Award-winning short film highlights the plight of transgender sex workers

Elijah Ndoumbe is the film-maker behind ‘Prayers for Sweet Waters’. SUPPLIED

Elijah Ndoumbe is the film-maker behind ‘Prayers for Sweet Waters’. SUPPLIED

Published Aug 7, 2022


Cape Town - Award-winning Cape Town film-maker Elijah Ndoumbe is on a quest to advance and tell queer stories throughout Africa.

In some parts of Africa, homosexuality is still punishable by death.

Ndoumbe recently won Best South African Short Film for “Prayers for Sweet Waters” at the Durban International Film Festival.

The documentary film follows the lives of three Cape Town-based transgender sex workers, and their lives during the pandemic.

Ndoumbe said creating any project as a film-maker took blood, sweat and tears.

“When you get the award, you can’t believe it because it’s been years of hard work. The success has made me grateful that these stories are being given a platform.

“There were years of me questioning if the work that I do and the approach I take is worth it as I never studied film, but it has been affirming,” Ndoumbe added.

“Prayers for Sweet Waters“ premiered at the academy-qualifying Hamptons International Film Festival and was officially selected to be showcased at New Fest in 2021, where it won an award.

Ndoumbe was born in France and first visited Cape Town in 2016 as part of studies at Stanford University.

Ndoumbe studied African and African-American studies along with feminist gender and sexuality.

The choice to explore these topics came from wanting an expansion of knowledge, Ndoumbe said.

“The information we were taught in school lacked critical context. It was missing an understanding of the world that I lived in, as a mixed-race and queer, transgender person.”

Ndoumbe added: “I wanted to inform my process and understanding as I moved through the world.”

In 2017, Ndoumbe relocated to Cape Town and started working with the Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) as a volunteer.

Ndoumbe started working in film photography in 2015. While working with SWEAT he created the documentary ”Sistaazhood: Conversations on Violence“.

“They wanted me to create a film about the violence transgender women experience as sex workers. I didn’t know what to do but I took it on.”

Three years after “Sistaazhood: Conversations on Violence“, Ndoumbe created ”Prayers for Sweet Waters“, which seemed an almost natural progression of creative pursuits.

“There were a lot of things going on in my own life at the time. That was when I was going through my medical transition, and stepping into myself, and my work,” said Ndoumbe.

Elijah Ndoumbe’s documentary film has won an award for 'Best South African Short Film’. SUPPLIED

Last year, Ndoumbe was an artist in residence at Black Rock, an artist residency programme, in Senegal, a country where same-sex marriages are not recognised and same-sex sexual activity is deemed a crime.

Ndoumbe said they believe that Black Rock protected artists as it is a space that had a lot of access.

“I’m grateful for that being my entry point into Dakar, Senegal. I think that what protected me in Senegal was that I was being read as a man by many people in public spaces,” Ndoumbe said.

“I came in with the intention of connection because I knew that two months would be too short (a time) for me to comfortably create substantial work around queer identity.

“The residency was a space for me to connect with other elements of my work, which is music and movement.”

A still from ‘Prayers for Sweet Waters’ featuring Flavirina Nana. SUPPLIED

Flavirina Nana is a transgender woman featured inPrayers for Sweet Waters”. Nana moved to Cape Town from Burundi 12 years ago to escape persecution because of her sexual orientation.

Nana, 40, said Cape Town was an easier choice because of the safety it would provide her, as a queer woman.

“Being transgender in Burundi meant you could never be yourself in public. The government doesn’t allow the LGBTQI community to be free,” she said.

“You will get arrested just for living your truth,” she added.

Although homophobia is present all over the world, Nana said she appreciates that she can live her truth in Cape Town.

“Stigmatising will happen wherever you go but at least here in Cape Town, being part of the LGBTQI community is clean,” she said.

Nana said the advancement of queer rights in Africa needs education and policy change in the form of transgender legislation being viewed as psychologically abnormal.

“There is very little information about being queer that is made available to the public. If it can be taught in academia, it can have a positive ripple effect,” she said.

“Transgender people need to be accepted for who we are.”

Spokesperson for SWEAT Megan Lessing compared LGBTQI rights in South Africa to the rest of Africa.

“In South Africa, LGBTQI rights, on paper, enjoy constitutional and legal recognition, but social discrimination, homophobia and violent crimes against South African queer people do still occur, far more than it should,” she said.

Lessing said lives were not lived on paper.

“At SWEAT, we understand that legislation does not serve as a panacea for discrimination,” she said.

She added: “We support legislation that both fully recognises the vulnerabilities of a community to violence, stigma and discrimination; and have clear repercussions for those who continue to violate the rights of others.”

Weekend Argus

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