It was a quiet, slow realisation for Ryan’s mother. “The midwife made a passing comment to her that they could not tell if I was a boy or a girl,” Ryan Muiruri says of his birth some 30 years ago in Lari, Kiambu County. He now, out of choice, identifies as a male, and will be referred to as male in the story.
Beat and still on her delivery bed, his mother’s would-be celebrations of safely delivering her first born child quickly faded into confusion. All she had wanted was a healthy baby.
Even the simple joy of snuggling her new born was taken away from her as medics poked and prodded the ambiguous genitalia to determine Ryan’s gender.
“They were unable to tell my sex by normal routine and so they decided to go with a good guess,” Ryan says. “My mum assumed I was a girl and named me after her beloved mother.”
That is how the journey of Ryan began as a female. As Ruth Mwihaki Wangui.
His father feigned fears of a bad omen and deserted them. So grim was the rejection that he did not consent to the newborn being named after the grandfather as per Kikuyu customs.
At about age three, his family contemplated corrective surgery to make him really ‘look’ like a girl. But on the day of removing the “huge clitoris”, a nurse would talk his mother out of the decision on account that the child could resent it in coming years. Thus the corrective surgery was stopped.
“It is the best decision that my mother ever made,” Ryan tells My Health. “I could never have forgiven her if my male genitals were removed.”
And with naivety of a child and mannerisms of a girl, Ruth Mwihaki went on with life till she was five.
“I could hear rumours from my aunties and uncles that I was not normal but was too young to understand the abnormalities they were talking about. At the time, I saw I had both eyes, legs and hands and everything passed off as normal.”
But it was the constant nudging from his playmates that revealed to him that all was not well.
“Despite my mum trying to regulate my movement, I found ways to sneak out and play with other children and that is when I discovered I was different,” Ryan recounts in a calm and measured voice.
Some of the older kids stripped him naked and made jokes about his sex organs.
He failed to master the courage to confront his mother over the issue and instead opted to “investigate”, telling himself that maybe the kids did not know how a girl should look like.
“I thought the kids were just being cruel. I had grown up as a girl. Surely, my mum, grandma and my doctor couldn’t have been wrong.”
The shame and stress that hung over the pre teen’s head also ate at the mother who had since given birth to two other normal babies. It made breaching the discussion on his sex very difficult.
The trauma followed him into school as his woes were now an open secret. It became an entire school affair with kids following him into the washrooms, curious to see if he stood or squatted when urinating.
When the pressure took a toll on Ryan, he started skipping school. However, the safe heaven he thought home was to be, never was. They said he was growing naughty, often beating him and threatening to call the police on him for missing classes.
“I would wake up, don my school uniform, eat my breakfast and find a place to hide through the school hours.”
Breasts or beard?
The truancy went on for months. In Class Six, puberty struck and Ryan’s long-held fear was confirmed. He was “not a girl”.
“Instead of becoming feminine, I was becoming more masculine by the day. I could not hide it anymore and everyone started questioning my sex.”
So, he started making up stories about having a menstrual cycle so that he could fit in with his peers.
When the stigma and taunts increased, Ryan dropped out of school and attempted suicide six times.
“On two occasions, I was saved and rushed to the hospital,” he says.
Ryan lost his voice for a couple of months and his eyesight became weak after his last suicide attempt in 2014 from poisoning.
But it was only when an elderly man accused him of causing the drought that had hit the region that Ryan decided he had had enough and left Lari.
“It was on Christmas Day and he wanted me stoned because I was an outcast.”
Ryan moved from town to town, and he now embraced the fact that he was a man. He was hoping to lead a normal life. But even then, he met the brute of people who often accused him of impersonation as his identification card read female but he dressed and acted like a man.
He tells of an experience when he visited a bank and couldn’t convince the teller that he was the Ruth Mwihaki on the ID. Police officers whisked him to a different room, roughed and beat him up. That was not all, a mob beat him months later at a public toilet when a lady screamed that a man was in the women’s washroom. Simple acts that require he produce his identification card, like mobile money transactions, became a challenge.
“It was a tough moment for me because I felt I had no one to share my problems with and so I nursed my wounds alone,” he recounts.
Despite his woes, Ryan does not plan to undergo a surgery, or medical treatment to “correct” his condition. He was subjected to hormonal therapy as a child and even that is off the table for him now.
He says his celebrity status, from the advocacy on intersex issues, has lessened the stigma and made life bearable for him as many people now know him.
Ryan, who championed for intersex persons to be enumerated in the last census, says the society has changed and is willing to embrace people like him.
Asked what we would change about his life if he had a chance, Ryan says:
“I could not change myself but I would change people’s minds to be more accepting of others. I was born this way.”
He also hopes that one day, Intersex people will cease being grouped with the LGBT community.
“I don’t like it that when one thinks of intersex people and the first thing they wonder about is the sexual orientation. Well, there is more to us than that.”
Until then, he maintains that the intersex will continue to face the stigma and oppression of the sexual minorities, a grouping he believes they are not part of.