When You Were Here: Imanitwitaho Zachee was a light to everyone

This piece is part of When You Were Here, a series commemorating trans people whose lives were taken this year. Rather than centering their murders, our stories incorporate memories from people who loved them to illuminate the times when they were alive—when they were here.

Imanitwitaho Zachee was born in the Gihembe Refugee Camp in 1997 not long after her parents fled Congo the year before, where the border between Rwanda and Congo had been genocidal due to the First Congo War.

The average altitude of Congo is 700 meters while the refugee camp in Rwanda, located in the Gicumbi District, has a soaring altitude of nearly 2,300 meters. I picture Zachee’s parents in 1996, who fled by foot, trekking uphill, uncertain by the circumstances of their lives and yet hopeful for something safer and more livable.

Zachee’s refugee camp consists of Congolese refugees and is home to over 12,000 people. The Gicumbi District contributes nearly 85% of agricultural production in the entire district, with tea being the main cash crop, and I wonder how Zachee likes her tea—if at all. Some of the district’s artisanal activities include hairdressing, and I also wonder if young Zachee fantasized about getting her hair done like the women around her, the way I used to envy my aunt’s hairstyles as a young trans girl in Indonesia.

Back in Rwanda, Zachee and her family applied for resettlement in the U.S. After her family was approved for resettlement, which is a grueling and rarely-successful multi-step vetting process that currently takes an average of two years, they were assigned to Catholic Charities of Louisville, a Kentucky-based nonprofit with a mission of serving people in need.

The case of Zachee’s family was assigned by Catholic Charities’ national office to help find Zachee and her family housing, as well as assisting the family in applying for public benefits like Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF. They also provided Zachee and her family “cultural orientation”, which included things like grocery store recommendations, how to write a money order for paying rent, English classes, and more.

Having moved to the U.S. in 2019 at 22 years old, Zachee sought employment, which was how she met Becky Burnside, the employment and benefits program manager at Catholic Charities. Burnside would often take Zachee to job interviews along with a translator.

“There was always a language barrier,” Burnside told me over the phone. “But I do remember the ways you can communicate without language.”

Burnside said that given Zachee’s identity as a non-English speaking Black trans woman, she had already faced a great deal of struggles prior to moving to America. Burnside’s job, then, was to try to make Zachee’s job search as easy and comforting as possible.

“[When] taking her to a job interview, I just remember seeing her and always trying to catch her eye and share a smile. I definitely remember her big smile,” Burnside said. “Making that eye contact and sharing that smile, [I hoped] that [I was able to] communicate a lot through that interaction.”

One of the first jobs Zachee got in Louisville, Ky. was a warehouse job where she packed orders for an athletic clothing brand. In one of their last interactions, Zachee had reached out through WhatsApp to Burnside again, looking for a different job. Initially failing to recognize Zachee, Burnside was able to tell through Zachee’s profile photo—wearing a red and gold dress with a red headwrap atop her big hair—just how much she had grown into herself since she first moved to the states in 2019.

“[She looked like] she came into herself,” Burnside said. “She was just so bright and colorful, and [that] brought so much joy to know that she got to a place where she felt comfortable to be herself.”

Her last job was at JBS Pork Production Facility, a meat-processing plant.

At the vigil, Burnside met a coworker of Zachee’s, who shared a story of her complimenting Zachee’s height, telling her she could be a model. Although Zachee couldn’t understand much of what was said, she lit up when the coworker said the word “pretty.”

Zachee’s uncle John Sebazungu, tells me in Swahili—with the help of his 16-year-old daughter Baraka Keza’s translation—that Zachee always looked after her family, helping her mom pay the bills. Keza herself shares a moment of awe during this past New Year’s party at the church they all attended.

“[Zachee] was very cheerful, saying hi to everybody, taking pictures,” Keza recalls. “[She] had good energy around everybody. [She] could vibe with anyone, get along with anyone. It didn’t matter if you were a kid or not.”

Although Zachee was never explicitly out as trans to her family, her uncle Sebazungu never had any issues with Zachee’s gender exploration, ever since she was a toddler. “I never told Zachee ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” he says in Swahili. “I let Zachee do [her] own thing. We were just two people respecting each other.”

Watching Zachee dazzling in that New Year’s party at the church, Keza reminisces about an interaction she wished she had with her cousin, who she recalls being the life of the party and the star of the evening.

“In the [brief moment] I saw Zachee at the New Year’s party, I wish I [had told her] that [she] was a light to everyone.”

Denny Agassi

Denny |

Denny is a writer, actor, and musician who has co-starred in POSE (FX) and New Amsterdam (NBC), and will appear in the upcoming series City On Fire (Apple TV). Aside from The Grammy, Allure Magazine, PAPER, and more, her recent writing—“He Made Affection Feel Simple”—was published in The New York Times’ Modern Love.

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