In 2016, Sammie MacJessie founded the Ivy Foundation to create awareness especially for intersex persons to create a better environment which caters for their needs and is more understanding of their differences. Sammie MacJessie is an intersex person born in Malawi to a Malawian mother and a South African father. They grew up mostly in Malawi but had a fair share of their life in South Africa. MacJessie is the Executive Director of Ivy Foundation and has been a human rights activist for over ten years. The foundation also advocates for the rights of young and old intersex individuals. 

In April 2024, our content contributor Delphine Barigye had an informal chat with Sammie, reflecting on the founding of the Ivy Foundation in Malawi, the events that led to the formation of the Foundation, and Sammie’s experiences growing up as an Intersex person in Malawi. As Trans and Intersex History Africa sat down with them to unravel the threads of inspiration that led to the creation of the transformative organization, their words painted a vivid picture of determination, resilience and unwavering passion.

Sammie MacJessie, founder of the Ivy Foundation

What motivated you to start the IVY Foundation?

What motivated me to start was the lack of inclusivity for intersex persons, the lack of conversations, and the lack of acceptance! For so long, people have always just pretended that we don’t exist. When I asked questions, no one could give me the answers and they made it look like I was crazy. I started this organisation so that intersex people can get answers to questions they have about their differences in sex development especially in a world where we are still considered a taboo. 

Can you share a personal story or experience that sparked the idea for your organisation?

Growing up, I was pretty much like everybody else until I was 12 and joined a boarding high school. This was a place where we had to bathe in a community bathroom and that is when I noticed the difference between me and the other girls there. At 14, I noticed how everybody else had got their menstrual period besides me. But this didn’t throw me off because this (the period) is not something I was looking forward to anyway. But at 19/20 I realised how late it was. Sex conversations with friends also highlighted how different I was. I had no idea what they were talking about, especially the sexual experiences because I had never felt any sexual sensation. One of my friends pointed out how different my coochie was as well. So I decided to look for answers again. The doctors’ immediate guess was always hormonal imbalance and they prescribed hormonal therapy for 2 solid years until a doctor in South Africa NOT Malawi, after a pap smear confirmed that I had gone through a surgical procedure as a child and this consequently affected my sexual feeling. On questioning my mum about it, she reaffirmed. According to her, I was born with an abnormally large clitoris that they had to cut off. A certified doctor who didn’t understand the implications of what they were doing or what they were cutting off had done this. And now I am a grown-up who has never felt any sexual sensation at all. This experience of not being able to get answers in a country that did this mutilation pissed me off and I surely had to do something to protect others from the same experience.

The logo of the Ivy Foundation
The logo of the Ivy Foundation

Were there any specific events or issues in your community that drove you to take action?

Yes, there is a specific event in 2016 where an intersex individual in a high school from the rural area of Malawi in Kliwawa was brutally raped by the guards and the head prefect using objects. On reporting to the police, they made fun by asking the victim to show them what was in between their legs because the perpetrators had reported that the individual had two private parts.

The police continued to mock me by asking if it was true! The story went viral but no Human Rights activists cared enough to take action. I then reached out to the individual who seemed broken and did not want to open up. A week or later the individual finally jumped into Shire, a crocodile-infested river because she was a laughingstock in the village. This event truly broke my heart. Seeing a young person at the age of 15 go through so much and only end up losing their life at such a tender age because society didn’t care enough.

Did you encounter any challenges or obstacles when starting your organisation, and how did you overcome them?

First of all, we were not allowed to register because the government was sceptical about registering an intersex organisation. They argued that there was no data or statistics and hence hardly believed that there was a substantial number of intersex people in Malawi but also asserted that the Intersex people were part of the LGBTIQ community. I pointed out that if you think that intersex people are part of the LGBTIQ community then it’s true we exist and this is something you cannot take away only because for the longest time we have only been visible under this umbrella. But it is also very true that not all intersex people identify as LGBTQ. It was a long process of back and forth but I finally got help from UNDP and UNAIDs and finally got registered.

Few years later, a group of intersex members of the Ivy Foundation gathered for the International Intersex Awareness Day, 2022
Intersex and Trans Media Advocacy Awareness Workshop, hosted by the Ivy Foundation

What long-term goals do you hope to achieve through the IVY Foundation?

We are hoping that in the next at least 5 years (considering the pace of the Malawian government) we will have legislation protecting intersex people from the human rights violations and abuses they go through. We hope that the law can hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions because according to our research last year, nobody has been prosecuted for violating or abusing the rights of intersex persons in Malawi. We have already drafted the model law and policy to assist us in this journey. 

We are also hoping to see more intersex people in Malawi take up leadership roles like Tabitha and her sister in the sports fraternity. The goal is to normalise being intersex and create a more inclusive society.

Safety and Security Training with our LGBTIQ Members

Have you seen any unexpected outcomes or benefits from IVY Foundation’s initiatives?

We have seen an increase in the number of intersex people who are willing to speak up about the violations they go through and also the number of allies that have come up to support our cause. It is heartwarming.

What advice would you give to others who are considering starting their own grassroots NGOs?

You will have more downs than ups. Motivated young founders usually expect everything to be rosy by getting so many funding opportunities and immediate acceptance from people in the first year which is not usually the case. The first few years, it will just be you making noise without anyone listening. However, over the years, more people have been willing to work with you creating more noise, I mean, I may be fat but there are plenty. Patience and resilience will eventually get you there.

Mental Health Awareness Session with Stakeholders

How do you stay motivated and passionate about IVY Foundation’s mission?

Am not going to lie, it is hard to stay motivated. We are one of the least funded organisations in Malawi and this is the trend with most intersex organizations across Africa. It is exhausting to stay motivated but when you look at how far we’ve come we can surely make one more step ahead every day.