Tchinda Andrade: Cape Verde's transgender hero

(CNN)It was the popular singer Cesaria Evora who first introduced journalist Marc Serena to Cape Verde's most famous transgender activist: Tchinda Andrade.

The Sao Vincente native came out as transgender in a local newspaper article in 1998, and has since played the role of mother hen to the country's trans community.
    "She was the first to open the way for others to express themselves," says Serena. "Tchinda is a natural leader." So influential has she been that the trans community in Cape Verde are referred to as "tchindas" by locals.
    The love she inspires is evident in a documentary co-directed by Serena and Pablo Garcia Perez de Lara last year called "Tchindas," which follows Andrade's preparations for one of the biggest annual events on the Cape Verde calendar: carnival.
    The film has been sweeping up on the festival circuit. It won the Grand Jury Award at Outfest, was nominated for an Africa Movie Academy Award and screened at the New York African Film Festival earlier this year. Moreover, it's made a star of its protagonist.

    Open arms

    Serena, meanwhile, has been heartened by how welcoming Sao Vicente (a small, 88-sqaure mile island that makes up part of Cape Varde) is to the LGBT community.
    "It's the most tolerant nation in Africa," he says, a quality he attributes somewhat to Sao Vicente's diminutive size.
    "You have to get together and live together," he says. "[Vicentians] are forced to embrace each other and understand one another."
    Just getting to the point where Andrade can walk the streets by day, selling fried snacks, has taken an awful lot of sacrifice. Andrade has been assaulted in the past (Evora, a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, paid Andrade's medical bills).
    Serena also recalls hearing about Senegalese merchants in Sao Vicente kneeling in prayer when catching sight of transgender individuals.
    To battle intolerance, Andrade and others in the transgender community preach tolerance to Sao Vicente's local youth. In the film, Andrade's friend Edinha tells a group a children a modern-day parable:
    "Once upon a time there was an ignorant church," it begins.
    Andrade concurs. In between shots of her running around backstage of the carnival, whipping up her team of seamstresses or corralling local kids into a makeshift choir, she dictates an important message to the audience behind the camera:
    "We've got to teach the little ones our culture."