By Tafi Mhaka

When Chris Barnard performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant operation in the early morning hours of Sunday 3 December 1967, on Louis Washkansky, he literally brought humanity a new lease of life. The immeasurable scientific benefits Barnard and cardiac surgeons like him around the world had discovered then, allowed mankind to dream of the endless possibilities scientific innovation could yield for the betterment and sheer survival of humanity.

More eye-opening developments came to life in good time, including a female domestic sheep named Dolly. She was born on July 5, 1996, at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, as the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell, using the process of nuclear transfer. Dolly’s birth was just the beginning of a long journey in stem cell research development. Scientists later on cloned animals such as pigs, deer, horses and bulls in high-technology labs.

But people questioned the godliness of it all. And speculated if scientific novelties would breach commonly held standards of ethical practices and beliefs. Would science forge ahead unchecked and find a way to clone different forms of humanity, and therefore abolish the need for sexual reproductive activity?

In the United States of America, Erica Maison, a mother-of-five from New Baltimore, Michigan, is transitioning to a man. Her child Corey, 14, who was born a boy, has been undergoing hormone replacement treatment after he chose to become a girl when he was 11 years old. So after bearing five children, Erica has chosen to become a man, and her son is well on his way to becoming a girl now.

What possible psychological implications can this have on her other children though? And did Corey, at the age of 11, really have the maturity and clarity of thought to make such a life-altering decision? All manner of ethical questions arise from such a family situation, and if you are of the Christian faith – or any other religion, you might be critical of the scientific frontiers mankind has decided to explore. You might question whether such scientific discovery is healthy for mankind, or if the seemingly natural order of life humanity is used to, is being destroyed.

If in future, Erica, as Eric, finds love for herself, or gets married to a woman, her children will have to adapt to a new motherly figure in their lives; alongside a man who used to be their mother. Is it fair of mothers and fathers to raise their children in such muddled environments? What will happen in Africa, a continent where gender roles are firmly observed and cherished as part of an established patriarchal system?

The fluidity of gender identity is foreign to Africa cultures for starters. Will African societies be welcoming of men transitioning themselves to females, or vice-versa? Will transgender individuals be given the same patriarchal benefits that men and women enjoy in traditional households?

Should a man decide to change his sexuality – and hence his identity, will he, for example, retain his status as head of a family, village or clan later on? Should a woman set about becoming a man – will she enjoy the same traditional rights as a natural born male when her change is complete?

These are questions African traditional leaders and legislative institutions will have to scrutinise, since every change in gender identity will have legal ramifications to consider as well. Africa has thus far strongly resisted changes that challenge set sexuality, sexual roles or notions of gender identity. Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LBGT) rights are limited or non-existent in most African countries.

Homosexuality is illegal in many African nations and punishable by death in Sudan and Nigeria. And while South Africa has legislation protecting LBGT rights, reports of unruly community members threatening and harassing gay people occasionally make front-page headlines.

So it is fair to probe if African cultures will accommodate transgender people or shun them. Transforming a gender identity is, in all likelihood, unlike changing the mindsets of people who are accustomed to rigid social systems, which, in all fairness, have worked well enough for thousands of years for various sections of African society, yet importantly, not all of them.

Change is knocking on Africa’s door in a multitude of ways that seemed impossible a few decades ago. Should thousands of Africans opt to change their genders, will they find a home in Africa?