He has endured being nicknamed Future because he was denied in the past and continues to face denial in the present. Will you call him a human being like any other when the ongoing tense paves the way for the fulfilment of his given name? JAMES CHAVULA explores dilemmas of a boy born with both male and female organs.
Let us just call the father of five ‘The Man’ like the anonymous feller in Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah’s suspenseful novel The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. For 10 years, The Man has been at the epicentre of a silent war between his unknown family and the majority of the world around him.
First, The Man had his doubts. Having waited nine months for his pregnant wife to deliver their third born, he found himself with maddening questions when news started trickling in from a traditional birth attendant where she had reported for delivery.
This was some morning in 2004, when he was anxious to know whether the newborn was a boy or girl.
“The childbirth was not without problems, but the gratifying news is that the baby was born anyway,” says the man from Traditional Authority (T/A) Kalonga in Salima of what was supposed to be good news in a country where figures from the Ministry of Health show 675 lives in every 100 000 live births are lost while giving birth.
But The Man’s ‘happy hour’ was muted—for he was sceptical about keeping the mystic baby he christened Future to wade off stigma and ridicule in a society where “people expect every human being to be a clear-cut male or female”.
Actually, baby Future was born both male and female. Onlookers prefer calling him either—a bad omen, a life not worth living, an oddity. But Future prefers calling himself ‘a boy’, according to The Man.
“The day he was born, I was waiting outside the delivery room when a message came that the baby was a girl. A few minutes later, they told me it was a boy. The first impression was that my wife had given birth to twins, but I was shocked when it turned out that the same baby had both male and female organs,” recalls the father.
According to The Man, the second call was not necessarily meant to shock him, but just to ask whether the birth attendant can go ahead to finish off the baby because it was a taboo—a revolt against widespread description of a human being.
“I was dumfounded to hear that the elders were contemplating killing to get rid of a taboo. Amid the shock, it was easy to agree not to keep the baby. But being a Christian, I gave it a minute of deep thought and chose to keep the baby because it is a gift from God. It’s a sin to kill,” explained the father, an Anglican faithful.
Stigma in school
Today, the baby society wanted dead is 10 years old. He has not just grown to see those who put him on death row for no crime at all. Some of them are elders in his clan, pillars of an extended family who were supposed to show him that it still takes a whole village to raise a child in the country.
That innocent boy who was born different from the majority in his world, the one they put in the frame for a concealed socially sanitised murder, is now in Standard Three and his father terms him the pride of the family.
“Future has defied all the odds and misconceptions we had to become the most intelligent and best behaved child in the family,” he says.
But bright pupils don’t bang heads with boys and girls in Standard Three at age 10. At worst, Future was supposed to be a class higher since teachers in public schools expect a child to enrol in Standard One not earlier than age six when the child is able to bend a right hand above the head and touch the left ear.
But it is discriminatory tendencies that have delayed Future, his parents say.
“Future should have been in Standard Six if she did not withdraw twice in fear of the insults, ridicule and unfair treatment she was suffering at his school,” weighed in her mother, vowing she would always stand by Future even if the whole world turned against him.
According to the parents, Future dropped out of school in Standard One in 2010 and 2011, only to return to return for real in 2012 following days of persuasion after an encounter with Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) official Michael Kaiyatsa.
“It’s a pity seeing a child out of school simply because he was born different. I believe every child has the right to education regardless of how they are born,” says Kaiyatsa of the urge that got him talking and assisting Future when it mattered most.
Just like that, Kaiyatsa has become Future’s uncle and the boy keeps all the tests and homework to show him the wonders he is performing in class.
Sadly, some of the setbacks that once derailed the boy from school still exist in the country’s education system.
Despite the affection he enjoys from most of his teachers at the remote school in Salima, he remains a subject of insults, name-calling and other discriminatory tendencies among fellow learners.
According to Future’s mother, the situation sometimes forces her husband to confront the people who scorn the boy to ask them to treat him nicely.
“Teachers love him immensely, but not all his friends do. When some of his fellow learners discovered that he goes to a male toilet and passes out urine like a girl, they started calling him all sorts of names. Unfortunately, he cannot go to the girls’ section either because they will be equally shocked since they know him as a boy.
“As such, when he wants to urinate, he has to run back home to avoid attracting more insults,” said the mother.
Long walk to equality
The family’s house is located about three kilometres from his school. As he races back home in obedience to the call of nature, the unpaved road becomes a spectacular symbol of the wide gap the country has to bridge by reforming structures at a time the Disabilities Act requires such facilities to be friendly to all irrespective of their bodily differences.
With greying hair, Senior Chief Kalonga of Karonga agrees that there is need for a change in the way Malawians think and how government delivers public services to accommodate the needs of the minority born differently.
“God bless the parents for keeping him alive. At my age, with grey hair, it is the first time I am learning about parents keeping a baby with two organs. Culturally, this cannot happen in Karonga and most children that are reported dead during birth at the hands of traditional birth attendants are sometimes terminated because they are born with strange organs,” says the traditional leader.
To him, Future’s life should be an extra jolt for leaders at all levels to ensure no birth occurs at home or at the hands of unskilled hands.
“By encouraging pregnant women to go to the hospital and deliver under the supervision of skilled health workers, we can save some of the babies that are killed due to prevailing taboos which come in many forms,” says Kalonga.
For executive director of the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep) Gift Trapence, Future is a living example that not all people are born the same.
“This is a wake-up call that there are people that are born each different from the majority. Should they be discriminated against? Should they be killed?” he wonders.
Trapence has been a prominent activist for minority rights since the Blantyre Magistrate’s Court handed Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steve Monjeza a 14-year jail sentence following their same-sex engagement which shattered the silence on the existence of homosexuals in Malawi.
Five years on, he reckons it is unfortunate that most Malawians—even leaders in religious, cultural, political and healthcare circles—still misunderstand minority rights as a campaign for same-sex marriages or a Western agenda, but it is a fight for human rights and equality enshrined in the country’s supreme laws.
“Section 20 of the Constitution outlaws any form of discrimination based on sex. Besides, the bill of rights spells out a number of civil liberties, including the right to life. Why are we persecuting each other?” asks Trapence.
Majority vs minority
This is the question of CHRR acting executive director Timothy Mtambo as well.
“Why should anybody kill an innocent baby because it is born different? For me, majority rule is not the hallmark of democracy on its own, but when the majority uses it to safeguard the rights and interests of the minority and the powerless as well. Being many is no license to start killing or abusing those in minority?” argues Mtambo.
Amid the raging minority rights debate, Future’s parents are fighting on to get society to accept their third born has no blemish. Even with the two girls and two boys in the family, they bank on him for a bright future—literally!
But this is their plea according to The Man: “Traditional leaders and powers above them must take keen interest in children being born out of hospital, for they may end up being killed in the circumstances Future survived.”