Arya Karijo openDemocracy Trans Rights

Remembering Arnest Thiaya, Father of Kenya’s Trans Community

Thiaya started to live his authentic self in 1986, long before the country had a trans community.
Arnest Thiaya, the father of the Kenyan transgender movement by Agnetta Asitwa

By Arya Karijo / OpenDemocracy

On Fathers’ Day, Kenya’s trans community was in mourning for the loss of our father, Arnest Thiaya. We lost him on 14 June, not long after the passing of Nakshy Saeed, the director of Pwani Trans, a Mombasa-based initiative that advocates human rights, social recognition and inclusion for the country’s transgender community.

Thiaya would have turned 52 this year, a feat for a Kenyan trans person. Our life expectancy is 50; multiple socioeconomic vulnerabilities contribute to our short lives.

He started living his authentic self as a trans man in 1986, way before there was any trans community in Kenya to speak of. Way before he even had the language to say what he was going through. He remembered walking into Kenyatta National Hospital and telling a doctor that he felt like his body was not his, that there was something terribly wrong. Fortunately for Thiaya he found medics who were open to making the journey with him, to venture into what was then seen as uncharted waters for medical practice.

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Thiaya is of the generation of activists that never ever saw themselves as such. In his mind – and way of life – he was just a small business owner. Every day, he religiously opened his grocery retail shop in Nairobi’s low-income Kasarani area. Even when he had important meetings to attend – government consultations or overseas trips such as his recent visit to New York – Thiaya made sure that someone opened his shop which sold dailies like bread, milk and oil. He also had a section on the outside that sold bags and jackets.

That his small business was important to Thiaya is obvious. He lost his first shop in Kibra, Kenya’s largest low-income neighbourhood, amid the electoral violence of 2007, something he always spoke of with pain. Forced to restart from scratch, Thiaya found he was unable to access microfinance credit as he needed identity documents that matched his gender.

Thiaya, along with two friends, took the government to court, wanting to compel Kenya’s Registrar of Persons to identify them by their correct names and gender markers on their national ID documents. They won the suit to change their names in 2017 with the ruling on gender markers still pending. In Kenya, the national ID document gives a person access to banking and government services, and is the reference document for all other government-issued documents, such as a passport or driver’s licence.

The other two plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Audrey Mbugua and Maureen Munyaka, who co-founded Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA), which works to defend and promote trans human rights. Like Thiaya, Munyaka is a small business owner and runs a hair and nail salon. Mbugua is best known for winning several legal fights that expanded trans rights in Kenya, not least forcing the national examinations body to change her name on her school certificates and compelling the NGO Board, which regulates non-governmental organisations in Kenya, to register the TEA.

As for Thiaya, he was on the board of three important transgender organisations in East Africa, but most local people will probably remember him best as the strict judge of the Nairobi ballroom on community days.

Many will also remember his mental health work. He got so many young transgender Kenyans into therapy. Jinsiangu, a gender advocacy organisation on whose board Thiaya sat, employed a therapist and community members were allocated sessions with her. Thiaya would always call to check if you had kept your slot. He was also street-smart, using his knowledge of Nairobi to source and buy medication for those diagnosed with mental illnesses. Unlike many people of his generation he knew the importance of mental health wellness.

In Kenya, age earns you respect and many young intersex people in rural parts of the country, whose families were struggling to accept them, were receptive to hearing about gender diversity from the old man and his delegation. Thiaya tirelessly traversed Kenya to talk to these families.

Every community member who met him will remember a ‘Thiayism’, his unfiltered pieces of advice, always delivered with dry humour. To younger trans Kenyans he would say: “You people have the most information anyone could ever need but you are also the most confused.” He helped us understand our parents’ struggles with our gender: “You people expect too much from your old folks. These are the people who were toiling to feed you and put you through school that they didn’t have an opportunity to discuss menstrual periods or sex with you. You had to go to a young aunty or elder sibling but now you want to go to them to come out.” Often, all of us would laugh at the logic, irony and hard truths of his words.

Thiaya always wanted to get away from the city. He often said: “I will buy a tiny piece of land, build a tiny house and change my phone numbers so that you can no longer call me with your mental health struggles and your relationship problems.” But we kept him here and we kept calling him. But now there is no one to take the call. Our father is gone.

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Arya Karijo

Arya Jeipea Karijo is a trans woman in Kenya working at the intersection of human rights, LGBTIQ rights, feminism and gender equality. She is a user experience researcher and designer, building for simplicity in human lives – applications, experiences and interventions for people’s resilience and the planet’s sustainability. She was a Data Journalism Fellow for open Democracy’s Tracking the Backlash team in 2020.