Thursday 1 July 2021

Interview with Arya Jeipea Karijo

Monika: Today I have invited Arya Jeipea Karijo, an inspirational transgender woman, LBQ-ITGNC rights advocate, and feminist from Nairobi, Kenya. 
Hello Arya!
Arya: Hello Monika.
Monika: I am always delighted when I can talk to sisters from all different continents. Could you say a few words about yourself?
Arya: Well, you said most of it in your introduction. So, I will probably be doing repetition. I am a transgender woman, I am active in the LBQ-ITGNC community organizing in Kenya. I write a lot, last year I was a feminist investigative journalist with openDemocracy last year for six months on a fellowship.
This year I am working with Whose Knowledge? a campaign to decolonize the internet. I am passionate about decolonization as a way of freeing African queer narratives.
Monika: You describe yourself as a feminist. What does it entail from the Kenyan and African perspectives?
Arya: I think I would rather speak on feminism from my perspective and how I feel Kenyan and African feminism should self-define.
If we look at many African cultures and communities, the extreme inequalities we have now between genders or even the erasure of genders outside the cis binaries were not an African norm.
For example, the Yoruba of Nigeria, while recognizing reproductive functions Obinrin and Okunrin, did not have hard lines drawn between "women and men" and who could do what roles - these were largely determined by age and skill. As such the Yoruba had women chiefs and leaders. In many other cultures such as one of the tribes, I come from the Meru of Kenya, their diviner known as the Mugwe was male who wore their hair like a woman and in some cases took male husbands.

"The extreme inequalities we have now between genders
or even the erasure of genders outside the cis binaries
were not an African norm."

The Teso culture in Kenya recognized a third gender and so did the Lango in Uganda, who recognized the Mudoko Dauku as a gender outside the binary, and so did the Hausa in Nigeria, who recognized the Yan Daudu as a gender outside of the binary. The Igbo of Nigeria had male daughters and female sons. Many African communities in Angola and Namibia had diviners Quintana's, Ganga's, and Kibambaa who were gender diverse and who had sexual relationships outside of heteronormativity. Women-to-women marriages were common among the Kuria, the Gikuyu, the Nandi, and the Kamba in Kenya. Dr. Oyeronke Oyewumi, the author of "The Invention of Women" (1997), writes about the Yoruba too.
Monika: So what does feminism espouse in Africa?
Arya: As such for me, when I look at what African feminism means, a huge part of it involves decolonizing. It involves telling stories of women and queer people's realities before the colonization.
A lot of the tribes I have mentioned above in post-colonial Africa now are the most androcentric, heterocentric often the most homophobic and transphobic. What they call culture is a sprinkling of African selected practices laid on top of the Victorian patriarchy and a continuous erasure of anything that was contrary to our adopted culture.
I can't go tell any of my tribes of origin that I am transgender and that it was okay to be like me and they had names for people like me in the Meru culture. A Gikuyu lesbian will not go home and tell her folks that she is practicing their culture - their new tribal culture involves white cishet weddings by a Christian Minister, preceded by a cultural exchange of dowry and they will swear that is the only culture they know. They will not even admit to coming from a matriarchal tribe where all the clans were named after the nine daughters of Mumbi (the founding mother). 
In some Kenyan tribes, the eldest matriarch occupied the middle hut in the compound. She would share out food and resources for the wives and children and men of the family.
Monika: And what is the situation now?
Arya: Nowadays, the main institution of distribution of resources in the country is parliament but we can't even get the government to comply with the constitutional "No more than two-thirds of any gender representation". While the kitchen was a place of power for the Gikuyu matriarch, the Victorian kitchen is a place of relegation and servitude. 
For me, African feminism involves recognizing our true past before colonization in order to self-determine our future. This involves a lot of self-definitions, it involves decolonizing language, it involves re-imagining culture because while we can't go back to this past just like our societies have successfully adopted Victorian patriarchy and modified it and now confidently refer to it as "African Culture".
I believe it is possible to pick these pieces of our past that recognized gender diversity, gender equality, sexual freedom for whatever cultural, ritualistic, and practical reasons and use them for modern reasons of being a humane, equal, and truly free society. Such self-determination for African feminism would allow us to focus on the goal at hand, which involves dismantling the patriarchy and its component systems such as religious supremacy, exploitative economics, unjust laws, and rogue governments, and to finally free cisgender women, free transgender, and Gender non-conforming people, free same gender loving people (lesbians, bisexuals, gay) from sexual, gender and sexuality oppression. Without such self-determination, we are caught up in issues, which have not emanated from our context and our lived realities, for example, the fight in the UK between TERFs and feminists has become an issue in Kenya.

"Coming out as it is portrayed in the West
is not true for us."

Monika: It has been 7 years since my interview with your compatriot and transgender activist, Audrey Mbugua Ithibu. In the interview, she was very critical of how human rights organizations promote the transgender cause in Kenya. Let me quote her: "Human rights group work is detrimental to transgender women because it objectifies them as sex objects as well as lumping trans women into the gay label. Additionally, some donors fund projects that undermine the rights and integration of transgender women, and any criticism is labeled as homophobia." Has anything changed since then?
Arya: Well a couple of things have changed in the HIV/AIDs space. Jinsiangu and the National Transgender Advocacy network finally were able to work with the Ministry of Health to draw up transgender guidelines on HIV/AIDS in Dec 2019 and officially launched in 2020.
However I still agree with Audrey, HIV/AIDS programming has not necessarily changed the overall circumstances of transgender people. While it has improved access to HIV services, testing and access to ARVs, and a reduction of stigma in HIV-specific health facilities you cannot still walk to a non-HIV government facility and say get a prescription for hormones. 
The government's attitude to HIV is that transgender people are a "Key Population" and the main reason for providing services to us and other key populations is to protect the "General Population". So, for example, Audrey and two other transgender people are in court having filed litigation to have our gender markers removed from our identification documents. 
Monika: How about the support from medical doctors?
Arya: Despite the transgender community working with government doctors, I don't see the possibility of any of the medics showing up in court to testify on our behalf or at the very least swear affidavits in our support. HIV/AIDS work is generally a money game for all the actors involved. It is business as usual and not really about ending HIV/AIDs. So, it is not a surprise for the government departments to do whatever it takes for Global Fund and PEPFAR to give them funding. If the funders say "include transgender people" they will include transgender people.
Now, for the organizations that serve gay men (men having sex with men as they are known in HIV programs), it is not uncommon for such organizations to falsify reports serving transgender people in order to secure the next round of funding and to meet the demand for reporting.
Monika: In addition, when asked about the services offered to the transgender community by the Kenyan Health Service, Audrey said "They do offer certain services e.g. diagnosis, psychotherapy, hormone therapy, and castration. However, there are significant issues that need to be addressed. We need gender reassignment surgery, affordable services, respectful environment, and policies." What is your view on the situation now?
Arya: Well, the overall healthcare services to transgender people are still in need. There are countable doctors (Endocrinologists) who will give transgender men the necessary prescription to start receiving testosterone shots, there are also a few endocrinologists who will help transgender women check their hormone levels.

"While the kitchen was a place of power for the
Gikuyu matriarch, the Victorian kitchen is a place
of relegation and servitude."

There are psychologists working with community organizations such as Jinsiangu that will offer transgender-friendly counseling and psychotherapy - this has been especially important during COVID as young adult transgender people have found themselves stuck with families, outed, and facing disowning by family or discontinuation of schooling.
For surgeries, you still have to leave Kenya to get major surgeries. In very unique conditions say where a transgender man has endometriosis or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome they can convince a doctor to carry out hysterectomy and/or oophorectomy.
Monika: And transwomen?
Arya: Transwomen might also be able to convince some doctors to carry out an orchiectomy. Most medics however have very religious beliefs and will say things such as "I don't want to interfere with God's creation" or "There is nothing wrong with you, so I can't do surgery" or quote half of the principle of non-maleficence and beneficence the part that says "Do no harm to your client". They won't quote the other half that says "Do all possible good for the client" - of course, all possible good for a transgender person would mean offering them the surgeries they need to live full lives.
For vaginoplasty and phalloplasty, it involves a lifetime of savings in order to afford to fly out for the surgery. It is almost a sad community joke that while your peers are saving for their own houses and cars, we are saving for surgery - all three things on average cost about $16,000 each. So, if a transgender person gets their first $16,000 they are not likely to become homeowners or car owners.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Arya: "Coming out" as it is portrayed in the West is not true for us. No one comes out in Africa or sits their family down to dinner to let them know who you are. You get outed, someone tells your family - it is always tumultuous.
I think for me the first outing may have been in 2018/2019. A relative called my mum and told her "Your son is becoming a woman", after seeing my pictures online. She is aging and we are all really protective of her. In retrospect, for myself, it was difficult at first to figure out what was going on with myself because a huge part of my life was pre-internet. So for about 10 years between 2001 and 2011, I knew something was different but I didn't know what. 2011 was the first time I had home internet. I spent a month researching and found the word "transgender" for the first time.
But I was also pretty religious and I spent the next couple of years till 2015 trying to find out if there was a way to "fix it". 2015 would be the time I decided to give myself a chance and start living as my authentic self. That was a journey in itself.
I met Audrey in 2016, she was the only transgender person who I knew and who was out there publicly. I met most of the transgender community in 2019 by this time I was more visible in feminist circles and in activism for women's rights and they all thought I was a lone ranger by choice.

"I believe that decolonizing knowledge and culture is
one way to set queer Africa free."

Monika: Did it help you?
Arya: I think this 10-year knowledge gap in my life is a big part of why I am passionate about making knowledge public e.g. the scientific findings that the brain structure the stria terminalis of the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of transgender women is the same in structure to that of cisgender women and not cisgender men (same applies to transgender men and cisgender men). This puts to rest the argument that biology has nothing to do with our gender since this part is formed in the first trimester of pregnancy.
I have also studied a lot about African societies' recognition of gender diversity before colonization, and I believe that decolonizing knowledge and culture is one way to set queer Africa free.
My birth family is still a work in progress, so I would not say I have paid the ultimate price in that sense - we still treat each other cordially and with respect though we have all avoided dealing with my reality.
In addition, my age insulates me from having this confrontation with family, I am 39, I have a chosen family of my lesbian enby (non-binary) child who is 20, and this makes it easier for me than a young transgender person who has just finished high school or who is in college. 
Actually meeting this young group of transgender people is what made me intentional in transgender activism. I want them to live a better life than I have... part of me feels a huge part of it was wasted in the long period I took to come into being.


All the photos: courtesy of Arya Jeipea Karijo.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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