When Njabulo Mnyandu arrived in Lisdoonvarna in September 2019, the streets of the Co Clare town were packed with crowds celebrating the annual matchmaking festival. Mnyandu, who uses the pronoun “they”, had arrived in Ireland two months earlier, seeking asylum from the persecution they suffered as a trans person in South Africa. Initially, Mnyandu was nervous when they learned they were being transferred from the reception centre in Finglas to a direct-provision centre in the west of Ireland.
“The receptionist told me it was three to four hours from Dublin and the anxiety crept in. She said it was a village and I started panicking. What if the people of Lisdoonvarna didn’t accept my sexuality? I thought if it’s a remote village, probably the people there will be set in their ways of not accepting people who are not their own. Thankfully, I know now I was wrong.”
When they arrived in the town, Mnyandu discovered the festival was holding an LGBTQ+ event and felt temporary relief that it was an open-minded place. But when the event was moved to a different location, outside the town, they became anxious.
“I wondered why did they cancel it? Is it because of their feelings towards LGBT people? But then I went to the festival and nobody looked at me any differently; nobody noticed my colour or my sexuality. I was just me—and it was so much fun.”
Feeling different is something Mnyandu, who was born and brought up between Johannesburg and the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, has lived with their entire life. Their parents emigrated to South Africa from Malawi before their only child was born. While Mnyandu positively remembers being “raised by a community”, they struggled with their identity from an early age.
“I had that box for gays and lesbians, nothing wider than that. I somewhat identified with being a lesbian, in terms of I was interested in females, but beyond that there was something more I dared not venture into.”
Although South Africa’s constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and allows same-sex marriage, the country’s LGBTQ+ community regularly experience discrimination and often violence. Being a trans person is even more dangerous, says Mnyandu.
“It depends on the community you are mixing with, but overall there are major risks involved. South Africa on paper is all for LGBT rights, but in practice it’s not like that.”
Mnyandu was working in the engineering sector of the mining industry before they decided to leave the country. “It was a male-dominated industry, and at that time I had not come out as trans; I was still viewed as a woman. So I was the only woman at the time and the only woman of colour. So it was sort of a double oppression in a way. But I loved my work.”
Mnyandu started moving around South Africa as the abuse for being trans intensified. “I had to drop out of work because of what I was going through and exhausted all the places where I could get legal help. South Africa just became too small for me. I was facing physical danger, I had no choice but to leave.”
Mnyandu had read about Ireland’s 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage, and heard about the country’s openly gay then taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Mnyandu eventually flew to Dublin in July 2019.
They requested asylum at Dublin Airport and was then sent to the Balseskin reception centre, in Finglas in north Dublin. At first Mnyandu felt nervous about how other residents would treat a transgender man. “These people who have arrived from different countries and claimed asylum, they come for different reasons. They might hold hostility to people who are LGBT. Just because you’re an asylum seeker doesn’t mean you understand LGBT people. So I had to realise that there was still that danger.”
With the help of the centre’s manager, Mnyandu contacted LGBT Ireland and met a representative from the support group. “There was a bit of an interview, and I didn’t know what they wanted to ask me. But as soon as the meeting was finished I understood why it had to be done: they needed to create a safe space for LGBT asylum seekers. I made a home in that organisation; they made me feel safe to be in Ireland. They helped me come out of yet another closet and be openly trans.”
Mnyandu continued travelling to Dublin for meetings after their transfer to Lisdoonvarna — a place they discovered was extremely quiet once the matchmaking festivities had ended. However, they felt support from direct-provision staff, particularly after management dealt with a homophobic incident among other residents. “I liked the way they handled it; they went to such lengths to make me feel welcome. They held a workshop, and then people had a different understanding of LGBT people. They could come up and ask me about issues and pronouns, why I don’t want to be called ‘she’. It made me feel like I had a voice.”
Despite this support Mnyandu found the pandemic lockdowns extremely challenging. They were no longer able to travel to Dublin for face-to-face LGBT Ireland meetings and fell into a deep depression. “It was the lowest point in my life, because, even though I was in a safe space, the demons I’d ran away from came with full force. I was forced to think back about everything that happened. I was in a very dark space.”
But Mnyandu started seeing a psychotherapist in Limerick and in January 2021 they were selected to take part in the EY Ireland Supporting Refugees access programme. Next, they were invited to take up a summer internship, which was extended to a full-time contract with EY. Mnyandu now works remotely with EY’s project-management office support, where colleagues have encouraged them to grow and “come out of my shell”. “The reception I got within my team has been outstanding. I love my work and the constant learning and encouragement. From the company partner down to my peers, they assist me in everything.”
Mnyandu has also built a strong relationship with the Ennis queer women’s network and worked on the development of Clare County Council’s LGBT strategy.
“I realised I’m not an island: there are other people experiencing far worse than me. I’m in a safe place now, but there are people in South Africa still going through what I experienced. I wanted to bring awareness that this is ongoing. I don’t see myself as a victim: I’m a survivor. If I don’t give them a voice, who will?”
Mnyandu received leave to remain in Ireland in April and plans to move to Dublin to be closer to the EY office once their asylum paperwork is processed. They understand the criticisms of direct provision but say the system provided them with the safety they so desperately needed.
“I got protection, and that has been the most important thing to me. I never went to bed hungry – all the other stuff I could navigate through. I’m just enjoying being who I am now. The one thing I was concerned about was freedom. I’ve found that freedom here. I’m enjoying being free.”