, NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 30 – When the Capital News crew meets up with Natasha Saitoti, she hugs us happily. She has just come from a visit to a hair salon in Nairobi’s South B estate.
The 20-year old swings her freshly done braids to the back of her head in an effort to brush them from her well made up face. The expertly applied make up leaves a radiant face that matches her dark brown skin colour on the rest of her body.
Her eyebrows are neatly trimmed. The eye shadow is pink.
She evenly distributes the lip shine as gets ready for the interview.
Carefully she sits at the corner of a two-seater sofa, and crosses her legs, again throwing the few braids blocking her eyes backwards.
But Natasha Saitoti, is not a girl. She was born a boy.
“When I was five, I just felt I was different from the rest of the boys in school. I felt I did not fit to what I was born, I was not comfortable with being a boy,” she recalls.
Natasha says she could not define herself. “At that time I actually did not know who I was. All I knew, there was something different that I was, but I was not gay.”
Natasha is a transgender.
When she went to high school, she realised she could not hold onto her worries about her sexual orientation.
When she turned 16, Natasha was kicked out of her parents’ home as they refused to listen to her explanation that she was increasingly feeling like a woman.
Her parents knew they had a son. And that was final.
She dropped her birth name and called herself Natasha Saitoti and hit off to the streets as a commercial sex worker selling her services to men in Nairobi.
After tasting the harsh life of the ups and downs in the commercial sex industry, she decided to start an organisation which now has 30 youthful Kenyans who claim to be transgender.
And she has also taken her quest a notch higher. She has flown to Geneva, Switzerland to begin the physical transformation from being male to female.
The first operation will involve breast implants.
“I got Sh500,000 from a friend for this operation. It will take a while about three weeks for me to recover fully,” She says.
Natasha also plans to have a second operation where she will have her male organs removed through a process called orchiectomy.
She also plans to get married and adopt children.
“It is something not of my making but a hormonal feeling that I am not a man.”
Opinion on transgender
In September this year, Australia allowed a new passport system ‘third gender’ where sex is indeterminate to give citizens a gender option.
With a letter from a doctor, Australians are allowed to have their passport marked with an X and not M (Male) or F (Female) like before.
Kenya being a country with deep inclinations to traditions and beliefs accompanied by religious beliefs, it is almost obvious such identification would never be allowed.
For transgender people, it is even more difficult to believe that someone can be born a man but feels like a woman.
The issue of transgender is relatively new to the Kenyan public with many ordinary people expressing different views.
“These are crazy gay people, how can you be born a man, with full male organs and you still believe you are a woman? Forgive me but seriously I don’t see how this is possible,” says Margaret Mukami.
Mukami’s opinion is similar to those of most Kenyans. The topic is even more difficult for the older generation.
73-year-old Joan Achieng wonders; “What do you mean, that someone was born a man and his parents and the doctor saw he is a boy, then he later became a woman, is he sick?”
Antony Kimani is similarly perturbed, “si vizuri kutoa Mungu makosa. (It is not right to say God made a mistake. Maybe there is a devil that has gone into their heads. They should turn to God.”
A man who says he is gay but doesn’t want to be identified thinks transgender people are gays in denial. ‘They just pretend, they are just gay and they should stop doing all these weird surgeries.”
Even for senior clergy, the issue is regarded as a matter of personal choice.
National Council of Churches of Kenya Deputy Secretary General Oliver Kisaka says: “God did not make a mistake. That is that person’s own perception. God is perfect and doesn’t create confusion.”
“There are people doing foolish things like going after animals, should we say that is how they were born?” he queries.
Rev Kisaka says the scriptures have defined who a man is and who a woman is and all have their natural roles to fulfil in life.
“If somebody was created a man and chooses to live as a woman they cannot fulfil their fullness. If you don’t have female organs, you will never become pregnant. You cannot fulfil womanhood,” he explains.
He believes transgender people require help and he is requesting the society especially the church to help them recognise themselves in the way God created them.
“There is a reason why some people are called depressed. They are even taken to hospital. They have lied to themselves they can never tell who they are. They need someone trained and prayer to help them find themselves. Natasha has probably forgotten that he/she is a man,” he says.
He is also opposed to transgenders undergoing surgery to transform them into either male or female.
“One day they will get to an age where they will be looking for their male organs and they will not be there!” he warns, “that is a mutilation.”
But Kisaka is expressing concern that some of them may have been exposed to questionable lifestyles in their young age which may have an implication on such perceptions.
He wants investigations launched to ascertain what could have transpired in their young life especially if they were in boarding schools.
In Kenya there have been alleged crimes of sodomy among school going children by their teachers, fathers and religious leaders.
In August this year a 38-year-old pastor was jailed for life by a Nyahururu court after he was found guilty of sodomising a five year-old boy.
Kisaka strongly believes the society should reach out to transgender people to help them out of their situation, “they have not ceased to be God’s children and no one is a gone case. Let’s understand what is making them to think of themselves like that.”
According to a psychologist, Mbogo Bunyi, people who think they are transgender should seek psychological assistance to help them define their sex.
“It is an issue of self concept or perception and they need to work with a psychologist to clarify their sexual identity and express it appropriately,” he asserts.
He also says they should get proper guidance before they make decisions of having implants, removing their male or female organs, “Information is needed so that people can be aware of the challenges and where they can go to before making such decisions.”
But Bunyi acknowledges there are many misconceptions on transgender associated with feelings of hormonal imbalances by those who claim to be transgender.
Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital paediatrician and endocrinologist Paul Laigong’ says transgender is not a medical disorder.
“Transgender is an issue to do with identity and it has nothing to do with a medical problem. It has nothing to do with anatomy, it has nothing to do with function, by the time they are male, or female they are fully functional as male or female,” he explains.
But he clarifies that there are those born with disorders of sexual differentiation which is usually detected at birth. He says that is a medical situation and should not be confused with transgender.
“There are those born with ambiguous genitalia, when you look at the genitalia, you cannot for sure say if this is a male or female. These are patients with disorders of sexual differentiation. This can be corrected depending on the side that the doctor feels is stronger at a young age,” he explains.
But where both genders are unclear, doctors give options of waiting until puberty and if still their gender cannot be determined, individuals can choose who they want to be when they are old enough to make an informed decision.
Unlike such medical conditions, Laigong’ says transgender is a feeling that makes someone to undergo a surgery and a hormonal treatment to change to their preferred gender.
“The treatment and surgery can only change what we see, but when it comes to function, that cannot be changed. When one is male and female, they can get hormones to make them look like women, they can have their organs removed but they cannot function fully, they cannot be fertile or give birth,” he explains, “same case if one is born female and wants to be male, they cannot father a child.
He also points out that transgender people are not gay. “Do not confuse those two, anybody can go gay. Transgender is where one decides one day, “from today I want to be a man or a woman. And they do surgeries and treatment to make them what they feel they ought to be.”
Dr Laigong’ concludes that transgender is a matter of a personal decision where one is born with things that make them female or male but chose to be the other sex.
(Olivia Moraa also contributed to this story)