SECTIONS

How search for true self drove Audrey Mbugua to suicide bid

By Machua Koinange

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Nairobi, Kenya: Audrey Mbugua had been tormented and trapped for 19 years. She woke up one day in 2002 tortured about being called “Andrew” and being treated like a man.

She studied the image on her national identity card, studied herself in the mirror and realised there was something terribly wrong:  She was trapped inside a man’s body.

“It just wasn’t me. I was completely uncomfortable being this person in the identity card who was not me,” she recalls.

Few people could get behind the mask of pain that enveloped Audrey as she fought being in a body that brought her nothing but mental anguish.

For years, she had attempted everything to deal with her predicament. She had tried to get medication and even contorted her own solution to suppress male hormones in her body.

She had devised ways to gain access to hormones to deal with her Gender Identity Disorder (GID) without success.

She has even tried suicide.

Conservative society

It has been a roller coaster ride for the 29-year-old medical biotechnologist who graduated with an Upper Second Class Honours degree from Maseno University in 2006 after declining to take up Law studies at the University of Nairobi.

She had attained an A- (minus) in her KCSE exams.

“I have dealt with depression almost all my life. The struggle to be someone that I am not and trying to be comfortable in my female gender in a very conservative society, has been a horrendous journey,” she says.

When you first meet Audrey, everything about her is feminine. The way she walks or laughs. Even her mannerism and her gestures speak of a polished woman.

Audrey was born Andrew Mbugua in 1984 in Ndumberi, Kiambu County. She had a normal and exciting childhood in a family of five — two brothers and two sisters. Her father worked with Kenya Broadcasting Corporation as a technician and her mother was a nurse.

“I grew up like any boy in the village, playing in the fields, watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. I was the apple of my father’s eye.”

Audrey did so many things together like any father and son relationship.

“My dad and I were very tight,” she recalls.

Her favourite time was watching him dismantle the engine of their 1600 Chevy saloon car. He would teach her the intricacies of mechanics. She learnt what a radiator, gasket, piston and drive shaft rings were. In the village she was ‘Kadi’ or ‘Eddy’.

“At 13 years, my father taught me how to drive. He also introduced me to such heroes as Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson. He loved boxing.

“My mother had a library filled with medical books because of her nursing career. I read so many of them and my interest in medical journals was born.

Her career drive

“People look at me and assume I was molested as a child. In fact, I had a very normal upbringing.”

Andrew, as she was referred to then, was smart in school and, encouraged by her teachers, graduated from Kiambu High with an A- (minus) mean grade, enough to get her into law school at the University of Nairobi, which she had applied for.

She failed in only one subject that she never liked — Kiswahili. Finally, all the medical journals and books she had been reading from her mum’s library took their toll.

“I decided I wanted to study medical biotechnology as opposed to law. The issue of HIV catastrophe intrigued me. In addition, in 2001 the issue of anthrax as a biological weapon was in the news.”

 She wrote to the Joint Admissions Board and requested her admission to UoN be switched to a medical biotechnology course at Maseno. They were stunned and asked her why? Could she put her reasons in writing?

So she wrote a long and convincing argument in one page and forwarded it to JAB. Her explanation was accepted. but her father was furious.

“He wanted me to study law and could not understand why I would change my course.”

The right thing to do

But there was more. Her physical metamorphosis was changing and she was struggling with her body.

“Things were changing inside me and I felt more and more feminine than a man.”

As a 19-year-old, she was struggling with growing into an adult and her gender.

“I felt things were going haywire. This was not my body. I had a conflict in both my body and mind.”

So she did something that really provoked her father. She plaited her hair. It just felt like the right thing to do. He was infuriated.

“I never talked to my parents or siblings about what I was feeling. I thought I could find a solution on my own.”

So she took the next step and changed her name. It had always felt strange to be referred to as Andrew.

“I was a big fan of Jack Bauer on Fox show ‘24’.  I was particular drawn to the character of Audrey who was head of CTU. I don’t know if I had a crush on her but I loved that show. So I took the name Audrey.”

In any case, Audrey sounded very close to Andrew.

By now, she had become the local weirdo and her previous strange hair was the talk of the village. She would draw stares when she walked to the local shops, but she did something else: She changed her wardrobe.  Everybody said she was now crazy or had been bewitched.

“Everybody saw the outside, not the inside of me. I thought I was going crazy, and to an extent, I think I was. I don’t have the right words to express what I was going through.”

Feminine things

One day she went out shopping determined to get female clothes to spruce up her wardrobe. She put on a dress and studied herself in the mirror. “It was the first time I actually felt comfortable in my skin.”

 Audrey’s first year at Maseno in 2002 was exciting. She was enthralled by the freedom of being away from home and her parents.

But the conflict inside her did not dissipate. It got worse.

“I sailed through my first year a loner, with no one to talk to about what I was going through.”

Her friends found her strange and she was referred to as gay, they saw her as a man with an affinity for feminine things, but they accepted her. Audrey recalls one day during a lecture when the lecturer was talking about transsexuals and the class pointed to her.

There was laughter all around.

The taunting from other students took its toll: “I hated people around me and became a loner. I took my frustration to alcohol and succumbed to cheap spirits.”

Audrey tried to figure out how she could get access to female hormones and failed.

By her third year, she was barely surviving academically. Drowning in sub-marine depth of depression, she went to the college clinic to seek help. The clinic officer listened to her story then reached into her drawer and pulled out a Bible. It didn’t help.

At interview room

By her fourth year, Audrey was doing alcohol to deal with her struggle with GID. She was a wreck and now entertained the idea of attempting suicide.

And then she had what she called an epiphany and quit alcohol. Audrey graduated and was pursuing an attachment to work with Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Nakuru in early 2007.

She went for her interview for the Nakuru KARI molecular lab attachment and handed her ID and graduation documents that showed her as Andrew Mbugua.

She says her interviewer, Dr Malinga, knew there was something odd as soon as Audrey stepped into her office. “She studied my papers and told me ‘These are not your papers. You are not Andrew I am sure. You are not a boy’.”

It was the first time she had felt somebody recognised her as a woman first. “I felt really nice.”

Malinga continued: “Can you do good work?”

“Try me.”

She was accepted as an intern. She rubbed shoulders with research scientists and allowed her to explore a whole new scientific world she yearned to work in sometime in the future.

It also had its challenges. She had become accustomed to using the ladies and one day was accosted by a senior female KARI worker who scolded her for using the ladies washroom.

She threatened Audrey that if she used the ladies again she would lose her internship. So Audrey would, rather than use the gents, hold herself until she got home. It wasn’t easy.

But the rumour mills about her gender were the subject of talk around KARI village area in Nakuru.  They also became sometimes the subject of hate. In 2007 a storm ran through the area and a crop of wheat was damaged.

“The rumour was that I had caused the storm by bringing djinnis from Coast. I saw myself as storm, a character in the X-men series of films played by Halle Berry. I was like wow! I have powers over the weather.”

One evening while having a plate of chips for dinner at a local restaurant, a man walked in grabbed her plate and yelled at her “wacha umajini wa coast hapa”(stop the witchcraft from Coast). He left her holding a fork and left. The hotel owner just watched from a distance and did not intervene.

Sometimes life during the attachment could be hard. She had barely enough food and was earning a pittance for her attachment. She also felt lonely being so removed from her parents in Kiambu. It got worse. Her parents and two siblings migrated out of the country.

From brother to sister

In addition, in December 2007, Audrey had returned to Kiambu for Christmas. The post-election violence exploded and Nakuru was a flashpoint. She could not go back to KARI. So she turned to job seeking around Nairobi and it wasn’t easy.

Still, she says: “Around my home, everyone thought I was crazy or bewitched. My brothers and sisters accepted me for whom I was and told me I was no longer their brother but their sister.”

She hit the interview circuit trying to secure a job. Her first job interview was memorable. She got called by the interview panel and walked gingerly into a sea of baffled faces. The chairman studied the papers and shot her an accusing look.

He thundered: “Young lady, will you please wait for your turn! We called for Andrew Mbugua, not you.”

She never got the job.

Audrey attended close to 18 interviews with the same results. It was painfully frustrating. “When they looked at me they saw this creature or animal that was strong enough to challenge their norms.”

Respect from touts

Audrey spiralled further into depression. She struggled to make ends meet by repairing computers. It wasn’t something she was passionate about but biotechnology was getting further and further away. Then she had to deal with being taunted.

She would enter a matatu to Kiambu and hear whispers of “huyo ni chali manzi (that’s a guy-chick)”. Most matatu touts and drivers knew her as she had grown up with them in the same village or attended the same school. They treated her respectfully.

Audrey learnt to walk away and ignore the whispers and snickers behind her. By September 2008 it was getting worse. So far, she had maintained a resilience and stoicism with regard to her situation. But her toughness was relenting.

Recalls Audrey, “I was seeing my life, my dreams going down the drain. For me the sky was falling.”

Unable to find work and removed from any circle of friends she could confide in about her situation, she attempted what she had contemplated for a long time  — suicide.

Desperation and frustration collectively had driven her over the cliff.

She was unconscious.

Darkness.

Shrouded light. Distant voices. Whispers.

Her eyes snapped open. Audrey woke up in Kiambu hospital recovering from her suicide attempt.