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Ancestors calling: Experiences of a South African trans-man PDF Print E-mail

Tebogo Calvin NkoanaTebogo Calvin Nkoana shares his experience as a trans‐man in South Africa, and how his calling from the Ancestors has given him an experience different to other transgendered people.

He shared his life story at the Gender Odyssey Conference in Seattle, WA, United States on 30 August 2008.

How do African people see the Ancestors?

In my culture, the Ancestors are parents or extended family members who have died. Most people in my community respect their Ancestors, believing that they have achieved a divine status and are a path to communicating with the Creator. It is believed that they have special powers to communicate with and mediate between both the Creator and the living at the same time, as they no longer experience the limitations of being physical humans.

The ways of referring to Ancestors in African languages point to some fundamental beliefs and principles:

  • In my culture it is believed that death is a transfer from living physically to spiritual life, therefore the dead are dead in flesh but their spirit is still alive and taking care of their family. It is believed that they are involved in family affairs.
  • The relationship between the dead and the living never ends.
  • Ancestors are believed to be closer to the Creator than the living. They communicate with the Creator, and are therefore able to protect their family members from dangerous, harmful and evil spirits.
  • Ancestors have needs just like the living. It is the responsibility of the living to meet the needs of the ancestors. Failure to do so can result in retribution, which could be in a form of sickness or misfortune. Sometimes the Ancestors’ needs are expressed in the form of a ‘Calling’, which means that the Ancestors give one a certain responsibility to serve on earth in one’s community. This responsibility can be to save people’s lives or to explain people’s dreams or the signs that people come across; in other words, to be a traditional healer.

Tebogo Nkoana


When I was about 6 years old, I could see that I was not doing what was expected of me as a genetic female. I realised that I was different to other girls. Most of the time I felt like a boy, but I was surprised at why my private parts looked different to other boys.

As I was growing up, my masculinity became very visible. People started calling me tomboy. Some would even say I was a lesbian. Those names really made me feel very bad because all I wanted was just to be a normal boy and live freely like other children. But that did not happen.

When I was about 10‐11 years old, I heard a myth that says that if a crab bites you, your gender changes to the opposite one. I really wanted it to bite me but when I thought of the pain it was going to give me I immediately decided against it.

Puberty before the Ancestors’ Calling

When I reached puberty and was around boys more than girls, I realised that my body was developing differently from boys. I wanted to look strong and have my lovely flat chest forever, but my body started developing in a feminine way.

That just destroyed me, because I was not comfortable having a girl’s body. My parents were aware of my feelings but they never acknowledged it. Instead, they prepared me for my adolescent stage as a girl. They warned me about the things that could affect my future as a girl. They started teaching me all the things that women are supposed to do, or to the roles of women in their lives.

Some of these expectations were:

  • to wear woman’s clothing,
  • to take responsibility for the home, ie cooking, cleaning and looking after children
  • gathering with women to discuss community matters, and being excluded from gatherings of men
  • walking and talking in feminine ways
  • deferring to men’s wishes

I hated that period because I felt like they were teaching me things that I should not know, as I strongly looked at myself as a young man who should be prepared for manhood.

During the Ancestor calling

Tebogo Calvin Nkoana's FamilyAt about 14 I started getting sick and spent most of my time in hospitals. But no doctor could tell what was wrong with me. My family then decided to take a traditional path, and to consult a traditional healer (known as a ‘sangoma’) to find out what the problem was.

According to the traditional consultant, my sickness was a warning that my Ancestors were calling me to practise traditional herbal healing. When my parents investigated more, they discovered that the Ancestor who was calling me was a male person.

They were very shocked to hear this, since most often the Calling comes to a male from a male Ancestor and to a female from a female Ancestor. They were also surprised since I was still so young.

It is believed that being Called by the Ancestors means that the one who is Called continues that Ancestor’s life. My parents started to accept and respect my desire to represent myself as a male. Since that day they have respected and supported me.

Community within my township

Consultation of a traditional healerNeighbours became very curious to know how my family dealt with my Gender identity, because it was surprising to them to see me and my family getting along well. My mother told them: “he inherited it from his great grandfather”.

ImageThe people in my area became convinced when they heard the Ancestor stories my mother shared. They started to understand my situation and started to respect me without any hesitation.

Since then, I’ve been living freely and I’ve been able to express my masculinity. I’ve also been treated like any other man in our community.


ImageAfrican culture helped me to escape the discrimination and stereotypes in my community. My treatment was different from other FTM transgendered people, thanks to my having a Calling by a male Ancestor.

Tebogo Calvin Nkoana is traditional healer ("Sangoma") and works as a Outreach Officer for Gender DynamiX.


Users' Comments (4) RSS feed comment
Posted by Poul Lieght, on 03-09-2008 07:12, , Guest
1. Anscestors
Thank you so Much for your work and your words.  
I'm a German/Swedish/Welsh/Cherokee child, who previously identified as White and as a dyke. Havinig grown up in military culture, my own culture was hidden, as well as having learned how to interact and be friendly to other cultures and observe how they have been destroyed by the military makes me so sad. 
Since asking to connect with my own ancestors, I've been being led down a path of discovery about myself as male spirited, and also connecting to the idea that I am of the earth, and cannot separate spirit from where I am from.  

Posted by Chris, on 02-09-2008 13:44, , Guest
2. Culture
Thank you for an insightful article. Do you consider this as an unique experience or is it more common in your culture?

Posted by Andrea Elva Mulder, on 01-09-2008 08:02, , Registered
3. Well done
Your article was very informative and keep up the good work. I also think that you should write a book on your life as it will create understanding in many ways.

Posted by Zain, on 31-08-2008 21:25, , Guest
4. Good on you
Hey Dude 
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and think you should consider publishing a book. I work alot in the communities in the townships and have often wondered what the response would be if they knew I was an FTM. I have always been fascinated by the African culture and even more so now having studied quite alot of it including traditional african religion. I take my hat off to your courage and determination. Well done.

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