There’s a warmth and kindness in Nelly Shua’s voice. She could easily have a career in broadcasting. Her elegance, looks, confidence and walk could find their way in high fashion. Nonetheless, Nelly finds herself at the helm championing the cause of the transgender rights community in the Kenyan coastal town of Malindi.
The Malindi Desire Initiative (MDI) was started in 2016. Members of the transgender rights community felt their needs were unmet by the wider queer movement in this town known more for its notoriety than anything else and decided to effect change. It took the group close to eight months to register as a community-based organisation. It seems the county officials didn’t want the word trans to appear in any of their registration documents, but the group persisted.
I met Nelly and some of the MDI volunteers during one of their weekly sessions held in their one-roomed office situated within the Malindi Sub-County Hospital premises. It is sparse with large wooden desks and a few laptops spread around the room. Having a physical space in itself was something, I found it rather gutsy for a group whose members have been blamed by some sections of society for causing the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, we are in 2021, but unfortunately, I’ve heard similar thoughts echoed by other queer communities here in East Africa. Though the individuals who think like this are few, the LGBTIQ community feels the barbs of ignorance and fallacies.
“We are constantly called husband snatchers and prostitutes, and now we are accused of being the cause of the pandemic!” Nelly says with a tinge of lightness in her voice.
I learn that during the group’s early days, the hospital guards wouldn’t allow members of MDI onto the compound because of their appearance. When they were eventually allowed onto the premises, they would have to go around the back of the hospital’s buildings to get into their office. Fortunately, that is no more. There’s been a lot of sensitisation of the hospital staff and many of the boda-boda, motorbike taxis that line the hospital entrance.
MDI has over 100 active members’ majority being transwomen or gender non-conforming individuals. Unfortunately, the only two transmen whom the group are aware of are still very private and limit their interactions with the broader group.
Like in many other parts of the world, the trans community in Malindi finds itself at the bottom of the pyramid. They are soft targets for violence, abuse, and discrimination. Nelly can’t remember how many times she has had to move house to protect her identity.
“I’m an introvert, and I spend most of my time indoors. My house is near a matatu (minivan taxi), so I don’t have to walk far. I go where I need to go and then come back home immediately,” she lets me know.
Her statement answers an internal question. I was curious to find out how she navigates this quasi conservative historically Muslim town because Nelly stands out. You can’t miss her. She is a fantastic dresser. Despite the heat, she is dressed in a black body-hugging outfit, and a pink chiffon-type fabric wraps her waist.
“I knew I was different from when I was around five years old. My mother, my sister and my twin brother have always been supportive of me, “she says. “My father, though, was violent towards my mother and me because I was effeminate. Eventually, they separated, but it was not easy for my mother, which made me feel guilty. We also got cut-off from my maternal relatives because they considered me a curse.”
Nelly reveals that traditionally, twins in her mother’s tribe were killed, or only one was kept alive. Some of their relatives fell back on this belief; despite having a huge extended family, she has no ties with them. Nelly couldn’t bear to see her mother and siblings suffer and therefore attempted suicide when she was a teen.
The Malindi Desire Initiative for Transgender Rights is based in Malindi Town, Kenya.
Fortunately, her sister discovered her convulsing on the floor after Nelly had drunk a dangerous cocktail of beauty creams and animal pesticides. With the world not ready to give up on Nelly, she made her way through high school. After finishing her exams and with some money and the clothes on her back, Nelly ran away and headed for the Kenyan coast and eventually found herself in Malindi. She was just sixteen.
Like Nelly, many MDI members are runaways or have been disowned by their families, and MDI is the closest thing they have to family. It is impressive for a transgender rights group that is very nascent to keep pulling off scoops. After numerous conversations with the hospital, permission was recently granted to MDI to put an office within the hospital grounds. 2021 seems to have started well for Nelly and her team. The next hurdle for them is to raise funds to buy and repurpose a shipping container.
“Having our own physical space is important. Even though we are being hosted here at the hospital, we want to be able to offer better services to our community,” says Shally Mahmoud, a co-founder of MDI. “With such a space, we shall be able to offer mental health services, provide training on income generation and continue with our work around HIV sensitisation.”
A recent study by the research body, KEMRI, indicated that the local trans community would rather receive sexual reproductive services in a queer-friendly facility than the general hospital. Unfortunately, stigma still exists within the corridors of healing.
Furthermore, thanks to MDI, the same study revealed that transwomen have better adherence to PREP than gay men within the Malindi town. Transmen know the risks surrounding unexpected and risky behaviour and want to experience sexual freedom in the context of the sex work that some members are involved in.
It’s been ten years since Nelly left home to start her own life and fight for transgender rights in Kenya; I was pleased to learn that she has reconnected with her mother and siblings. She can boast of two families now. However, she recognises the hurdles that lay ahead. Hurdles like creating access to human replacement therapy, changing gender markers on official documentation, and overcoming societal discrimination and stigma. But Nelly still has dreams. She dreams that she will have her sexual reassignment surgery one day and that being trans and free in Kenya will one day be valid.
- You may also like our 10 Fearless Black Trans Women Who Changed the World.
- See also The KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme based at the KEMRI Centre for Geographic Medical Research.