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Nick Mwaluko Headshot

Becoming a Man

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All I wanted from this country was to live as a man.

I grew up in a rural Tanzanian village with no electricity. We couldn't go to school unless we fetched water from the river, milked cows, let them graze for the day. Our chores reminded us that we were disciplined but poor so school was a privilege. School took place in the late afternoon, children of all ages sat under a tree into the early evening learning lessons that had little if any relevance to our daily lives. My father could not afford the mandatory uniform so every year I went to school for three weeks in the semester until the teacher dismissed me.

I didn't care; well, I did but I didn't let it show. I hated poverty; I hated its limitations. Stupid me because all around were golden fields of wild savannah, the sun set against the plains.

In those days, I knew I wanted to live as a man so I walked with my shoulders hunched so my chest was hidden deep into my back. My father scolded me, thinking I was ashamed because we were so poor. He told me to take pride in what little we had so that future blessings would shower our lives in the next life, if not this one.

I was never ashamed of him, ever. I loved him deeply. He was all I cared about but there was no room to say such things to your father. Respect meant little or no eye contact; speak only when spoken to; measure your words carefully with pointed, brief answers. One side-glance from my father ensured all pretense was lost: I straightened my back, held my head high, chest forward, hoping some day he might respect me, too, maybe even love me as a man in much the same way I loved him for being one.

Then the voice of God came to me, reassuring me that I'm already a man. But by nine my chest betrayed me and, more importantly, betrayed (my) God. By 13, my whole body was in revolution. Blood came between my legs once a month; little hills spurted into huge mountains on my chest. I couldn't afford a razor so I shaved my chin with dry leaves. Still, very little hair grew and the hair that did was faint, wispy compared to the mane on my father's handsome face. My sisters -- over six feet tall and less than one hundred pounds -- were all arms and long legs with little or no hips. I looked more like my brother: short, stubby, limbs stunted by family standards with no sign of future growth besides a slight bump from a permanent potbelly. Worse: boys walked barefoot until twenty-five to make sure their sisters wore sandals, "Jesus slippers" we called them in my language because they opened at the mouth. The slippers were an aphrodisiac to showcase the streamlined beauty of a woman's feet; they made me wear them.

Enough was enough. Rather than go to the edge of the village to consult with the witchdoctor -- a spiritual mediator between this world and the next -- I broke with tradition, going directly to my mother's grave for answers. I figured my body was going crazy because she was jealous that I looked nothing like her. My large chest, high-pitched voice, smooth delicate skin was her violent attempt to embarrass me into womanhood. So I waited. Nothing: stillness at her grave. So I asked my other ancestors. What did they do? Send a torrential downpour of such magnitude that I thought about wearing a dress for months.

I was scared but made plans to leave for the United States because I knew I could live as a man when there. I knew the money I made would help my family get electricity, running water at home, regular school fees for the kids, no more worries about the basics: food, clothes, shelter. Yes, I could play the man who provides for a family in need in much the same way African men abroad bankroll their families on the continent with comforts they could not afford otherwise. In America, I could have control, independence to manipulate money how I wanted. Maybe marry American, buy a house, a dog, build a kidney-shaped swimming pool in my big backyard.

So when I arrived in the States my first thought was to get a job, which I did but left, right and center people referred to me as "miss," "she," "her," and "lesbian." I was baffled: were these people blind? My manly spirit, my quiet resolve, the firm will that dignified my actions were undeniably male. All they saw were the curves on my hips and chest that butchered the man in me.

I needed money but I also wanted to be seen as a man by society. With the little money I saved, I did the unthinkable, broke all ties with my family for hormone therapy for years. I sent small trickles of money here and there when I could, but I made sure I always had enough for my shot, a needle of testosterone taken bi-weekly, the cost amounting to school fees for two children in my village. Every month I robbed my village; every month I became the man I am today.

Am I selfish? Or should I live life miserable in the wrong body to support a family that will never support me? Make no mistake, no monthly contribution is large enough for them to accept me should I decide to return to Tanzania today in my new body. So I stay stuck to the same concerns I had as a child: where can I find my home? Not in white America where little old ladies hold their handbags the moment I come close. By home, I mean a place where memory is butchered by the present and future so the past sticks to my shadows, stays dead. And now I know something of death and resurrection, now that my old body died to give birth to a new one. With that experience comes an intense yearning for a resting place, a home where my new body can settle in peace, a village full of people from my tribe who are the same but different.

On November 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, I embrace my transgender brothers and sisters in an adopted family in an adopted land and I acknowledge what it means to be part of a diverse social fabric. I do so because their struggle for acceptance touches me like a love-song, one that provokes sincere discomfort and deep joy. I listen for their music: silence. Then one note, neither male nor female but golden, separates itself from the sonic pack to rise higher and higher. Now look -- heaven.