Nikilas Mawanda was born on January 10, 1982. He is a respected transgender activist, a human rights defender, and an international advocate for equality, equity, freedom, and justice, with a specialty in sexual and gender minority rights. Mawanda is the founding director of Trans Support Initiative—Uganda, a transgender and gender non-conforming people’s organization in Uganda.
Nikilas Mawanda was born in Kampala, Uganda to the late Prince Zakariya Mawanda Muyigwa and Hajjat Nnalongo Hamiat Nansubuga, a businesswoman and housewife. He has twenty-nine step brothers and sisters from both his mother and father. Mawanda lost his dear father when he was three months old. He says his mother played the roles of “both my mum and dad, and I saw her trying her best to support me and my step brothers and sisters.”
Mawanda’s father had been a businessman, an activist, and a prince from the Royal Kingdom of Buganda. In the 1980s, a vicious war broke out in Uganda between the National Resistance Army and the dictatorship of former president Milton Obote. Mawanda’s father stood for peace, justice, and freedom, and was asked by the kingdom to represent their interests. As the war raged in the Luwero district, the elder Mawanda was arrested, tortured, killed, and buried in a mass grave by the Obote government in 1982.
Mawanda’s father was called a traitor, so Mawanda and his family were forced to hide. Other family members ran away, and remaining relatives didn’t want to risk death by housing them. When Mawanda was around four, he recalled surviving bullets shot at the house where they were hiding. After the Obote regime ended, the family had nothing left, despite the fact that his father was one of the wealthiest men in the nation. Mawanda says that all of their property was taken by other family members and others who took advantage of his father’s killing. They tried to appeal to the courts for relief, but were only threatened with death.
Despite the turmoil in his life, Mawanda attended Nkata Nursery School, Happy Hours Primary School, Amudat Primary School, and Nambi Umea Primary School in the Luwero District of central Uganda. He also completed studies at Mende Kalema Senior Secondary School, Kawempe Standard School, and at Bright Future Academy.
From his earliest times in school, Mawanda stood out as a leader, beginning as a class monitor to become the head prefect of his school. He also was active in playing soccer, volleyball, running, singing, and acting. But Nikki—as he is known by his friends—knew from a very young age that he was different from the other children in school. Mawanda didn’t engage in activities typically involving girls, but rather preferred musical games. Around the age of six, Mawanda started staring at the sun after being told that doing so during sunrise and sunset would change your genitals. He wanted to urinate standing up like his male friends, but could not.
Mawanda says he had a feminine body but didn’t identify with it. He greatly admired a friend’s father, who would come back home with his briefcase and a bag with milk and bread. He was nurturing and spent time with his family, helping them with school, watching TV, or telling stories. When asked what he wanted in life, Mawanda would say he strived to be like his friend’s father. “I want to be a lawyer or business owner with a wife and kids,” he would tell others. They would respond by correcting Mawanda: “no, you mean husband.”
Mawanda had a number of encounters in school with both male and female suitors. One young lady sent him a love letter, telling him that she couldn’t imagine life without him. Mawanda’s stepsister went through his school bag and read the letter to his aunt. She presented it to the school, which called both Mawanda and the girl out at a general assembly. His aunt asked the headmaster to give them big punishments so they wouldn’t repeat the same mistake. Mawanda was given sixty strokes; his friend who wrote the letter was given 100. Mawanda was also beaten in front of each classroom, and told to denounce being a lesbian.
That incident began a difficult period for Mawanda. At thirteen, he was chased out of his home. His mother had remarried, and his new stepfather couldn’t stand to have him around, fearing that he would sow a seed of homosexuality in his children. That night, before he left, he found his stepfather strangling his mother because she gave birth to a homosexual. A major fight ensued, and Mawanda and his mother were humiliated in front of the neighborhood.
Mawanda knew of many incidents of beatings, blackmail, threats, and throwing stones at his house to make him leave. He was a target by Muslim groups who falsely accused him of recruiting their children. Mawanda never came out to his family because of all the violence and hostility toward him. Parents told their kids to distance themselves from Mawanda, and others asked his mother what she was going to do with him.
Mawanda changed his name when he was seventeen, following his conversion from Islam to Catholicism. He learned about transgender men and women in South Africa after a friend visited there in 2005. That knowledge inspired him to live in his truth. Mawanda started binding his chest a year later, and began hormonal therapy in 2012. It was difficult to access hormones in Uganda, so a friend sent them from the Netherlands until Mawanda came to the United States. He has since had some surgical procedures, and looks forward to several more. He bristles at the idea that he is “living as a man” saying, “I am a man. I’m not living as a man. I have always been male since I was a child.”
While in Uganda, Nikilas Mawanda became active in the Uganda Lesbian Association in 2002, and Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), where he started the only LBTIQ women’s sports club registered under the Ugandan Sports Federation. In 2006, he was invited by the International Lesbian and Gay Association to attend one of its general meetings in South Africa to present on using sports as a tool for activism. Mawanda began a women’s day celebration every March as a way of linking sexual and gender minority rights to the mainstream women’s struggle in Uganda.
Actively involved in all aspects of movement-building efforts in Uganda, Mawanda co-founded the Uganda Trans Movement in 2007, and helped to create the first trans and gender non-conforming organization in the East African region. He also worked to establish the first East Africa trans movement in Nairobi, Kenya later that year. Mawanda has participated in organizing the Trans Africa Movement, the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, and the Uganda LGBTIQ National Security Committee.
Mawanda also was active in the establishment of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a non-profit that coordinates protection and promotion of human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Ugandans. He was invited to speak at a 2007 Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in Kampala with Prince Charles of the United Kingdom, but the meeting was attacked by law enforcement, and he was removed from the speaker lineup for the day. The activists were assaulted and surrounded by police despite their invitation from the British Consul in Uganda to participate.
In 2013, lawyers helped make Mawanda’s name change legal in Uganda. The following year, having nowhere to go and with continual threats against his life, Mawanda came to the United States in 2014. Several months after his arrival, he was granted asylum. His name change was legalized in the U.S. as well.
Since then, Nikilas Mawanda has spoken about African LGBTIQ issues at RFSL; the Swedish National Association for Sexual Equality; the World Congress on Gender Identity and Human Rights in Barcelona, Spain; the World AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria; the AFIYA Minority Sexual Health and Rights and Wellness conference in Nairobi, Kenya; and at the Coalition of African Lesbians and Trans Diverse People (CAL) in South Africa. He has also addressed events sponsored by the World Bank, the United States Congress, and an array of churches, conferences, colleges, and meetings.
Mawanda seeks to create more awareness about the struggle in Uganda, and to consolidate action in a more meaningful manner. He has spoken at length with the press, including the “Washington Blade,” National Public Radio, the Voice of America, the “Advocate,” and many others.
Mawanda holds a diploma in LGBT human rights advocacy that he obtained in Sweden, a certificate in soccer training by the Football Association of England, a certificate in small scale entrepreneurship from the Nonprofit Enterprise and Self-Sustainability Team (NESsT), and a certificate in security and protection that he earned in Kampala.
Today, Mawanda makes his home in Washington, DC.
We thank Nikilas Mawanda for his courage and resilience, for his commitment to freedom and justice for others, and for his principled contributions to our community.