Superhero IRL

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Tricia Mpisi is a Congolese-South African writer, actress and content creator with a passion for stories. Superhero stories to be exact. And like most superhero stories, Tricia's life is also marked by tragedy. With TikTok as her unlikely sidekick, Tricia is finding her voice, facing her grief and defeating the ultimate villain: shame.

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Disclaimer: Radio Workshop is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. The official record for Radio Workshop’s podcast stories is the audio.

 

Lesedi: Hi, I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe, and this is Radio Workshop. Today we’re doing something a bit different. I’m here with our reporter, Naomi Grewan, and Naomi produced the story that you’re about to hear, but before you hear it, I’m going to get Naomi to speak about it.

Naomi, hello!

Naomi: Hi!

Lesedi: I mean, if I’m not mistaken, you started with the idea of doing a story about Africans on the internet, right?

Naomi: Yes.

Lesedi: So what were you looking for exactly?

Naomi: So originally I was really fascinated by the idea of home and specifically finding a home online, especially for young Africans. I wanted to find someone who could identify with that reality. Someone who’d made a significant home or a community in a virtual space.

Lesedi: Okay. Well, I know you scoured the interwebs, looked for content from all over the continent. I have to say, my favorite African content must be everything on African mothers. ’cause like no matter what country it comes from, it always feels familiar. There’s just like one African mom, right? Um, so I’m curious to hear about what you found.

Naomi: Interestingly enough, I also really felt drawn and pulled in by content on the African family and that concept of Africans having a common language. Even though, you know, we know Africa’s not a country. There was this thing that kind of tied us all together and that’s how I found Tricia Mpisi, who speaks to that idea so well.

She had this really funny TikTok video where she used sound effects to communicate certain sentiments and emotions, and I think she titled it “How to Speak African.” I remember looking at the comments and seeing people from Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, and I wanted to hear more, so I went to her page.

Lesedi: So, you reached out, you met up in Johannesburg, and then what, is there anything in particular that stood out to you about Tricia?

Naomi: Well first, before even meeting with Tricia and Johannesburg, I went onto her TikTok page and I saw that she has like 357,000 followers, which is crazy.

Lesedi: What!?

Naomi: And I mean, clearly she’s connected to a lot of people through her videos, not just me.

And she’d done exactly what I was looking for. She’d built a community online.

Tricia on TikTok: Guys, I’m working on something really exciting. It’s definitely the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. Um, and I can’t wait to share it with you guys, so I’m gonna be a little bit…

Lesedi: Wow, she sounds great. She sounds so confident. What was she like in person?

Naomi: So different, um, in person, she was timid and soft-spoken and kind of more of a quiet confidence, which was just not what I’d expected having watched her videos. She was of course the same person, but it was in our face-to-face conversation that I realized there’s so much more to a person than what they choose to share on a screen.

I know, you know, we’re always told that, but it was so obvious to me at the time. We forget so easily that content creators have a life outside of their content. It’s almost comparable to the way we perceive, um, like heroes and rockstars. They’ve been through things, Tricia’s connected to thousands of people and helped them understand complicated problems in the world. You know, she’s made them laugh, but in her own life, she’s had to face things alone.

[MUSIC]

Tricia: I remember growing up with a lot of guilt. I don’t know of a what, but I just felt guilty and ashamed for something that I didn’t do.

[MUSIC]

Naomi narration: Like most stories, we start with a family, in this case, a happy one. Tricia’s mom was a woman’s rights lawyer and her dad was an architect.

Tricia: My mom, I describe as like sort of like a Disney princess. She had this very like fun life is amazing energy to her and my dad was, everyone else thought that he was scary, but we knew that he was such a sweetheart. He would watch cartoons, he would make jokes. He was a teddy bear.

Naomi narration: Tricia’s parents came to South Africa from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s. As a child, she traveled to the Congo to visit family, and later she lived there for a while and then came back to South Africa again. She’s always had her feet in two worlds.

Naomi: Did you feel more at home in one place over the other?

Tricia: Congo caters to my sense of sort of like ethnic and cultural home. When I am in Congo, I do feel like I belong almost ancestrally, if that makes sense. And then South Africa caters to a lot of my interests.

Naomi: What is it about the Congo that makes you feel like that is your home and ancestrally and culturally?

Tricia: It’s the stories.

Naomi narration: The stories Tricia is talking about are Congolese folk tales. The mythology, the ones about mermaids and shapeshifters. She heard them a lot growing up.

Tricia: So I heard a legend. The word Congo means hunter, allegedly. And so there was a hunter one day who was hunting a deer for his family….

Naomi narration: As she got older, she says she was drawn to fantasy films and comic books because there was something about the bravery that the heroes showed that was inspiring.

They also had really cool powers. But just like in fantasy films and comic books, Tricia’s origin story was marked by tragedy.

Tricia: Yeah. So, um, apologies if I get emotional.

Naomi narration: It was a Thursday in February, the day before her sixth birthday party, and her parents left home to run some errands.

Tricia: My parents went grocery shopping and doing other chores, including for the party.

When they got into a car accident.

Naomi narration: They were hit by a truck and the ambulance didn’t make it there in time. Neither of them survived.

Tricia: All of a sudden, you go from being a normal child, having a normal life to being an orphan. Which at the time I didn’t really understood what it meant. It just meant that mom and dad weren’t around anymore.

Naomi narration: Tricia was now alone with her older sister. She turned to stories to make sense of a situation, stories that she made up. Maybe her parents took a short holiday or maybe they were spies. She imagined they were on assignment like in the Hollywood movie she loved Spy Kids.

Tricia: I just generally believed that it was a joke and that my mom and dad would come back.

Naomi narration: But no matter what story she made up, the decision was made. She and her sister were told to pack their bags, leave everything behind, and move nearly 4,000 kilometers away to live with their aunt in the DRC.

Tricia: We knew that we were Congolese. We had been there once with our parents, but it was terrifying.

Naomi narration: Eventually, Tricia and her sister settled into life in the DRC’s Capital city, Kinshasa. Tricia learned about pre-colonial history from the stories her uncle told her about the Bakongo, and when she sat by the Congo River, she felt at home, but something still felt out of place. She felt out of place.

Tricia: Something as simple as going to a family party or a community party. They’ll be like, oh, those are so-and-so’s kids and then you are just there. And sometimes people don’t even know who you are. And they’ll be like, whose kids are that? And then you know, you’ll hear people whispering that, oh, you know, they’re those kids.

[MUSIC]

Naomi narration: So when you are the child who doesn’t have parents, where does that leave you?

Tricia: As far as I knew, we were the only orphans. I don’t know, I wouldn’t say in town, but in our community, we really felt like aliens all of a sudden. Um, so sorry. Um.

Naomi narration: It is difficult for Tricia to talk about how things were after losing her parents.

She bounced from family member to family member, and it was hard to feel like she belonged anywhere. Tricia felt lonely and found it hard to make friends as a kid. She was an introvert, and in the moments moms and dads would come up in conversation…

Tricia: I would just pretend that my parents were still alive to avoid awkward interactions.

So I would make sure I spoke about them in the present tense so that nobody catches on. And so it was my sort of little secret to just avoid having to explain it.

Naomi narration: For a long time, Tricia even struggled to say the word orphan.

Tricia: If you even Google just orphans and see the first images that come up, it’s like these very sad and abandoned and malnourished children, but it’s, it’s a label. And especially as a child, you don’t even know what labels are. So to be stuck with something, it makes you feel like you should be ashamed of it, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Naomi narration: That shame, that’s why she dove deeper into the world of fantasy.

Tricia: Almost every protagonist is an orphan. Harry Potter, Tony Stark, Captain America, Oliver

Twist. The list is extremely long, so I felt less alone in stories than in real life.

Tricia on TikTok: Have you watched TV lately and felt like what happens to all the good shows? I’m currently re-watching old shows ’cause a lot of the new shows I’m just like, but guys, I found a good one…

[MUSIC]

Naomi narration: That’s Tricia on TikTok. Fast forward to 2020 when the pandemic hit, Tricia did what many of us did. She went online first as a passive scroller, then as a creator. There was something about talking into a camera that wasn’t as nerve-racking as talking face-to-face. Initially, her setup was simple, balance the phone on a surface and talk to the camera. But now she’s added a ring light to the mix.

Tricia on TikTok: So, we’re sending this shock, like, who is this child? But then at some point we started laughing because what this kid is essentially saying is. Ugh, there’s so many black people in Africa. Duh. Are you lost?

Naomi narration: Tricia’s first videos dealt with some of the difficulties of growing up, dealing with racism, colorism, xenophobia, sexism. But as time went on, they got more personal and she started talking about parts of herself that she’d kept hidden. Like her grief.

Tricia on TikTok: So I’m gonna try my best to make this video without crying. But if I do cry, eish guys, most of my content is always happy…

Tricia: Nothing has ever made me feel as alienated as being an orphan. You know, when I was little, I wasn’t allowed to grieve. Maybe that’s why I didn’t, you know, we weren’t allowed to talk about mom and dad. We weren’t allowed to have pictures of mom and dad out. So it was literally this thing of like, you are not allowed to have emotions, let alone show them as a child. Children should be seen and not heard.

Tricia on TikTok: I lost both my parents in a car accident and the way it happened, it even sounds like it could be the plot of any one of these movies…

Naomi narration: Taking the leap to open up about her grief was inspired by the people Tricia always felt closest to: the ones in stories.

Tricia on TikTok: Uh, but in all of these stories, it’s normal. None of these characters, both, almost all of them, they lost their parents, especially, um, at the same time, like Storm or Spider-Man….

Tricia: It’s weird because reality feels so distant and then all of a sudden fiction seems so close.

I, I genuinely found solace in fiction and I’m so grateful for it.

Tricia on TikTok: For a lot of people, these stories are just entertainment. But for people like me, this is the only way that I can make sense of a life that doesn’t make sense. That’s barely even a life. People talk about all…

Tricia: First it was Black Panther, Wakanda Forever, which is about grief, and then now there’s across the Spider-Verse, which is like probably the best movie I’ve watched this year, where it’s about preventing grief. But these movies kind of just make you feel like you’re not alone. I mean, okay, there is a world where I’m not the only one. It just feels like that sometimes. But if I think of like the larger globe, like the Spider-Verse, then I’m not the only one. And somewhere someone understands me.

Naomi narration: Tricia opened up and for the most part, her audience responded well to her, sharing her emotions. She let herself cry on camera, and yes, she was met with a lot of love and support. But like most fantasy films, the online world has its monsters too. And they can be just as cruel.

Tricia on TikTok: And I just find this kind of comment funny because my whole life, even here on this app, and I’m sure through all these podcasts or whatever that you’ve heard, they’re always telling us why are black women so tough? Why are you so loud in my country to think like, why do you women talk so much? Why do you guys have to be so tough? And then anytime we show an inkling of emotion, of sadness…

Naomi: In the moment that you saw the comment, what was what you felt?

[MUSIC] 

Tricia: I think I felt anger. This is the tricky thing about being emotionally vulnerable in the sense that people will condemn you for it. But also if you’re too cold and stoic, especially as a woman, like, oh, why don’t you smile? What’s wrong with you? But then when you express all of your emotions, like, oh, toughen up.

Naomi narration: Tricia built a community online that was mostly positive, but the trolls emerged from under the bridge. She had to block people, resist the urge to read every comment and grow a thick skin. She says it’s been exhausting. And when she put her phone away or closed her laptop, there she was again, all alone.

Tricia: I always say, you know, if I had one wish, I want my mom and dad. I don’t care about anything else. I want my mom and dad. Grief is a wound that will never heal.

Naomi: Who is the villain in your story that you’re ultimately going to defeat?

Tricia: The evil that we fight in this world, and maybe this is gonna sound really weird, we don’t really fight people. We fight things. And so I guess the real villain would be shame and sadness because sometimes we’re sad, but we’re too ashamed to tell our family and friends that we’re sad. Or sometimes your parents die and you’re too ashamed to tell people, so maybe it would be shame and all the negativity that comes with that. I want to be able to stand boldly and say, this is me, regardless of what happened to me.

[MUSIC] 

Naomi narration: Tricia’s taking each day as it comes, despite the trolls. She’s posting content on social media and making videos for TikTok. And with the rest of her time, she’s taken on acting roles and just recently she started writing her own screenplay.

Tricia: I have this wound that I can’t get rid of, that I can’t fill, but maybe I shouldn’t have to. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to be a filmmaker. I watched behind the scenes and I was like, oh my gosh, it takes so many people to make a movie, so they have to temporarily become a family. So maybe I won’t even have to find one. Maybe I’ll just build one for myself.

Lesedi: A special thank you to Tricia Mpisi. If you’d like to connect with her or see her work, you can find her on TikTok at Tricia Mpisior on Instagram at Tricia underscore Mpisi.

This story was produced by Radio Workshop. Our producer is Naomi Grewan, with assistance from Sam Broun. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Our managing producer is Jo Jackson, sound engineering by Naomi Grewan, Jo Jackson, Mike Rahfaldt, and Fey Fey. Music by Qhamani Sambu at Edible Audio in Cape Town.

Find out more about who we are and how to support us at radioworkshop.org.