Growing as a girl: the tale of Mary Waithera alias James Karanja

August 19, 2019 4:40 pm
Kenyan intersex James Karanja Waithera. Photo/MOSES MUOKI.

, NAIROBI, Kenya, August 19- Male or Female?

The doctors went mute, it was beyond the village traditional mediceneman and while the priest seemed to be aware of his condition, he too, did not provide the much-needed answer.

It is a question that saw him admitted for three weeks in hospital after birth and one that broke his parents’ marriage, but one that would only mark the beginning of a long journey, towards Mary Waithera alias James Karanja’s self-realization.

While she was raised as a girl, biology betrayed Karanja, when she got to Form 3, his shoulders started broadening and the voice got deeper.

Karanja was in a girl’s boarding school for four years, as Waithera.

-I was born a problem-

We caught up with the 28-year-old during a pre-census briefing on the counting of intersex persons in Nairobi, where he narrated his ordeal growing up in a country where people of his kind are considered a taboo.

“From the onset, I was born a problem, at least according to those who were around me. No one knew what I was,” he said.

After debating about him, Karanja’s family decided “not to raise a dysfunctional male child. They decided that I was a girl.”

This was informed by the illusion that it would be easy for him to transit from being a lady to a man.

That is when his parents parted ways; “my father said that I cannot be named after his father or family lineage.”

He would be named after his grandmother, who also raised him.

“We would often quarrel with my grandmother now and then since I was carrying water jerricans using my shoulders instead of carrying them from my back, as it should be for women,” he recalled, with a faint smile.

“She wanted me to grow as a woman. She was preparing me to become a good wife.”

Karanja was the only ‘girl’ riding a bicycle in her village, he said.

-School demand to see her sanitary pads-

The day Karanja was admitted to Kikambala Secondary school something weird happened.

“They asked for my sanitary pads…” he recalled.

The matron was adamant “that your girl cannot be admitted to school without sanitary towels.”

This too came as a shocker to his grandmother who only believed that “for one to start undergoing monthly periods as a woman, you must undergo Female Genital Mutilation.”

Eventually, Karanja was admitted to the school, but the awkward moments did not end there.

“I could hear other students saying we have been brought a boy to school,” he narrated.

The following morning, before the rest of his colleagues would wake up, a disturbed Karanja went and showered because he knew something was wrong.

But that would raise the curiosity of some of the colleagues. “They wondered why I woke up so early to shower.”

“When everyone woke up and I saw all of them naked, that was it. I realized whatever was going through my mind was true.”

No one would see him taking shower, but puberty would betray him while in Form 3. That was in 2009.

But there was a silver lining, she was voted as a deputy school captain and a captain in her final year- “that acted as deterrence for a lot of questions. They would fear.”

But for how long would she last as a student and captain to avoid the ‘uncomfortable’ questions?

-They started sending me love letters-

The more evident it became he was different, the more other girls in the school got attracted to him.

And in no time, poetry love letters started streaming his way.

“I did not understand what was happening, but the girls started getting sexually attracted to me,” he recalled.

But that would not last for long since at some point, one of the teachers intercepted the letters and he was expelled.

Being a church-based institution, “they thought I was trying to introduce lesbianism.”

That marked the genesis of his journey to self-realization.

During his suspension, which lasted a few months, he sought for a medical explanation, that shed light on his past and who he was.

The school later re-admitted him, having known his condition, and with a happy ending, he passed.

He was admitted to the University of Nairobi where he thought “these are learned people; I will not suffer similar predicaments.”

But he was wrong.

“I had to explain most of the time who is Mary Waithera since I am on a suit,” he said, recounting the numbers of times he had to face impersonation accusations.

In the journey of finding his identity, Karanja has at one time been forced to use an identity card he had collected from the streets to register for mobile phone-based money transfer- M-Pesa.

He has tried to commit suicide thrice.

“I still wonder how I did not die in all the three times. It is a puzzle,” he said as we concluded our interview.

While he is using “he” as a reference, Karanja is looking forward to being identified as the intersex person he is.

“Even if you jump ten feet, you cannot change this,” he said.

-Kenya register intersex persons-

His story is that of more than 700,000 intersex persons living in the country.

But the number does not exist in Government’s records.

“Intersex persons are invisible in the country. To all extent and purposes, they do not exist legally,” Suba Member of Parliament Millie Odhiambo said during the Monday event.

This, she pointed out, “when you do not exist legally, you cannot access any right.”

It is a trend set to be reversed with the hope that thousands of others will not have to undergo Karanja’s experiences in the future.

A move touted as a relief for many others, who continue to suffer in silence.

In five days, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) will enumerate intersex persons, the first time ever, in the country’s history.

The upcoming national population census is slated for August 24-25, and to cater for them, the bureau has introduced a third gender marker.

Previously, KNBS only listed people as either male or female.

The new marker was introduced by the bureau in December last year, after prolonged consultations.

Intersex persons say they’ve been denied basic services like registering a bank account and are forced to decide between being male and female while registering.

Other than being prone to dropping out of school, they also have to fight with suicidal thoughts due to stigma and seclusion.

As it is now, conditions affecting intersex persons are not covered in medical insurance covers, a trend Karanja is set to be reversed with their registration.

READ: Kenya to list intersex persons in the upcoming census

The government will be seeking to know their level of education, where they work, physical disability – if any – among other sets of things.

Intersex children have been deemed as “taboo babies” and have often been exposed to killings at the point of birth in many cultures while others die at birth due to hormonal deficiencies.

Among a set of human rights entitled to them, intersex persons should be searched upon arrest by a police officer of their choice – female or male – and detained separately in a police station, as provided in the National Police Service Standing Orders.

During the historic census, parents will be asked to voluntarily offer information on their intersex children.

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