Women’s bodies were turned in battle-fields in the post-2007 election violence. Six women have sued the government for failing to protect them against sexual violence and to pursue accountability for the crimes committed against them. Joyce J Wangui has been visiting and interviewing some of the women about their experiences, their struggles and how they are coping seven years later. Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the interviewees.
Stiff wire blindly grooves its way in like a drunkard in a dark alley, probing and tearing and puncturing. The pain is beyond anything the 35-year-old woman has ever felt during her three maternities but she hopes it will be over soon.
She sips weakly on the herbal potion her friend hands her to flush her uterus but this deeply hidden secret will soon become a public spectacle if she is to be saved. When she next wakes up, she is at the Busia District Hospital, on a drip, breathing from an oxygen mask and running low on blood. Doctors tell her she is lucky to be alive. Her uterus has ruptured; she is bleeding profusely and at death’s door.
As the turbaned woman recuperates from the removal of her damaged uterus, she looks back wistfully, counting the cost of what has been lost. The Akorino sect, to which she belongs and wears a white turban as an identifier of the faith, does not condone abortion.
“It is an abomination!”
On this, Mkacharo and her church have had to part ways. She would rather this – she would rather she did not have a uterus to belong to her church than the alternative. She closes her eyes and drifts into a deep sleep.
Screaming had come to be part of the texture of everyday living in the tented camps at the Busia Police Station in the aftermath of the post-2007 election violence. Children cried from hunger, mothers wailed weeping for unspoken losses, and then there were the sudden shrill shrieks of women that shattered the dark nights.
“Sometimes I could hear women and girls screaming at night but I could not understand why. I thought they were in some form of danger,” says Mkacharo.
Police patrolled the camp throughout, giving a visible sense of security for those who had fled their houses for fear of attack. Rumours had started spreading in Busia town about the impending eviction of some communities after the election. Gangs wielding farm implements-turned-weapons arrived sooner than expected in Busia’s Marachi Estate and ordered the largely Kikuyu population to leave.
Busia is predominantly inhabited by the Luyia with the Luo and Iteso constituting significant minorities. Its proximity to the Uganda border made it an important hub of economic activity and turned it into a magnet for people from many other communities. Although Mkacharo is from Taita Taveta, she had been married to a Kikuyu and was thus considered one.
In the election stand-off in which incumbent president Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga both claimed victory and sparked off ethnic fighting, Mkacharo sought refuge with others at the Busia Police Station in makeshift tents.
“I had just acquired a new status as an internally displaced person,” she recalls with barely suppressed bitterness. It was a repeat of what she experienced in 1992 at the height of the ethnic clashes in Molo, Nakuru County. She was forced to watch as her husband was killed in cold blood, making her a widow at 19.
“I watched him being hacked to death. I was left holding his bleeding head as they took the rest of his body. Now tell me, how I will ever heal from that?
One evening in Busia, as Mkacharo went to answer a call of nature in a makeshift toilet, she was stopped by a police man and quickly explained that she needed to relieve herself.
“He roughed me up and ordered me to follow him. He led me to a secluded place and started raping me.”
Other policemen who saw what was happening joined in, threatening her with their guns if she dared to call for help.
“When they were done, they told me I could now go and relieve myself.”
Too terrified to tell anyone about what had happened, repaired but to her tent. She broke into a sweat in the cold night. She was too angry to eat. “My children were just staring at me. Had I just been gang raped?” she kept asking herself incredulously. Mkacharo’s deep respect for the police made it difficult for her to reconcile what had happened with the people in uniform. Were they gangsters masquerading as police officers? In police uniform?
She was mortally afraid of being infected with a sexually transmitted infection, perhaps even HIV.
“It did not dawn on me that I could actually be pregnant,” she says.
As the violence died down and a peace deal was inked between Kibaki and Raila in February 2008, Mkacharo missed her period.
“I became terrified. What would people think? Everyone knew my husband was dead. What would they take me for?”
She waited another month and before taking a pregnancy. It was positive, and she was still living in a camp. She couldn’t tell anyone what had happened but she desperately needed help.
“When the rapes became rampant in the camps, woman started talking, albeit in hushed tones.” That is how Mkacharo met the woman who promised to help her. She had been raped herself and managed to end the pregnancy resulting from rape.
“She is the only one I confided in. We immediately hit it off and she started telling me how she would help me.”
“I could not just bring myself to carry a rape pregnancy.” She felt so dirty inside, more so because she had been raped by four strangers. It is what made her go against the teachings of her church and damn the consequences.
Although Mkacharo was hesitant and silently worried about where the woman would get the tools to perform the operation, she was partially relieved that her problem had found a solution. Her pregnancy was still in the early stages, so her friend told her that herbal potions would do the trick.
Busia bustles with activity. Cargo trucks are loading and offloading near the Kenya-Ugandan border. A din rises from the bicycle bells, motorcycle horns and matatus hooting for passengers in the cacophony of hawkers selling their wares. Passengers are boarding vehicles headed in different directions. On the busy Busia-Kisumu highway, the first customers are already checking out the latest arrivals in the stock of used men’s shoes on sale.
Mkacharo is dressed formally and dusts the shoes with a brush. She gets her travels once every fortnight to Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast to the east, to pick new stocks. On a good day, Mkacharo’s rakes in Sh3,000 in sales. She draws in many customers, many of whom have become her friends.
“They call me Wagithomo (Kikuyu for ‘of the word’) because I am constantly preaching the word of God.”
She says she has mastered every bible verse and uses scripture as her weapon to conduct studies to her customers. Mkacharo was among the internally displaced persons who received Sh35,000 – Sh10,000 for resettlement and Sh25,000 for shelter – from the coalition government. She finds the sum laughable because it is nowhere near what she needs to restore her life to the three bedroom house they had before the violence.
She started the shoe business in 2010, two years after the post-election violence and has grown into an adept salesperson. At first, she did not see the shop as a business but a place where she could unwind, instead of staying at home.
“I knew that opening a business in an open area would enable me to mingle with so many people that I would forget what happened to me,” she explains.
Her income is not enough to educate her three children– one of whom is at university, another in secondary school and the last in lower primary school. Mkacharo says no single day finds her unhappy or gloomy. “I simply have no room for that.”
She is reading Reg Brown’s surviving the Loss of a Loved One: Living through Grief again. She tells me she has read the book more than a hundred times.
Mkacharo does not consider herself an avid reader of motivational books, what she is reading has opened a whole new frontier in her life. Grief is an experience through which all of us must live at one time or another, the book says.
The cause of grief may be the death of a spouse, a parent, or a child; it may be a suicide, a miscarriage or a stillbirth. The grief experience may also take place after divorce. When we face grief we need help.
Mkacharo’s echoes the author’s words, saying how the book has helped her to cope through the loss of her husband.
“After losing my husband, I had vowed to protect my body until such a time I would deem it fit to re marry. These rapists changed all that.”
She helped form a women group that brings together widows. She counsels them, especially those bereaved at a young age. But she never discusses her rape ordeal. She has resisted invitations to join groups of survivors of sexually violence.
She claims that she ‘healed’ from the rape but not from the death of her husband. As for the compensation for the bodily harm she suffered, Mkacharo says: “No monetary compensation can bring back my dignity.”
She says she will not receive any money given to her as compensation for rape. “That is a slap on the face. How much will I need to bring my honour which was shattered so badly?”
Reparation is not only the payment of money, says Ruben Carranza of the International Centre on Transitional Justice (ICTJ).
“No matter how much money you may receive, it cannot take back the death penalty or the experience of sexual violence.”
Carranza reiterated told a gathering of victims of human rights violations in Nairobi that reparation is meant to repair the harm that was suffered.
Can victims reject material reparations? Carranza says it is not far from normal for some victims to reject money as compensation and gave an example of the “comfort women” of Argentina who refused money given by their State as compensation for their sons’ disappearance.
As for Mkacharo, her justice will come when the police acknowledge that they perpetrated most of the post-election crimes, among them the rape of women in camps for the displaced.
She says she would like to meet face to face with those who raped her and confront them.
“I will want to ask them the connection between my body and the stolen elections. Where did I come in?”
She says the many acts of rape perpetuated by the police were a show of cowardice. “Why would they wait for chaos to rape?
To date, nothing raises so much fear and apprehension in Mkacharo’s heart as the spectre of ethnic conflict in Kenya. Twice a victim of political violence, she still asks hauntingly: “Who will vindicate these women who have lost everything including themselves?”
Article was first published in the Star Newspaper