By Joyce Wangui
Teen mother learns to love daughter conceived of violence and build a new life
Many are the times Chichi* has wished her seven-year old daughter dead.
She has tried strangling her, suffocating her, denying her food for days, and has once beaten her to within an inch of her life.
“If I had my way, I would have killed this baby the moment I delivered it.”
Chichi’s daughter has just returned from a nearby school to their tiny room in Mashimoni area of Nairobi’s sprawling Mathare slum. She is barefoot, and her uniform is threadbare, with patches concealing the larger tears.
Her eyes are sunken, her body frail — and Chichi quickly explains that feeding her daughter is a huge challenge.
Chichi has another mouth to feed now — her two-year-old son, whom she bore with the man she shares the house with and fondly refers to as ‘my husband’.
Even though Chichi lives in abject poverty, with almost nothing to offer her children, it is not difficult to discern the absence of warmth between mother and daughter.
Chichi asks her daughter to fetch water and fill in several containers before washing her school uniform. It is cold outside and the little girl has no warm clothing but she knows better than to disobey her mother.
“I shout at her a lot. I just can’t bring myself to talk to her quietly. I call her names,” Chichi confesses, adding that she finds herself beating her severely for petty mistakes like spilling tea.
Once, she recalls, she beat her daughter so seriously that were it not for the neighbours, she could have killed her.
“I once beat her so badly until she bled. My neighbours threatened to report me to the police: that is when the beatings stopped for some time.”
In Mashimoni, where the structures are built very close to each other, there is no privacy and on any given day, the neighbours will hear what is going on next door.
“I was in so much pain from the suffering that I was going through that I tried to suffocate Toto in her sleep. My husband came in at the right time,” Chichi says drily.
Her daughter is a daily reminder of what Chichi has endured.
“When the child asks for something I can’t offer, I feel bad because I am reminded of who she is,” says Chichi.
Chichi remembers a group of men forcing her to sniff a substance before losing her senses.
When she came to, she was in unfamiliar surroundings in a woman’s house, bleeding profusely. Her thighs were bathed in blood and the bump at the back of her head was still bleeding.
The Good Samaritan who had picked her up from the dump and taken her in cleaned her up and gave her medication. She had, by her act of kindness, unwittingly destroyed all the evidence of the crimes that had been committed against Chichi.
Mathare was swimming in blood, houses were on fire and bodies were floating in the nearby Mathare River, not far from where Chichi had found refuge.
“People were in a state of confusion. No one really cared,” she says.
The dispute over the 2007 presidential election result had degenerated into an ethnic brawl pitting the Kikuyu against the Luo, two communities living cheek-by-jowl in the tension of slum scarcities. Youth from the two communities fought bitterly, but the worst was to follow when police were dispatched to the area. She says security agents turned the place into a den of death.
Police seemed to compete with ordinary citizens in committing acts of violence, rape, murder and looting. Chichi, then a 15-year-old student at Kisumu Girls School, was caught in the maelstrom of the violence that erupted. She had visited Nairobi for the Christmas holiday, and wistfully wonders how her life would have turned out if she had remained in Kisumu during the school holiday.
Chichi was visiting her aunt in Kariobangi in Nairobi. On the fateful day, she left her aunt’s house to visit her friend in the Mathare slums. She never made it back.
Strolling back to her aunt’s house at around 5.30 pm, at the bridge between Riverside and Kariobangi South, known locally as a “black spot” for crime, she heard gunshots but could not tell where they were coming from.
Unknown to her, violence had already erupted in the slum areas but it had not reached Kariobangi.
“One bullet flew so close to my ear but thankfully it did not touch me.”
She panicked and started running as the sound of gunshots rose. She ran into a gang of 15 youngsters wielding sharpened weapons. Some had guns.
They accosted her but she kept running. The young men tried to greet her but she was too shocked to respond.
“One of the men hit my head so hard with a sharp object that I fell on the ground.”
Then the first man began to rape her, followed by others.Chichi began to lose consciousness but before her world became dark, she heard her attackers say that they would teach her a lesson for her arrogance.
“I did not even vote because I was not of age. I thought people were being punished for voting,” Chichi says, remembering the violence of December 31, 2007.
Although she was not a direct victim of police brutality, she faults the force for perpetrating much of the violence and not protecting vulnerable citizens like her.
“If police were doing their job, I would not have been raped.”
Just when she thought matters could not get any worse, her pregnancy test at a health centre in Mathare produced positive results.
She was carrying a crisis pregnancy.
“My world just collapsed. They had left me with a permanent reminder of what they had done.”
The violence separated the two. Her aunt’s house was burnt to ashes forcing her to flee in her rural home. Due to the chaos, they were not in communication until much later (years).
What would she tell her fellow students at Kisumu Girls High School? What would she tell her peers at home? Would they believe her?
Her greatest worry was how to break the terrible news to her cousin, who had been paying for her education after her parents died.
“She demanded that I get an abortion or she would stop paying my fees.”
But Chichi was afraid. She had heard horrible stories of women who procured abortions. She feared it could kill her.
Her cousin sent her away and Chichi found herself back in the bowels of Mathare. She would soon give birth here, against all odds of slum life.
With the benefit of hindsight, Chichi feels that she should have terminated the pregnancy, but there was no opportunity for that.
“I was forced to give birth and consequently take care of that child’s every needs to date.”
She is among the many women who were denied abortion by the state policy because it is illegal in Kenya.
Jacqueline Mutere, founder of Grace Agenda, advocates access to safe abortions in rape pregnancies.
A survivor of rape and pregnancy herself, Mutere says the current laws should be changed to allow for the termination of rape pregnancies.
“It should form part of the comprehensive post-rape care.”
At the time of delivery, Chichi’s demons reawakened.
Birth can reawaken the trauma of rape. Researchers from the Arctic University of Norway have found that the trauma of rape is often relived when the survivor is on her back and undressed.
She is surrounded by strangers who are “having their way” with her body in a manner reminiscent of the assault.
The research also shows that women who have been abused are more vulnerable because even though their experiences have been suppressed, they come forth during the birth.
Chichi recalls her delivery being unbearable. She endured a prolonged labour and was finally delivered through Caesarian section. Up till now, she does not know who paid her medical bills.
Coping with the effects of sexual assault and rape can be overwhelming. Some survivors lean onto substance abuse to help them to cope with overwhelming feelings.
Because a survivor’s control and sense of safety have been taken away by the perpetrator, engaging in self-injuring behaviour can also bring a temporary sense of control over a person’s environment and serve as a release for tension.
Living in an environment where rape, murder and other serious crimes are common, Chichi found herself immersed in habits that would enable her to cope with her trauma.
Out of school and thrust into motherhood, Chichi found life had become unbearable for her and got into prostitution in 2010. It was not something she had ever considered, given her strict upbringing.
“Sometimes I did it for money and food; at other times I did it to gain acceptance from men,” she adds. But the terrain was rough. “Such a job requires girls who are street smart. I was not.”
Wangu Kanja of the Wangu Kanja Foundation, another rape survivor who turned to similar coping mechanisms to numb her pain and trauma, writes in an article: “I used alcohol and casual sex in failed attempts to make me feel loved and desired, rather than brutalised and worthless in the eyes of men.”
The night work took a heavy toll on Chichi’s daughter, who would often be left alone to fend for herself. “I used to leave her alone in the house.
She became so weak that at some point she got anemia. She almost died,” Chichi recalls.
The house she lived in after giving birth to her daughter was burnt in renewed chaos in Mathare.
“All my documents, including my birth certificate and identity card, were destroyed in the fire.”
Though she is very eloquent, many organisations would like to hire her but she lacks the requisite documentation. She cannot trace the identity cards of her dead parents, which would enable her to obtain her own.
She finds the process of getting replacement documents bureaucratic and requiring transport expenses to public offices.
She has attended numerous counselling sessions courtesy of Grace Agenda, an organisation that counsels and supports women who have given birth to rape babies.
“We teach women how to love their babies and the need for forgiveness. We tell them that it is not the baby’s fault,” says Jacqueline Mutere, Grace Agenda’s founder.
Mutere is a survivor of the post-election sexual violence and gave birth to a rape baby. She says when she meets women survivors; many don’t love their children because of the tribulations they have undergone.
“We provide them with holistic psycho-social support — first to accept whatever they endured and, secondly, to love their children.”
Many women in the programme, including Chichi, are gradually developing a bond with their children and overcoming their painful experiences.
Chichi feels bad when her daughter compares herself with other children. “One day, she told me that a neighbour’s child had brand new clothes bought for her because the mother loves her. Then she asked me, ‘Mum, do you love me?’”
At the beginning of the school year, Chichi’s daughter stayed home because her mother didn’t have Sh4, 000 for the term’s fees.
“For the past one month, she has gone to school barefoot.”
Chichi herself still misses education and remembers her school days with nostalgia. She makes up for what she misses by being an avid reader of books, magazines, journals and other educative material.
“I am invited to so many high level forums because I am eloquent and I can articulate issues. I am well read. I know about human rights and women rights.”
The food shelf in Chichi’s house is empty, save for the insects that scurry in their desperate search for leftovers.
“We don’t buy food here. We don’t have the money to.”
Chichi has done menial jobs on construction sites, which have calloused her hands.
“The work is strenuous. It destroyed my palms. They swell a lot.”
Sometimes she commutes to Eastleigh to wash clothes for wealthier households.
Her thumb is still bleeding from the last laundry job.
When the world turned its back on Chichi, one man saw the gem in her. Despite the suspicion that still lingers between their ethnic communities and the pain she still bears, Chichi – a Luo – and Peter – a Kikuyu – have decided to make a life together.
*Peter fell in love with Chichi, knowing only too well what he was getting himself into. He had heard about her rape, her life in prostitution and other stories that did not enhance her image.
“People in this neighborhood said a lot of things about her, but I decided to stay with her and learn those things by myself,” Peter says.
He embraced Chichi with open arms because he realised that she needed help; that he needed to shield her from the cruelties of Mathare. But he also had to prepare himself psychologically to embrace Chichi and her tantrums.
“Sometimes she is very moody. She can wake up and break things, but I let it pass because I know she is venting.”
Over time, Peter’s family has accepted Chichi because of his unfailing support. Initially, they had reservations because of the social stigma attached to rape, but he has convinced them and today, they take her as family.
“His family is very supportive. His mother has helped me to cope as a woman.”
Peter takes Chichi for therapy. He accompanies her to the many sessions she is often invited to. “He is my number one pillar,” she says.
Although not formally employed, Peter relies on menial jobs, which are not easy to come by because there are too many people in the slums scrambling for the few available.
“Sometimes I come home late because I can’t stand to see my family sleeping on empty stomachs. I come home when they are sleeping.
Hunger is never too far away from their house, but they make do with whatever opportunities life throws their way.
Once in a while, Peter gets weekly contracts at the National Youth Service projects that have been initiated in the slums. He takes me to a farm where the residents grow sukuma wiki (kale) for sale to boost family incomes.
Peter, a youth leader in Mathare, has helped Chichi to embrace the daughter she conceived through rape and implores young boys and men to respect women and not condone violence.
Living with a survivor of rape has taught him a lot. He also advises men whose spouses have been sexually violated: “Don’t listen to people. Listen to the person who has been raped. Hear her story, understand her. Love her.”
Chichi says she is not a victim but a survivor. That realisation has enabled her to pick up the broken pieces of her life.
She stopped feeling sorry for herself over what happened.
“Whenever I am invited to forums where others survivors of rape are in attendance, I tell them to erase the word victim from their mind, because they survived the ordeal.”Whatever happened to her, though horrendous, has broadened her perspective on life.
One of the healing processes for rape survivors, according to psychologists, is to move from being a victim to become a survivor in an effort to regain control over one’s life. It is typically at this stage for a woman to consider returning to work or changing careers, considering long-term therapy, self-defence courses and strategising about having more contact with family.
Chichi now talks about human rights with great conviction and depth. “Now I know what it really means to be sexually violated and having no one to support you.”
She urges women to be their “sisters’ keepers”.
She shelters women in her tiny room; those whose lives have been wrecked; women who have been sexually violated; teenage girls who have been raped and put in the family way.
But she also surrounds herself with women with great minds, so that she can learn the ropes of survival. She admits that sometimes she doesn’t like to be in the company of fellow survivors because all they do is cry.
“A blind man cannot lead the other. So sometimes I get out of their cocoon and mingle with other people.”
She has joined several women’s groups, among them the Young Women Empowerment Group, which brings together clusters for investment and revolving funds, among other ventures.
They are building a shelter in the slum area to rescue women and girls who have survived sexual and gender-based violence
Chichi laments that the government has deliberately turned a blind eye on the sexual violence survivors of the post-election period.
Never one to shy away from confronting issues that she feels are relegated, Chichi recalls how the police treated her with derision when, days after her gang rape, she went to report her case.
“I didn’t have the luxury of counselling myself, but I have perfected it as an art.” Chichi has attended many forums for survivors of the post-election violence, growing naturally into a mentorship role.
Her mastery of the English language and self confidence see her often holding forth at forums on critical issues.
“I have been to so many forums where I confront members of the police force without fear. I still believe that had the police been vigilant, these rapes could not have happened to us.”
Chichi understands that prosecution of post-election sexual offenders may never happen because a lot of time has elapsed and evidence is missing, but she knows that restorative justice is an important step the government should prioritise.
No amount of money can pay for the injuries inflicted on Chichi’s mind, body and soul — not even the Sh10 billion that the President announced to set up the restorative justice fund.
“It was a violation of my body, who can pay me for that? Nobody!”
Still, she needs the burden of raising her daughter and providing for her needs eased from her. She needs to give her a good life. The lone toilet in the area is almost a kilometre away and comes with a bathroom for hire.
On this night, she tells me that one has to use the facility early because it gets risky at night. The narrow paths too are not passable. Living in an area where violence such as rape is common place has also made her a little paranoid.
She is afraid of men, particularly those who come knocking looking for her husband.
“When my daughter is alone in the house, I get afraid that a man might sexually violate her. I imagine how my kid would feel.”
She has a warning for anyone who would think of harming her daughter.
“That is the day we will both end up in Langata; him at the cemetery and me at the prison.”
First published by The Star here.