barriers at bay?

Good psychological health is something I think we don’t promote enough and the toughest body part to repair has to be the mind. I’ve struggled with periods of self doubt, self loathing, self harm and the sort, and these moments were always in private because I thought none could ever understand or see me the same again. You never want to be a burden so you suffocate in silence. It took a lot for me to take ownership of my happiness and very selfishly so, but once you see your self worth, your greatness isn’t a destination but rather a destiny you craft the path to. I keep my mind healthy by living by the one fundamental principle of love – it’s free and it’s freeing – everything else comes after when you can look at the world around with love and as a place full of love and deserving of love.

What can you tell any transgender people about your journey that might help them, in any way? And what can you tell those who aren’t LGBT to keep in mind? 

People talk, that’s what they do. Mean words hurt because they stay on replay in your mind no matter what. My advice to trans* identifying people is to develop two skins – one you know you can keep regenerating as you grow more and more into yourself as defined by you; and one you keep with all the scars and wounds from your daily battles. The second skin is necessary because scars are memories – some good some bad, but memories all the same – and memories always carry lessons and/or reminders with them. You can’t be proud without a history, so that’s why I say “hold on and keep on keeping on.”

The main mistake that most non-LGBTQIA+ people fall into is thinking that their lives and their happiness aren’t affected by the livelihoods of LGBTQIA+ people, which in fact they are. LGBT rights are not special human rights, they are focused rights for a demographic which has been unjustly institutionally excluded and I think everyone needs to advocate for correcting these wrongdoings, globally. Not everyone’s an activist, but everyone should have open access to a free and happy life, and to get there everyone in their capacity as a human being should do something – no matter how big or small – to get us to equality. You don’t have to like me, just respect my right to life.

You have this great sense of style. What is your style philosophy? 

I’ve been quoted saying “Life’s too short to wear a bad outfit” and that is my style philosophy… I dress for death. I always question if I’d be happy being found dead in something and that helps me see each opportunity to get (un)dressed as a chance to play.

Style is about maintaining the spirit of discovery and playfulness. As a stylist, I offer my clients the basic guides for what works and what doesn’t but they are always generic because we are not one person – it’s your body and your rules apply. I have a few trademark looks, but besides those anything goes from gypsy chic to high fashion.

It’s been asked of you before, but how do you want to be remembered? 

The words may change but the essence will stay the same. I want to be remembered for my character rather than for what I have or don’t have. A homeless man changed the course of my life, and still to date I remember him fondly but I didn’t know his name, where he was from, why he was on the street; but I remember the kind gapped-tooth smiles and the warmth and generosity of his character.

“For who will follow me, I want them to see everything I have ever done and achieved as nothing – in the most respectful manner” Kat Kai Kol-Kes

 

 

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