When Dan Koech was in elementary school, he was unable to reach desks in the classroom. He often experienced pain in his legs when walking long distances.
And then there were the looks he was getting from his classmates and others. Curious looks. Confused looks.
He didn’t know it then, but it was a trend that would last his entire life.
Like so many others, Koech is a short person, a genetic condition that refers to people under 4 feet 10 inches. It’s just that – a medical condition. But for those who suffer from it, it is a lonely and difficult life.
“The stigma starts very early and it doesn’t change,” Koech says.
“As a child your friends see that you are different and you slowly start to pull away because they treat you differently. I was one of two children born short in a family of five siblings, the other three being of normal size. But people don’t know it, or they assume it has something to do with curses. ”
Now regional coordinator of the Short Stature Society of Kenya, Koech still faces practical challenges on a daily basis, if he does not catch the eyes of outsiders.
“Imagine walking down the street and hearing people wonder if the people you are with are your parents. The challenges never end.
Hellen Kamanje, 33, is barely one meter tall. She lives in Kisauni, Mombasa County, and works occasionally at Coast General Hospital as a customer service provider.
“My job is to show clients directions. Most of them, however, don’t take me seriously because they keep looking at me when I move, but I don’t care, ”she told the Nairobian.
She says she does household chores like any other normal person, but the biggest challenge comes when she wants to hang clothes on a line to dry.
“One day I fell off the chair while trying to hang up some clothes. I can’t ask for help all the time. I have to pay people to wash and hang me.
In Maganyakulo in County Kwale, we meet Hamisi Babu Fumba, 29, another small person. Fumba dropped out of class 3 because of the stigma.
“They were looking at me in a funny way. They also made fun of me, ”he notes.
Babu developed an interest in carpentry by observing carpenters at work. Now he makes everything from wood, from doors to wardrobes and beds.
However, he must seek help from taller colleagues when the furniture exceeds his size.
And then there’s Hamdan Sultan, a food kiosk operator who deals with fast food, in addition to roasting chicken and other meats.
“I’m fortunate to have gone to elementary through high school and reached grade 4 in Istiqama High School despite all the stigma associated with people like me,” he says.
His job is difficult, especially the transport of certain foodstuffs, especially potatoes for making fries, chicken, meat and even his work tools.
The Sultan is naturally bitter with the government, which he accuses of turning its back on them and turning a deaf ear to their cries.
“There are so many people like us, but here in Mombasa I can say that only one has been employed, but there are so many jobs we can do. ”
But even beyond the stigma and hardships he faces on a daily basis, he has a much bigger problem shared by so many short people.
“Imagine that you are this size and you have no money, no woman will love you, but we also have this urge to love and be loved,” he adds.
Hellen has lined up her fair share of suitors, but they all run away when she questions their engagement.
“They (the men) usually come to flirt with me, but by the time I say go to church and officially tie the knot, they disappear. They are just pranksters but I did not give up. I know that one day I’ll have a man, ”she said.
For Dan Koech, the difficulty of short people is a problem of considerable importance, especially given their numbers.
“There are over 3,000 members of the Short Stature Society in the country,” he explains. “The vast majority of them are single. This is how difficult it is for us.
“Women don’t like hanging out with short people. From my personal experience, I took four women home to meet the parents before I settled down. In some cases, even after the lady has accepted the union, the parents and family will then dissuade her. To be honest, you might have to make some money and become a successful person just to have a chance.
Ruth Mueni, president of SSSK, disputes the fetishism that sometimes occurs with people dating short people.
“Some people only date short people out of curiosity,” she says. They want to know… What are they like? Would they still be able to conceive normally? Not many people are serious about them, and men especially have a hard time with women because they are so picky on the waistline. ”
There is hope, however. Through her organization, she has helped raise awareness and change the narratives surrounding short people.
“It starts with the name,” she said. “Terminology is important. Because the condition is called dwarfism, people most often use the term “dwarf”. There are also other terms like “dwarf” which are pejorative. The proper term to use is “short person”.
SSSK regularly organizes awareness events, such as county-to-county sports tournaments.
Myths and stereotypes still exist, that’s for sure. People still think, according to Ruth, that being born small means you have been cursed.
Or they think you are like that because of polio.
People didn’t understand that it was just genetic modification.
“But people have become more tolerant. More importantly, most of our members have become more accepting of themselves. Before, they were in hiding. Their families also hid them, out of shame or fear that they would be made fun of. It is slowly changing. It is a matter of esteem.
We need to be more aware of ourselves, says Susan Keter, counselor and coach.
“Stigma of all kinds has roots in societal and family sources. From an early age, we are bombarded with messages about what is normal and what is not. Normal height or stature, normal behavior, etc.
“When you hear the same message over and over again about what’s normal and what’s not, it becomes your programming or your plan. You need to be self-aware to challenge your belief systems, which a lot of people don’t.
Every year on October 25, International Dwarfism Awareness Day celebrates short people. The day also raises awareness of achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder that causes dwarfism. Still, we can all do a little more to help.
“There is no planet for people of short or normal height,” says Ruth Mueni. “We’re all here, so we have to find ways to coexist. ”