An unusual friendship

It rained on the day I met Jummai. The type of light showers that starts early in the morning and carries on, well into the evening. The kind of rain my Hausa people would say caused ‘zazzabi’ (fever). How rain can lead to fever is a scientific theory that is yet to be discovered.

I digress.


Rain always makes me feel happy, and as such, I had a large smile on my face when I welcomed Jummai, my first patient into the consulting room. So cheerful was my mood that I did not notice how pathetic she looked. A middle-aged woman trotted in after her and sat.

We exchanged the customary pleasantries.

I noticed she did not make eye-contact. Her head was bowed and she appeared to be staring at something on her feet. She was very tall and had the characteristic Fulani features of people of Agadez descent.

‘So, what brings you to the hospital today?’ I asked merrily. Nothing was going to dampen my mood.

Jummai shifted uncomfortably in her seat and as if on cue, the older woman started talking. She was her sister-in-law. Her Husband’s older sister. She had brought her from the village on the request of her husband. She wanted me to examine her privates. Why?, I asked. Jummai still had not spoken. She was staring hard at her feet. Sister-in-law shrugged and mumbled incoherently.

I looked at Jummai and asked quietly: ‘Do you want me to examine you?’

She nodded ever so slightly, I almost missed it.

I got up and arranged the screen for privacy and asked her to undress and lie down on the couch.

And then I saw it.

I was visibly shaken, but quickly put on my professional face. I reassured her and asked her to dress up.

It was then she opened up. Jummai was born with both male and female genitals. And while it is a common congenital anomaly seen in babies, I had never seen a grown adult with both parts. As a child, her mother had shielded her and protected her secret. She had grown up in a polygamous setting of three wives and 19 children, in a rural village in Bauchi. Such things were not discussed.

She had never been to school and had hawked ‘awara’ (soya-beans cake) instead, from the age of six. Her mother died when she was about eleven years old after a protracted illness, I presumed to be Tuberculosis.

Her first marriage was at the age of 15 years. She had never had a menstrual period. He was a young farmer who had taken a shinning to this tall, broad-shouldered, flat-chested girl. Two days later, he returned her to her father and divorced her.

Her father was aghast. Why? He had said nothing. Jummai had also said nothing. She cried throughout the night.

By this time, my jolly mood had deflated like a burst balloon. I was livid with anger but managed to keep a straight face.

Jummai remarried one year later to a textile trader who was in his thirties. He already had one wife and was fairly well to do. The marriage lasted one month. He, however, had the courtesy to discuss with her father about her predicament. Jummai’s father had summoned various marabouts who promised to pray for her for a token amount. They had chanted many incantations, fasted and sacrificed a whole cow, but everyday Jummai had woken up without any change. She still had not seen her menses and her breasts were slight fatty mounds which could not fit into any brassier. Worse still, her manhood was still present and had not shrunk away as they promised. She was in despair. A local barber had brought up the idea of cutting off the penis, but she was scared and ran away to her aunt’s house for two days.

By now, she had become the talk of the town. She was a freak. What was she? A man? Maybe, after all, she had a penis. A woman? Definitely. She had been brought up as one and she had a vaginal opening. A Hermaphrodite? What?

Jummai broke down in the middle of her story to wipe away tears.

Her father had sent her away to live with his sister in a nearby village and there she met husband number 3. He had two other wives and wooed her with gifts. Her aunt had no idea. Jummai hid her secret well and prayed this new husband would accept her.

On her wedding night- she told him the truth. He had been shocked but she had pleaded with him to let her live with him, even if he never had marital relations with her. She was tired of returning home in shame. She had cried hot, gut-wrenching tears and he had taken pity on her. Husband No 3 decided to send her along with his sister to Kano for treatment.

I knew, at this point that she most likely had Klinefelter’s syndrome. Her hands were coarse, and her shoulders were broad. Even with her delicate Fulani features, she could pass for a handsome man. I asked her what she wanted ad she looked at me strangely.

I explained to her, that we would run a few tests to confirm her gender, after which she would undergo a few procedures to help her become whichever gender she chose. I referred her to a psychiatrist for counselling after setting up an appointment for her in the next two days.

Throughout the day, I was numb. I didn’t know what to feel. Anger? at her parents and our society who had made such things a taboo to talk about and as such had failed her. Sadness? at the young 19-year-old girl who was in so much emotional pain that it was palpable. At the thought that in this era are transgenders were fighting for the right to be recognised, a young illiterate girl from Bauchi wanted nothing than to be normal.

Meeting Jummai made me research more on her condition and the various methods of management. And so, when she returned, I assembled a multi-disciplinary team. The results were as expected. She was XXY. She had no Uterus and her Vagina was just a small opening which was blind-ended. Her female hormones were very low. Most importantly, she wanted to remain female.

Years later, whenever memories of Jummai cross my mind, I become humbled. I remember her numerous clinic visits and our long conversations. I recall her husky voice over the phone whenever she called in despair and wanted reassurance about her treatment.  I remember the silent tears of pain, she shed whenever she visited the gynaecologist for her serial dilation. Most importantly, I recall vividly her shy smile of relief, when she woke up from the surgery that removed her most distressing physical attribute.

Jummai’s treatment spanned a whole year and during that time, our friendship grew, blurring the lines of professionalism as I accompanied her from one specialist to another. In a way, I felt responsible for her; like a big sister would, ensuring that she didn’t miss appointments and making sure she followed through with her treatment, difficult as it was. Truth be told though; I soon became the student because, from her, I learnt resilience and the power of hope, will and courage.

I only wish I become half the woman she is today.

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