From its palm-fringed beaches to its rolling savannas and all over this country’s abundant farmland, through the capital’s messy patchwork of suburbs and slums — and yet even farther still, across vast deserts and thick montane forests — an army of more than 164,000 Kenyans is carrying out the gargantuan national endeavor of a census this week. 

The hordes of census workers, known here as “enumerators,” are conducting a vital process for effective governance that Kenya has undertaken every decade since it gained independence in 1963, and doing it mostly on foot, walking door to door, wearing bright orange vests. It is a remarkable feat that few other African countries have been able to execute with such regularity. 

This time around, the East African country of 48 million is doing something even more exceptional and progressive: It is adding a third gender to the census form — intersex, a much-misunderstood and often-ostracized group of people with ambiguous genitalia — and creating new tribal categories for indigenous people who in previous decades were either not counted at all or lumped together with larger tribes that they have long accused of stealing their land and threatening their ways of life.

“The basic question that a census seeks to answer is: Who are we, exactly, as a country?” said Zachary Mwangi, the director general of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, which organizes the census. “We strongly believe that no one should be left out. We owe it to every Kenyan that they be recognized as who they are.” 

The measures enacted by Mwangi’s department have earned rare applause from human rights groups in Kenya, which have fought alongside sexual and tribal minorities in a country that is both largely conservative in its social mores and politically divided along tribal lines. 

Recognition in the census, especially for smaller groups, can come with major benefits. For some indigenous tribes that were not counted previously, it may mean their communities will get schools and clinics and even stops on public bus routes, as the government will find it harder to ignore their presence. In those schools, languages otherwise on their way to extinction could be saved by local teachers leading classes in them. 

But above all, recognition on the census may provide these groups with a more basic dignity — their own identities, rather than genders and tribes they don’t belong to. 

“Sometimes we were counted as Maasai, sometimes as Kalenjin, sometimes not at all,” said Elizabeth Ngusilo, an indigenous woman from the Ogiek tribe, which lives predominantly in Mau Forest, one of Kenya’s last remaining virgin woodlands. “As long as I have been alive, we have been trying to convince the government that we are Ogiek, that we are separate, and that we are the original people of this forest.”

The Ogiek are thought to be Kenya’s largest indigenous tribe, but a government estimate of 35,000 members is guesswork at best. Traditionally, the Ogiek were hunters and gatherers, but nowadays they farm and raise livestock like the surrounding tribes that moved into what is now Kenya over the past millennium.

Ngusilo, who speaks the languages of six other Kenyan tribes, acknowledged that there are some cultural similarities between the Ogiek and others, such as the Maasai. (In one tradition shared by the tribes, boys are circumcised in their late teenage years, with an ear-piercing ritual leading up to the event in which the lobe is sliced open with a knife and the resulting hole widened by filling it with increasingly large pieces of wood over the course of weeks. The elongated lobe lasts a lifetime.)

But other things, besides having their own language, set them apart: “An Ogiek without a beehive is not an Ogiek,” Ngusilo said, for instance. “The forest is filled with our beehives. For an Ogiek, to be stung by many bees is not an issue.”

Only one census worker was assigned to the expanse of forest where Elizabeth lives: Janet Ngusilo, 27, whose last name indicates that she hails from the same ridge as Elizabeth. At each house, Janet plugged in answers to the census’s myriad questions — such as how many sheep belong to the head of household — as well as the code 413, a new number added to denote the Ogiek under the census’s “tribe” category.

“The government says we are few,” Janet said, after nearly an entire day of walking through the forest from house to house, many of which were home to more than a dozen people. “But we are many. After this, they will not think of us as a tribe they can just forget about.”

The size of Kenya’s many tribes is a particularly thorny issue in the history of Kenyan censuses, as politics is often conducted along ethnic lines, and the size of a community can help it gain influence in political alliances. After the 1999 census, the Kenyan government decided not to release its data on tribal numbers out of fear of igniting ethnic violence.

Gender and sexuality are also delicate political issues in Kenya, where most people are devout Christians or Muslims, making the addition of a third gender on this year’s census all the more noteworthy. In May, a Kenyan high court upheld a colonial-era law that criminalizes gay sex and carries possible multiyear jail sentences for sexual acts “against the order of nature.”

Kenya is now one of just a handful of countries, mostly in Europe and South Asia, as well as 12 U.S. states, that recognize a third gender on forms of identification or in censuses. The size of Kenya’s intersex population has not been estimated.

The acknowledgment of intersex people in Kenya was won in part by the community drawing a distinction between itself and the larger LGBT grouping it is often lumped in with in the West, said Mbage Ng’ang’a, who heads the Kenya Law Reform Commission and led a recent government task force on intersex issues. 

“Having ambiguous genitalia is a biological condition that many Kenyans can sympathize with, even though there is certainly discrimination,” he said. “If they were to continue to be seen as sexually different rather than biologically different, they would face the same backlash the LGBT people do.”

Intersex people can now identify as such on Kenyan passports, but birth certificates don’t have a third gender option, leaving many without documentation at all. In some rural areas, intersex people are seen as cursed, leaving parents baffled as to how to raise intersex children. 

“I have been hiding my son because there are some who say, if you don’t kill this child, it’s a bad omen; rain will not come to our land,” said Peter Maingi, 46, whose 8-year-old child is intersex and who has become an unusually outspoken advocate for intersex rights in an arid part of southeastern Kenya, populated mostly by cattle-herding communities. “There are parents who have told me in the past that if they had heard what I have to say earlier, maybe their child would have still been alive.”

On Saturday, a dream Maingi has had ever since his child was born came true. 

“I asked the enumerator to show me the ‘I’ mark [for intersex]. I saw it, and I got emotional. I said, ‘Praise God!’ This is the beginning of a long journey, and it’s in the right direction,” he said by phone from his home in the town of Kajiado.

The Ogiek and other indigenous tribes remain Kenya’s poorest people. Most Ogiek homes lack electricity and running water. The nominally protected forest they call home continues to shrink amid rampant illegal logging. 

“We are talking about communities who are frequently attacked, killed, even whose homes are repeatedly burned down,” said Naomi Barasa, who works on indigenous rights at Amnesty International in Kenya. “The census is only a starting point.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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