Sitting on the sandy beach front on Mombasa’s public beach, Saida stares into the vast blue horizon while she fidgets with her fingers. She’s twenty-two, slender, and her demeanour is shy. This is her favourite place to come to when she wants to think about her life.
“I come here a lot. Especially when there are few people around, mostly in the early hours of the morning. It’s usually peaceful, and I don’t have to worry about people looking at me weirdly. The beach doesn’t mind about my gender!” she says, chuckling.
Saida is a transwoman, with Muslim parents and a mixed upbringing. She didn’t lack much while she was growing up, yet she always felt out of place. She never quite understood why her ‘ways’ were never in sync with her older brothers. But being the youngest had its perks; she wasn’t picked on so much by them. They protected her and tried their best to teach her ‘how to be a man’, something that didn’t stick at all.
“My brothers love me, but I don’t think they could ever understand me. They’ve taught me to be strong and to stand up for myself and I love them,” she says, staring at the waves of the Indian Ocean.
Growing up in an Islamic environment was challenging for Saida because the religion vehemently shuns any behaviour contrary to the norms. Behaviour such as her ‘girly-ness’, whilst being born male, was never tolerated. She remembers her father beating her several times over it, shouting at her to fix her mannerisms and man up. She spent many nights nursing sores from the beatings and all she could do was to go into her room and curl up into herself. She could not understand what was going on back then.
“I avoided my father as much as I could and I hid in my room often. He just didn’t like me, and no matter how hard I tried to be ‘macho’, it was never enough for him. I felt like an outcast.”
At the time, there was no information about trans or gender dysphoria and the internet wasn’t available to her. All she knew was that she was feminine, but had been born male, and that her femininity was something she was to be ashamed of and keep hidden in order to be considered normal and accepted in her family.
Saida works at a friend’s salon in downtown Mpeketoni. Here, she is free to let go of her inhibitions – at least a little – and be herself. Her friend takes her just the way she is and her clients don’t mind her. In fact, they take her as one of the girls. At times, competition does make other workers in the salon jealous enough to say mean things, but she takes them in her stride, knowing that it is only business and most of them are really friendly. She finds comfort in being around them and in the salon since she can be as feminine as she wants, and sometimes she even dresses up in feminine clothes and her colleagues don’t tease her. They don’t understand much about transgender issues, but they have known Saida for a long time, since they grew up together and played together. They take her as she is. When she contemplates transitioning, she pictures herself one day being on the other side of the chair in the salon, being the one receiving hair treatment, seeing herself as a beautiful woman just living her life as she’s always imagined.
“The girls here treat me like family. Like one of them. Something I rarely got back home,” says Saida, as she looks at a photo of her and her colleagues on her phone.
There have been a few instances where Saida has gotten a glimpse of her dream. She remembers one particular event vividly. Describing it as one of the most exciting and exhilarating moments of her life, Saida can barely breathe while recounting the time she won “Miss Rainbow Coast” – an LGBTI event organised by the coalition of organisations on the Coast of Kenya. She meticulously prepared herself for the event, telling her parents that she was going to spend the night with her work mates, so that they wouldn’t worry. Her joy could not be contained as she and her friends went in and out of the dressing room and onto the stage, where they showcased themselves wearing different outfits. When it finally came to the evening gown section and final tallying, Saida was selected the best out of the seven contestants.
She could not be happier. Moments such as those are the ones that give her hope for a better tomorrow. She continues to pursue her dreams, putting away as much of her earnings as she can to be able to afford hormone treatment. Soon, she says, she will be able to present herself to the world as her authentic self.
“I can’t wait to be myself, freely,” she says, smiling into the horizon.