Have you ever wondered what could be happening to intersex children being born in the rural parts of Kenya? I have asked myself this question severally and its time we talked about it. Am afraid we could be having silent murder of infant intersex persons going on in Kenya. Why do I say so? Our communities are not empowered enough to accept intersex persons as normal human beings but as taboos. A situation where a birth attendant or midwife in the villages assists a mother to deliver and see’s a child with two sexual organs, without prior knowledge of the same, I can only imagine the shock, panic and fear.
How does he/she answer the curious question of “Is it a boy or a girl?” to both the mother, father and community who could be waiting outside the delivery room? This could be a turning point for the child who is innocent. With the high cultural discrimination on intersex persons and LGBTI in general, my fear is as good as yours.
Six years ago, a midwife in Kenya delivered a child with male and female sexual organs. The father told her to kill it, but instead she hid it and raised it as her own. Two years later, the same thing happened again – and before long she was forced to flee to save the children’s lives.
Zainab was used to delivering babies. As a traditional birth attendant in rural western Kenya, she’d delivered dozens over the years. But none like the one in front of her now.
It had been a tricky birth, but nothing Zainab couldn’t handle. The umbilical cord had got twisted around the baby’s head and she’d had to think quickly, using a wooden spoon to untangle it.
After clearing the baby’s airway, she washed the child and cut and tied the umbilical cord. It was then that Zainab saw something she’d never seen before.
“When I looked to see if it was a boy or a girl, I saw two things protruding – this baby had male and female parts,” she says.
Instead of saying what she usually said at this point – “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” – Zainab handed the baby to its mother and simply told her, “Here is your baby.”
When the exhausted mother saw that her child’s sex was unclear, she was stunned. But when her husband arrived, he was in no doubt about what should happen next.
“He told me, ‘We can’t take this baby home. We want this baby to be killed.’ I told him that the child was God’s creation and must not be killed. But he insisted. So eventually I told him, ‘Leave the baby with me, I’ll kill it for you.’ But I did not kill the baby. I kept it.”
The father came back several times to check that Zainab had done what she’d promised. She hid the baby and insisted she had killed it. But this would not work forever.
“A year later, the parents somehow heard that their baby was alive and came to see me,” Zainab says. “They told me I must never reveal that the baby was theirs. I agreed and since then I’ve been raising the child as my own.”
It was an extraordinary – and risky – choice.
In Zainab’s community, and in many others in Kenya, an intersex baby is seen as a bad omen, bringing a curse upon its family and neighbours. By adopting the child, Zainab flouted traditional beliefs and risked being blamed for any misfortune.
That was in 2012. But two years later Zainab was amazed to deliver a second intersex baby.
“This time, the parents didn’t ask me to kill the child. The mother was alone and she just fled and left me with the baby,” Zainab says.
Once again, she took the baby into her home and raised it as part of her family. But her husband – a fisherman on Lake Victoria – was not happy.
“When he went out to the lake to fish and had a bad catch, he blamed the children,” says Zainab.
“He said it was because they had brought a curse on us. He suggested I hand the children over to him so he could drown them in the lake. But I refused. I told him I would never allow that to happen. He became violent and we started fighting all the time.”
Zainab became so worried by her husband’s behaviour that she decided to leave him and take the children with her.
“It was a difficult choice for me because financially I had a comfortable life with my husband and we had grown-up children together and even grandchildren. But you can’t live in such an environment – with threats and fighting. I was forced to flee.”
If an intersex baby was born, automatically it is seen as a curse and that baby is not allowed to live. It is expected that the traditional birth attendant kills the child and tell the mother her baby is stillborn.
In the Luo culture, there is even a euphemism for how the baby is killed. Traditional birth attendants say that they had “broken the sweet potato”. This means they had used a hard-sweet potato to damage the baby’s delicate skull.
For Zainab’s adoptive children, such decisions are a long way off. They are healthy and happy and when she talks about them her face lights up. She’s visibly proud of them and the new life she’s built for herself. She still delivers babies when she’s needed, but makes her living mostly by buying and selling clothes and sandals.
“We all eat well and I can see that they are normal children. We talk, the older one helps with the household chores and my son thinks of them both as his siblings. They are all my family. It’s a miracle from God.”
When asked if she’s ever regretted her decision, Zainab laughs as if it’s a ridiculous question. “Should I throw them out? No, I’m their mum! They’re human beings and I have to take care of God’s creation.”
Her take is that the midwives and birth attendants should be trained on comprehensive sexuality to ensure they are well equipped to not only handle such sensitive birth cases but be agents of intersex human rights issues within the community.
Douglas Otieno Owila
Public Health Officer and Human Rights Activist