James Karanja was born Mary Waithera and faced stigma and humiliation which drove him to attempt suicide thrice. The 27-year-old talked to Daily Nation about the experiences he went through as an intersex and finding his identity after being raised as a girl.
“I was born at home in the early 1990s. I had an ambiguous genitalia and so my mother was confused. She immediately called my grandmother who suggested that we see a medicine man. She had never seen anything like it.
Being Christians, they then thought to see a priest, who advised that I should be taken to a hospital. I was admitted to Naivasha General Hospital for three weeks without being named or assigned a gender.
My mother was advised that because of the ambiguous genitalia, no surgery should be done until I was of age. I was a healthy baby.
There was a lot of conflict and tension within our family because of this. My father said I should not be named from his side of the family.
The marriage eventually broke and I had to be raised by my mother and grandmother.
I had a pretty normal childhood being raised as a girl. However, what stood out was my mannerisms, most notably how I carried water from the river.
I used my shoulders instead of my head. I was also the only girl in our village who could ride a bicycle or play football. People got confused and it infuriated my grandmother.
After my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), I was admitted to Kambala Girls High School in Molo.
The Catholic Church sponsored my education – we were of humble background. I shaved my head bald ahead of the admission day.
On opening day, I had everything except sanitary towels. I had not yet started my menses, something my grandmother believed was because I had not been circumcised yet.
She believed in female circumcision. The matron was alarmed by this. After persuasion, she let me in. She said I would ‘grow up’ while in school.
The first telltale that I was different came soon after. “Look, a boy has been admitted to a girls’ school,” the girls laughed as they made a beeline around me.
Then it got slightly worse. It was at the morning shower time. I got a culture shock when everyone woke up at 5am, rushed to the bathrooms, most of them naked and unbothered, proceeded to shower.
I had to avoid eye contact. I grew up in conservative home. I had never seen a naked female. I had always thought my body was the normal female form, but what I saw was different.
From then on, I made a promise to myself that I would always wake up earlier and shower first. For the next four years, I kept this true.
It was in Form Four that the real trouble started for me. While in Form Three I was elected an assistant head girl and a year later a head girl. At first, it was an advantage.
No one could question me. I was aware that my voice was deepening and I was still flat-chested.
Then, girls started getting attracted to me. I started receiving anonymous love letters. They grew by the day. I was alarmed.
Then before I could process all this, a teacher saw one of the letters, and I found myself suspended for promoting lesbianism.
The good thing is, I had never responded to any of the letters. This spared me from expulsion.
I was out of school for the entire second and part of the third term.
That’s when I decided to ask my grandmother hard questions. ‘Who was I? Why was I was so different from my peers?’
She took me to the hospital where I was informed that I am male pseudohermaphroditism. I was given the option of surgery.
I decided not to as I wanted to complete my studies. To date, I have not seen the need for surgery.
At last, I knew what the issue with me was. I was relieved. I ditched my skirt on the last day of school.
I changed my name to James Karanja and decided to live as a man. This was in 2010. I was happy and free.
I was an adult now, and no one could question me on the gender I chose. Or at least that’s what I thought.
I was wrong. Villagers got concerned that I was now male. They decided to strip me naked in public to see my genitalia.
Suddenly, I was seen as a bad omen. I could not even get a job despite my excellent results.
And things only got worse. My mother, who had been battling depression due to the stigma of giving birth to me, became mentally ill. She was raped soon after and gave birth.
It was now up to me to provide and take care of my mother and the new baby girl. I had to take my baby sister to a children’s centre.
She is there to date. My mother is at Mathari and I visit her on weekends.
The pressure has been piling up on me. In 2014, I tried committing suicide three times. After the third failed attempt, I knew I was in this world for a reason.
Through one of my high schoolteachers, I started speaking about my condition in public.
During one media interview, I met Hon Isaac Mwaura, who promised to do his best to push for a bill that will see intersex individuals considered as a third gender.
The challenges are many but I was overjoyed when Kenya National Bureau of Statistics added us as the third gender in the upcoming national census.
I do hope the government can do more in recognising us, especially in documentations.”