When James Karanja was born 28 years ago, his parents and doctors could not tell if he was a boy or a girl. He had both male and female genitalia. The doctors decided the baby was to be a girl and named it Mary Waithera.
His father would later take off as he could not handle the mystery surrounding his child’s gender, leaving his mother in the cruel hands of a society that treated them as outcasts.
This took a toll on his mother. She developed a mental disorder and has since lost her memory.
Karanja continued to live like a girl and attended a girls’ boarding school, Kambala Secondary School in Molo, Nakuru from Form One to Form Four. Karanja would wake up at 3am to take a shower so that his fellow students wouldn’t notice that his genitalia was different from theirs.
“It was confusing watching the girls become women and I saw boys during school trips chase after them. But I did not understand my body. I felt so wrong and so different. I got attracted to the girls also,” he recalls.
He was not transitioning to a man. “My voice was becoming deeper and my chest wider and no breasts to show,” he explains. The intensity of his condition was fast dawning on him.
He remembers receiving love letters from girls who instinctively saw him as a boy and this got him into deep trouble when the teachers found out about it. He was suspended as the teachers thought he was propagating lesbianism.
With all the challenges he had to undergo as an intersex student, Karanja performed well in his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education scoring a B (minus) guaranteeing his place in university.
After Form Four, he decided to live like a man. Having attained legal adult age, he needed to get an identity card, but it was difficult because his man-like appearance confused officials at the registrar.
However, his ID read Mary Waithira. But his appearance made him take a bold step of changing his documentation from a woman to a man.
Changing his identity card meant changing all the other documents that would enable him get access to the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), education, employment, and access to public services, which all require one to clearly indicate their sex.
Karanja has eventually successfully changed his documents, in what he describes a humiliating and undiginified process.
Today, the Political Science student at the University of Nairobi is the voice of many intersex persons who go through life’s struggles in silence. Karanja who works for the Intersex Persons Society of Kenya says counting and including intersex persons in the governments budgeting and planning could never have come at a better time.
In 2016, the organisation filed a petition to the Parliamentary Committee on Administration and National Security seeking better treatment for people with disorders of sexual development.
“On many occasions I have been subjected to the task of proving my identity. Fast-tracking implementation of the taskforce recommendations will save thousands of children who continue to suffer,” he explains.