THE PUNCH Newspaper- Eric Dumo

There are perhaps only few people in the world today, who have witnessed the type of hostility 34-year-old James Johnson has passed through in life. The first of several children, his journey has been one filled with not just bumps but thorns, too. Born and raised in the extremes of Lagos’s capital – Ikeja – under a roof where deprivation was rife, the Isoko, Delta State-born native understood quite early what turmoil means. Forced to leave home at 11 to find a new life, the years that followed brought plenty of sufferings and disappointments along. It was a period replete with some of life’s biggest challenges.

But beyond the struggle to break free from the shackles of poverty, it is the inability to find acceptance in a society with little promise for people in his category that has represented one of the biggest barriers for Johnson yet. Known and addressed as Iyabo Abade, a charming beauty, for 19 years, the 34-year-old’s world took a different turn in 1998 when prying eyes peeped into his closet and blew open his most guarded secret. That year, the world came to know that the young beauty they had grown to adore might not be a female after all. Nobody was sure whether to conclude that it was a male. But the fact was that a hermaphrodite had been discovered. The situation has not remained the same since that period for the Delta native.

“Until news broke out of my gender status, life went on normally for me as a female even though I wasn’t really contented with my situation,” Johnson, a former member of Nigeria’s female national football team – Super Falcons – told our correspondent from his base in Abuja earlier in the week. “For 19 years, I lived as a female, Iyabo Abade, hiding my pain from the world for fear of being humiliated. I lived like a fugitive, afraid each moment of what would happen to me if the world found out that I had both female and male sex organs. I lived in pain every day, not knowing where to turn to for solution. It was a very terrible period in my life.

“Even though my parents wanted happiness for me, they didn’t have the money for me to undergo a corrective surgery, so out of frustration I left the house at the age of 11 to hustle and look for a solution myself. It was in the process that I found football,” he said.

The encounter with football not only presented a seeming escape route from the rejection and social barriers the 34-year-old have had to deal with up until that period, it offered promises of a better life, in fact – the type that Johnson had hoped for all along. Initially playing the game for fun, luck soon smiled on him when he was discovered by a local football coach in the Agege area of Lagos. In a matter of months, he had moved from amateur soccer to the national team setup. A quantum leap, if you like.

“Arriving at the Super Falcons camp changed everything for me,” he recalled with nostalgia. “Even though I loved football and played it so well, I never knew that in a very short while, I was going to get to that level. I was with the team for a few years and participated in a lot of matches. It was an interesting period for me where my hope in life was renewed and I was looking forward to a very big future,” he stated.

But just when that big future was about to come, events took a completely new twist – a sad and demoralising one. The monster of rejection and social barrier Johnson thought he had overcome after finding football, reared its frightening head again.

“I had to pull out of the Super Falcons team just weeks to the 1999 World Cup in the United States after news of my gender status became public knowledge. A lot of things suddenly changed around me, so I had to pull out of the team to search for a solution.

“A lot of people who used to mingle with me before stopped coming close to me after I opened up about my condition. Some even said I am not human. It was really tough,” he said.

After years of seeking for help, the 34-year-old finally travelled to the United States of America in 2004 for the first leg of his corrective surgery. Though a very difficult choice, doctors, after series of tests and diagnoses, determined that the footballer was to be a male. It marked a shift from a 19-year journey of living as a woman. The medical intervention was purported to be the long-awaited solution to the array of troubles Johnson had passed through including rejection and its likes. But events that soon followed brought more confusion than answers.

“After the sex change and I was certified to be a male, I quickly went back to football and went as far as earning a call up to the Flying Eagles team.

“Soon afterwards, I went to try my luck with several clubs and earned a contract with Crown FC of Ogbomosho. But as soon as it was discovered that I was formerly Iyabo Abade, I was kicked out. The same thing happened to me at Plateau United in Jos where I was offered a contract after passing the trials. The moment they knew that I used to be a female and now a male, they told me to go. Since that period, my football career has been stalled.

“I suffered a lot of rejection as a female, I thought having a corrective surgery to make me a male would end all of this, I never knew it would be the beginning of even bigger challenges. To be honest, I have thought about suicide so many times because of the way society has treated me. I did not create myself this way, God made me the way I am, so why should I be discriminated against this much? It is just so painful,” he said painfully.

Now based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, trying to make ends meet and raise money for the last lap of the corrective surgery, the former Super Falcons player told our correspondent that he has been surviving on the benevolence of a few friends and some kind individuals.

Johnson, who disclosed that he never had sex throughout his 19 years as a female or menstruated, said that he wishes to have a wife and children someday as the loneliness he experiences on several occasions almost drives him crazy.

“As a female I never had menstruation or even sex because I was not comfortable with my body. Guys were always expressing love for me but I never gave any a chance as a result of my condition.

“But now that I have had the surgery, my male organ has been enhanced but the process is not complete yet. The doctors are working hard so that everything will go on perfectly and I can impregnate a woman. For now, I can only have sex; I cannot impregnate a woman yet. That is why I am seeking support to complete this process.

“I have a lot of female friends but I don’t have any I can call mine now. My wish is to have a wife and children because the loneliness is affecting me. Also, I wish to go back to football. The world knows that I am a very good footballer but because of my gender crisis, I have been rejected everywhere I go. Though my career may have stalled for some time, I believe God can revive it. The only crime I have committed in life is telling the world about my status. If I had continued to hide, maybe I wouldn’t have experienced the type of rejection I have witnessed in my life,” he said.

Sad as it is, Johnson is not alone on this path; there are dozens others in many Nigerian communities today whose lives have been reduced to a living hell as a result of being a hermaphrodite. Described by the Longman Dictionary as “a living thing that has both male and female sexual organs”, the physiological abnormality, according to the Intersex Society of North America, occurs once in 2000 births around the world. Though the number of those living with the condition in Nigeria are not known, experts say there could be more hermaphrodites in the country than thought especially with many afraid to come out for fear of being stigmatised.

For example, since opening up about her situation, 27-year-old Blessing Ekaette, a former player with Ibom Angels Football Club of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, has had to face challenges of all kinds. Raised and still residing in Calabar, Cross River State, the young woman has had her own bitter share of rejection and stark denial as a result of her gender crisis. Now nursing a career-threatening injury that has kept her out of football for some time, she told our correspondent that the trauma she deals with makes her afraid of what the next moment could bring.

“There is no time that I think of the terrible way society treats me as a result of my gender status that I don’t feel like committing suicide,” she said during an emotional telephone conversation with our correspondent from her base in Calabar. “At every stage in my life, I have had to face discrimination for no fault of mine. There have been times when people look at me and advise me to go and die because according to them, they don’t see my usefulness in life. To make matters worse, there have been times when I walk on the street, some naughty guys would approach me and try to pull up my dress to ascertain if I were a male or female. They call me all sorts of names, making me feel very bad in the process.

“This is very painful especially to see that the society cares less about the way you feel. While other young girls are having menstruation, boyfriend and living their lives normally, I am just there, like a log of wood. But I am human and I have feelings too. If my injury won’t allow me to play football too, at least I want a man in my life that would love and cherish me. Even though doctors who have examined me said that I am more of a woman, no man wants to come close to me.

“It is just so painful to live in a society where nobody wants you around them because of something you have no control over. The First Lady of my state has offered to assist me to undergo the corrective surgery so that I can be a full woman, but I don’t know if after everything, I would finally find acceptance. The way the situation is right now, I am like a dead person just still living,” she added.

While in some families, this biological defect occurs in only one child, in others it is replicated in a few more. For the Ekaettes, hermaphroditism goes beyond Blessing – her younger sister – Monica, too, wears similar shoes. Also a professional footballer like her more known sibling, the 26-year-old, who guards the post for a local league club based in Osun State, told Saturday PUNCH that having male and female sex organs has forced her to become an entirely different person from the one she wishes. Like others in this category, the rejection she has had to deal with over the years is enough to shatter even Jericho’s walls.

“Apart from attending trainings and going for football matches, I hardly go out because of the way people look at and treat me,” she said. “They look at me as if I am not human, like I had fallen from another planet. But I am human too; I did not create myself this way. The discrimination I face everywhere I go makes me feel as if I have committed the worst sin in the world.

“I don’t know when I’ll overcome this problem; it is only God that I look up to for help and comfort. If I were to go by the way people have treated me, by now I should have been in the grave. I have never experienced a normal life due to my situation,” she added painfully.

Also forced to live life in a closet, Oluwaseun Fajilade, has seen his dreams of becoming something big in life crumble before it had even taken off. Possessing large breasts in addition to a male and female organ, the 30-year-old Ekiti indigene has lived much of his life as a fugitive, dwelling in hiding – away from the glare of a public waiting to subject him to emotional and psychological torture. Speaking with Saturday PUNCH, the disenchanted student of a college of education said of his desire to live as a man that he had always wanted.

“For most part of my life, I have lived in darkness, maybe prison in fact, as a result of my gender status,” he stated. “I am tired of this fugitive state, I want a new life. Even though I have both sex organs and breasts, I know that I am a man; I feel it inside me every day. I want my breast removed, my penis enhanced so that I can live like a normal man.

“Throughout my life, I have carried this heavy burden, unable to do the things that my peers do. When I even try to express myself, the discrimination that rubs me in the face instantly makes me withdraw back into my shell. If not for the support of my parents and a few others, I don’t know what would have happened to me now, maybe I could have done something nasty,” he added.

Describing the pain the family has had to pass through over the past 30 years as a result of Oluwaseun’s condition, Mr. Babatunde Fajilade, his father, told Saturday PUNCH that in the course of searching for a solution, they had been defrauded a few times by conmen.

“There is no figure that can be tied to what we have spent trying to find a solution to Seun’s problem,” he explained. “Even though I don’t earn much, my wife and I have invested all our resources in searching for a solution. But in the process, some persons pretending to help us have in fact scammed us. We leave them to God.

“My son did not wish to be in this situation, God made him so. Despite the feminine features, we have been told that he is a male but because we don’t have the money yet to do the surgery, he has been facing all manners of problems. As his parents, I know the type of nasty things that people have said to us, so I can imagine what he has to deal with on a daily basis. It is a terrible situation to be in but all we are praying for is a breakthrough to overcome this problem,” he said.

While treatment of this type of birth defect will depend on a number of factors, experts say age and individual body differences play a crucial role in determining what to do. Treatment could involve surgery, hormone therapy or even both in some cases, it has been revealed. But while these medical interventions are readily available and affordable in Europe, America and other developed parts of the world, in Nigeria, facilities and treatment for this condition remain rare and out of the reach of many.

“The medical process to effect a sex change can surely be done in Nigeria if we had the facilities because we have the experts here. But as a result of this situation, many with the condition after being examined here are referred to specialist hospitals abroad to undergo such surgeries. This makes it quite expensive and out of the reach of many ordinary citizens who are then forced to endure the pains and 1/2health challenges that come with the condition,” a gynaecologist, Helen Badejo, explained. “It is a very terrible condition to be,” she added.

Highlighting the dangers of stigmatising hermaphrodites in the society, a professor of psychology, Oni Fagboungbe, told Saturday PUNCH that without attitudinal change by people around, many in this category could take to deviant acts including ending their own lives.

He said a mass education of the public was needed to change the perception of people about hermaphrodites.

“Hermaphroditism is a physiological abnormality that does not make anybody a lesser human. It is a situation where the two sex organs started developing together but one later developed more than the other. So, subjecting persons with this condition to all manner of abuses is not needed as it could cause serious trauma for them, including resulting in unapproved behaviours.

“The situation is worse in our society because of superstition and other cultural beliefs people hold on to. Some even believe that the condition is contagious, so they isolate hermaphrodites around them as much as possible. This is wrong. It is just a medical condition that can be corrected.

“As a result of this type of treatment, people in this category feel that once they speak up about this problem, they’ll be labelled a witch or someone under spiritual attack.

“The way out, therefore, is for us to embark on massive education of people for them to change their attitude and know that hermaphrodites are normal people who should be loved and not discriminated against,” he said.


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