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Impact Story

Masi Zhakata: Nurturing the leader within

Masi Zhakata is a lesbian mother living in Cape Town, South Africa. Her story begins in Zimbabwe, when her family discovered her sexuality. After several members of her family tried to “fix” her with a process known as corrective rape, they forced her to marry a man. She became a wife and had a child, but the constant abuse and correction continued, and she knew she couldn’t survive it much longer.

After making the most difficult decision of her life, Masi gathered all her valuables, sold them in the street, kissed her daughter one last time, and left the only life she had ever known to flee to South Africa. When she arrived, she had no place to live and knew no one. Though she was attempting to live her true life as a lesbian woman, she was barely able to sustain herself, was increasingly depressed, and even attempted suicide several times.

A ray of hope

Then, in April of 2021, she found The Dream Academy, our intensive leadership course that focuses on socio-emotional wellbeing and employability skills training. Masi was skeptical at first, but also intrigued. She wanted to know what those white folks from California were getting out of it, so she stayed to find out. And it changed everything for her.

“I was on the verge of collapse, hungry for love, compassion, and the freedom to live my true authentic self. The Dream Academy came along and not only put me in the process of healing, but also gave me family. Now it’s my personal mission to pass it on to others.” 

A leader emerges

Shortly after graduating from the first Dream Academy class, she joined the TDA team as the first country director for South Africa. Three months later, she moved into the role of Global Director, a position she’s held for nearly two years. Masi is responsible for managing 14 staff members, leading courses, developing curriculum, helping train up-and-coming leaders from among the students, and acting as spokesperson for the organization nationally and internationally.

Masi is also the founder of Pachedu, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers with food and shelter. She is a powerful advocate for human rights, both in her host country of South Africa and in Uganda following the passage of the Kill the Gays bill that led to violent attacks and drove much of our community there into hiding. She helps to build bridges across faith and cultural lines within her community that have led to reduction of violence and increased acceptance and social inclusion. Masi has spoken on behalf of her community before Parliament, UN bodies, refugee rights groups, and a variety of media outlets. Her story has been made into an award-winning documentary, called “Tribe.” 

A joyful reunion

Remember that baby she kissed goodbye in Zimbabwe? Last year, Kate joined Masi in Cape Town, where they were reunited after 15 years apart. It took some adjustment, but they’re inseparable now. Kate understands why Masi left—and why Masi could never be the mother she is today if she had stayed. 

Masi continues to face challenges and discrimination as a queer asylum seeker in a country that offers her no pathway to asylum as a lesbian mother—a country that has threatened to deport all undocumented Zimbabweans, a move she says would be a death sentence for her.

Masi is a powerful leader, serving her community every day and advocating for change. She is one of many core SafePlace staff members from the displaced LGBTQI+ community who are helping others like them discover their passion and build the confidence to become leaders in their own right.

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