Every time time Eric Wanyoike and his younger sister use public transport together, somebody always shouts: "Mathee ebu shika huyo mtoto (woman please hold that child)!"
You see, Eric is a 24-year-old trained journalist but only 3-feet tall - the height of a four-year-old boy. "There's a lot of ridicule and laughter. You get picked on all the time," he says. In college female students used to pick him up in the air and make fun.
He is the firstborn in a family of four and says living life in small body means putting up with constant ridicule, discrimination - and a whole raft of misconceptions. "I recently left my CV at a company but I realised I needed to correct something. So I went back shortly and asked the receptionist to give it back to me. She traced it from a trash bin," he says. He never got the job, or the interview.
He says buying clothes is frustrating. "I'm a man but of course only fit children clothes. But most of them have funny writings like 'Tom and Jerry', 'Superman' and 'I love mum'."
Eric and other Kenyans living with dwarfism do not mind being called dwarfs, but wish Kenyans would understand they are mature and mentally fit. They are the latest minority group to join the identity procession that has gained momentum since Kenya adopted a new Constitution. They now want Kenyans to know they exist, clarify the many misconceptions and claim a rightful seat at society's table.
"Many tall people do not like associating with us. When we look for jobs, people tend to compare your height with your mind," Eric says. Studies show people with dwarfism have normal mental ability. Dwarfism is mostly caused by faulty genes, meaning the person's bones do not grow as fast as they should. "We are fighting for social and economic inclusion," says William Ndung'u, vice chairman of the recently formed Kenya Association of People with Dwarfism. "We don't have a voice. We are not physically, or mentally disabled. Yet we are classified as physically disabled."
The Constitution describes as disabled anyone with "any condition or illness that has, or is perceived by significant sectors of the community to have a substantial or long-term effect on an individual's ability to carry out ordinary day-to-day activities."
These people are entitled to some tax breaks, free use of public recreational or sports facilities and a share of the Sh200 million disabilities fund among other benefits. In Kenya and several other countries any adult shorter than 4.10 feet - the height of a 10-year-old child - is legally considered to be disabled. Ndung'u is furious that a popular Nairobi radio station recently made fun of the association, with presenters joking why people should not pay taxes "merely" because they are short.
"Do they realise most of us do odd jobs because we can't get proper jobs? Many cannot drive, use Matatus, ATMs or bank tellers without assistance. Our sisters here are getting obese because we can't go to gyms or sports facilities," he says.
Ndung'u, 31, considers himself lucky. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree and works as an Information Technology expert at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He says most dwarfs drop out of school or fail exams because of constant humiliation.
Nominated MP Isaac Mwaura says the public may not perceive dwarfed people as disabled because of the traditional conception of disability in Kenya. "Some groups of disabled people are more predominant than others. But people with dwarfism, just like those with albinism, are clearly recognised by law as disabled," he says.
Mwaura is also the co-founder and national coordinator of the Albinism Society of Kenya. He says people with dwarfism are unfairly seen simply as comedians, or as children. "In Kenya people love children but do not take them seriously, yet our friends here face real challenges including access to buildings and facilities." Ndung'u registered the dwarfism association in August this year with Joseph Maina aka Sonko as chairman. Sonko is an actor with KBC's Plot 10 programme. He is 24 years old and stands at 3.5 feet, the average height of a five-year-old boy.
Sonko says because of their unusual height, many people with dwarfism are often exploited and misused as spectacles in entertainment. "Not every dwarf is a comedian. We want our colleagues to exploit other gifts they have," he says. They formed the association after failing to get any assistance to attend the World Dwarf Games in Michigan last month.
This was billed the largest sporting event in history exclusively for athletes with dwarfism. "We knocked doors at many government offices without any response. Yet afterwards we saw the tennis team attend international tournaments. A week later the national athletics team followed." He says the Disabilities Act compels the government to support sporting for people with disabilities.
By last week, the society had enrolled 673 people with dwarfism, mostly from poor villages. They says their biggest victory so far has been boosting self esteem. "Many dwarfs are so over-protected by their parents or have been taunted so much and have lost all esteem. Imagine some could not even talk to fellow dwarfs when we met," laments Julie Waithera, a business administration student a St Paul's University.
She has a diploma in human resources management but returned to school out of frustration. "Most of my job prospects collapsed the moment interviewers saw me," she says. Julie says she's not grumbling, but wishes people would give them a chance. "We are capable people, we do not want to be spoon-fed. People should not even pity us. We are normal even though we strain physically. But do not belittle us. My mind is mature, only my height is not."
She says people with dwarfism really want to make genuine friends, hang out, dance and date just like "tall" people do. "I'm happy with my body but it's difficult to know a serious friend. Some are just curious, others want to date you out of pity." "If somebody befriends me on Facebook and wants us to meet I always make it clear that I am a dwarf."
People with dwarfism still get married. "Most are married to people of average height. "Probability of getting dwarfed children is very low, so that fear is unfounded," she says. Eunice Kanini, a hairdresser at Kenyatta Market, says her husband, Peter Karami, has always been proud of her. "In fact he pushed me to join the association and meet more short people," the 29-year-old says.
"We married in 2009 and we have one child of normal height." She has improvised furniture in her house so she can cook and perform other household chores that wives do. Colleagues at Kenyatta Market say her salon business is booming because customers easily identify her.
Studies shows there are about 200 varieties of dwarfism, but they mostly fall into two types. First is disproportionate dwarfism where the trunk is average size but the legs and arms are shorter than normal. The most common type of this is called achondroplasia and accounts for about 70 percent of all cases of dwarfism, according to the US National Institute of Health.
The second category is proportionate dwarfism where the person is small all over. This one is difficult to diagnose until around age 2 or 3. NIH says if two people with achondroplasia marry, there is a 50 per cent chance that they will have a child of short stature. The chances of getting a child of average height is only 25 per cent.
There is also a 25 percent chance the child will inherit both dwarfism genes. This condition is known as double-dominant syndrome and the child usually dies at birth or shortly after. If one parent has average height, there is at least 50 per cent chance of an average-height child. Ndung'u says they want to recruit more members and raise awareness in October, the global Dwarfism Awareness Month.
The association will then launch with pomp and colour in December at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. "We'll have a walk in the city centre and a short demo," he says. Hollywood dwarf star Peter Humbleton has confirmed he will attend, Ndung'u says. They are also hoping to get Nigerian film heartthrobs Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme."We have small bodies but big dreams," he says.