By Vision Reporter
Dorcus Ajok has the world at her feet. In fact, as Uganda prepared to take on the rest of the world at the World University Cross Country Championships in Entebbe on Saturday, the 21-year-old was one of the country’s potential gold medal winners.
Just this week, a team from the Unites States visited Uganda’s team at their training base in Ndejje but with special emphasis of monitoring Ajok —also a silver medallist at the Africa University Cross Country Championships.
However, despite her relentless success in recent months, a good number of observers continue to cast doubt on her gender.
Just what would you ask Ajok, the star athlete with ‘masculine’ features?
That, “Hey Dorcus, could you be a man?” “Are you like Caster Semenya, the South African star who rose to fame for looking like a man?” Or something like: “Do you have both sexes?” It was always going to be a difficult interview.
The journalist in me is telling me to ask anything and get a story. But as a human, I have my fears — she could simply walk out on me for being insensitive.
Perhaps Ajok senses my edginess because as soon as we exchange pleasantries, she giggles at just about everything I say, including the fact that it was my first time to come to a training camp ahead of a major tournament.
Her voice is soft. She constantly looks down as she speaks. She must be a shy girl, I conclude. Even though her hair is plaited, there is nothing much to show that she is a woman — well, from the outside.
Her macho face, a few scattered strands of beards, and the ‘Adam’s apple’ are all too discernable.
Above all, she is as trim as a man can be. She is dressed in a baggy red t-shirt, so it is hard to notice if she has boobs.
We sit under a tree shed at the Ndejje University playground. A one Namayo Mawerere who claims to be one of her coaches insists on being part of the interview.
My guess is that he wants to be sure that I don’t ask Ajok anything relating to her gender.
“Ajok doesn’t like interviews,” Mawerere says casting a sneaky eye.
I play my cards right. We begin our chat from the story of her birth, 20 years ago in Akura Sub-county, Alebtong district.
Born to Dicken Atworo and Margaret Akello, Ajok is the second born in a family of nine. She went to Dokolo primary school, Aloi SS in Alebtong district and Bright Light College Lira for her O’ levels and A’ levels respectively.
Growing up, athletics was the last thing on her mind. She used to participate in running only if she had to. And that was during the break time when she would be playing hide-and-seek with her peers or simply during PE classes when the teachers insisted that jogging on the pitch was mandatory for everyone.
Ajok’s turning point
It was during her Primary Five that she began to take keen interest in running.
“My father was a teacher so we stayed in the teacher’s quarters as a family. That time, my school was training pupils to participate in competitions at sub-county level, so I found myself training as well,” she recalls.
But her mother, a housewife, was never pleased. Not after Ajok returned home with bruises one day. “She told me. “You have to stop running. One day she pulled me out of a race,” Ajok laughs out so loud at the memories of her mother’s ‘naughty’ approach.
“In my S3 (2007), we were going for a district competition when the driver lost control and the vehicle we were travelling in got an accident. We were injured. My colleagues suffered chest problems while I broke my left leg. My mother talked tough. She didn’t see why I had to go on like this.”
Recovered from broken leg
Ajok recovered within three months. But that meant that she couldn’t participate in a major event for a full year. However, soon she would be back on track.
“I would run slowly, slowly (sic) and it helped my leg to stabilize and heal faster. At this point, my mother gave up, because even if she stopped me from running while at home, they knew I would do it when I was at school. Dad had no problem though.”
The next two years, she would participate in the National Championship for Post Primary schools in Kapchorwa and Gulu respectively. In 2010, she was still selected to participate in the national competitions, but “our district authorities said there was no money.”
She, however, maintained intense training, often tagging along with the prisons officers who would be doing their early morning drills.
And this has seen her rise to what she is today. Ajok is best known for running the 800m – 1500 meters and emerging among the top.
Right now, she is arguably Uganda’s most promising female star after Dorcus Inzikuru – who happens to be her role model.
The first year student of Counseling and Guidance at Ndejje University has participated in several international events including East African inter-University Games, the World Cross Country Games hosted in Russia last year and another tournament in Dar es Salaam where she won two gold medals and a silver medal.
She also boasts of having come second in last year’s MTN Marathon. She was one of the best athletes at the previous World University Games, coming in at 4 minutes, 15 seconds in the 1500m race.
But as she does this, spectators constantly question Ajok’s gender: “Is that a girl or a boy? I lower my voice. Luckily her coach is speaking on phone. Ajok laughs at my question.
“Mostly when I started running, people would comment,” Ajok says in a guarded tone, “But I feel normal…it (the comments) has been happening, but I am used,” she says, laughing some more.
So when did she start looking like a boy? Would children tease her in school?
“In primary school, they hardly noticed but in secondary especially A’ Level, some students began to talk,” she says.
I want to ask what sex is she. Could she be a hermaphrodite? But the “coach” Mawerere interjects and insists the interview must stop.
“What’s the motive of your interview? You can’t go there. She will lose focus yet she has been doing well all this time,” Mawerere states.
Before I know it, I am surrounded by several officials, who insist it is time for Ajok to go for training. She offers me a handshake as she leaves.
“What do you want to achieve with this interview?” someone asks me again. “It is not in good faith. Look at Semenya. She has never been the same again because the western media ruined her career over issues to do with her sex. But she was a threat. You don’t want to do that to our Dorcus, do you?”
“So what is her gender?” I ask. “Spectators keep asking questions. Those who see her picture in the papers want to know.”
“Ajok is a girl but with male hormones,” a chubby middle aged man explains, “She is not the only woman athlete who looks like this. It is common to find African women with male features.”
Later, I am casually chatting with her real coach Benjamin Longiros, I ask. “Don’t people think you have a boy on your team?”
“Yes,” Longiros affirms, “But we know how to answer them.” Longiros doesn’t think it is wise to interview her about anything personal.
“Talk to her about her upcoming competition, that’s enough.” It is understandable that her managers are protecting her from the wrath of the western media.
But then, Ajok is a star — she is moving places and the much feared foes might soon be asking the same question: “What’s Ajok’s gender?”