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On Cultivating Pleasure

By Mpumelelo Mngadi (they/he) | Edited by Janine Samuels (she/her)

Image by Jessica Felicio.

“What is pleasure to you?” asks a journal prompt by Hello Thembekile.

I struggled to answer and I was tempted to google to see scientific and professional opinions on pleasure but I realised that the prompt called for my knowledge. So I grabbed my journal and wrote “I don’t know and I would love to know”. I asked myself questions to better understand my experience, “what is pleasure?”, “what brings me pleasure?” and “is pleasure only experienced during sex?” I had just discovered my asexuality and I was reevaluating my relationship with sex, so the thought that sex is the only source of pleasure distressed me.

I was uncomfortable that I didn’t know what else brought me pleasure. I consulted my ancestors as I do with all things that I struggle to figure out and as customary the quiet answer was that I should pay attention: pay attention to my body and the sensations it feels.

In the coming months, I became unemployed and there was no plan in sight. I was in a deep depression. I have always known what pain felt like in my body and how it moved. I gave all my presence to my pain and offered it a comfortable home. In the words borrowed from Florence + the Machine, ‘pain is the only thing you let hold you’. Capitalism, using violence has socialised us to choose our pain. We cultivate pain all the time, which is fair but it is draining. As a black trans person I was taught to hate my body and dissociate from it. As a result I did not know what pleasure felt like in my body… what sensation did it bring on? I was ignorant to myself.

After a few moons of me searching for a job, I was commissioned by a photojournalist trans brother of mine to work on an article as their production assistant. It was a paying job, which was great for my survival but what it gave me was so much more. The article Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror was a creative reenactment of our trancestors, Kewpie and the queer community of District 6, with other trans folks working to reclaim the land and language of our trancestors. I enjoyed myself on so many levels. Every shoot day was exhilarating and insightful. Being part of planning and pre-shoot missions was thrilling.

It was the last day of the shoot that had me gagging the most. We were getting ready to go to the last location, the stunning models prepping themselves at my friend's house that always smells of grounding sandalwood. Everybody looked so fabulous. Trans joy pervaded the room as we listened to delicious music that tasted like watermelon bubble gum. This moment swallowed me whole and stirred up a tingling sensation that encapsulated my whole body. I was overjoyed, I smiled so much my cheeks hurt. Seeing trans folks simply being themselves brings me deep splendor and warms my soul. Amid this glory my ancestors whispered “this, this is your pleasure” and so I was reintroduced to my pleasure. From that day onwards I vowed to myself to remember to turn towards my joy and to sit in it with all of me and without fear.

As I embark on this intentional practice of pleasure I become acquainted with Shame. Shame often seeks to divorce me from my pleasure by creating limitations to control and demonize my desires. I was committed to myself and so I had to learn to sit in the shame. It is hard but knowing that I will be a soft landing on the other side makes room for vulnerability. Knowing that I will be reunited with a part of myself, I extend compassion, assure myself, breathe and make my way back home.

There is a song by Miss Nina Simone, I Got Life, in the song she says, “If I ain’t got nothing at all, I know that I have life. I have my body and I have my joy that nobody could ever take away from me”. This deeply resonated with me, especially at a time when I was unemployed, close to being unhoused, and felt that I had nothing to offer myself and those around me, nothing to offer but pain. This song was a gentle reminder of the ever-flowing well in me, a source I could turn to.

One of the most powerful weapons we have against capitalism is imagination because it allows us to imagine ourselves beyond the violence and see ourselves. We are robbed of imagination by capitalism and we are told how we should imagine ourselves and where to imagine ourselves to ensure we uphold white supremacy. Tools like joy engenders a playfulness that expands my imagination and gives me space to narrate my own story.

Sense 8, season 1 comes to mind. Kala is shocked when she visits Capheus’ home. She is confused as to how a poor person can have such a big TV. She asks “how can a TV be more important than a bed?” Capheus answers, “The bed keeps you in a slum. The flat-screen takes you out.” He explains that the movies he watches offer him hope. This hope is worth so much more and that is why I invest in my joy. How else do I thrive in the presence of violence? How else do I twerk to maskandi and be reminded that I am deserving of the joy that’s amidst all the pain?

I discovered that my pleasures aren’t always big and grand. Most times, it is quiet moments: lolling in the sun, drinking tepid vanilla chai, incense burning, and listening to a podcast that form guidelines leading me closer and closer to my fullest self. These seemingly small offerings are seeds that gave birth to an intimate joy in me that connected me deeper and deeper to my desires.

Audre Lorde on the Erotic says “...For the erotic is not a question of what you do alone, it is a question of how acutely, how fully we can feel in the doing for once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction, that sense of fullness, that sense of completion and then we can observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness...

On some days I lay my purple yoga mat on the grass next to the tree with rupturing red blossoms, I place a big green pillow and light an incense stick, smoke a jay and occasionally sip on iced water with a golden straw that makes every drink taste better. I Munch on ibigga snacks and snappers. I read a few poems from the book Home is where the mic is that I borrowed from the Mowbray Library. I indulged in gratitude. I feel full!

As a marginalised person, my community plays such a pivotal role in my survival and thriving.

I remember the 6th of November, my birthday, I officially became unhoused. I was packing the last of my belongings. The fear of the unknown was thick in the air. Everything felt uncertain but one thing was for sure, I was not going to spend another birthday sad.

Fortunately, there was a queer event on the day: femmes and thems. I was determined to go. I managed to get some money from friends and family and plans were underway. I took a break from packing and focused on celebrating. I got myself some new clothes. Before the event, my boeta took me out for some vanilla chai and a joint chill session. When we arrived at the party I was greeted with an array of happy birthdays and birthday shots. In a lilting tune, queer folks sang happy birthday to me at the top of their lungs. I stood there blushing and amazed, I felt so seen and celebrated by my community. That night, I opened dance circles and shook my ass that I inherited from my grandfather. I was so happy. Queer community is magic, I tell you!

I am reminded to play and take up space.

Joy kept me going and glued me together when my life was going downhill and mgowo was always at my door. It filled my cup with hope when all I was served was constant and consistent violence. When I knew what brought me joy, what brought me closer to that sense of fullness… I followed it and it continuously begets more joy in my life everyday and for this I am grateful.


Mpumelelo Mngadi (they/he) is a black, trans nonbinary queer storyteller born and raised in KwaZulu Natal currently residing in Cape Town, South Africa. He has been writing poetry since 2014 and has four of their poems published in the anthology Woven with Brown Thread. They write stories about joy, pain, rest and community. To him, art is an act of remembering and embracing Vulnerability.

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