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 interviews.
Fence droppers whizz past the minibus window, dissolving into a blur as the vehicle turns the last corner to the Langas stage before picking more passengers for the return journey to Eldoret town.
Only seven years ago, these same droppers were stakes upon which severed human heads stood like sentries during the killings that followed the dispute over the 2007 general election results.
When the diminutive 37-year-old mother of four and grandmother of one picks up this writer from the bus stage, she points out the compound near a church on whose fence the decapitated heads were stuck as trophies of war – an indelible memory of Langas’ troubles in the post-election violence period.
For the hour it takes to walk to Yamumbi, a site of some of the worst violence in the post-2007 election period, Langas opens itself up shyly, revealing the smell, sounds and sights of daily struggles for survival – a shop, a pig farm, chicken coops, sheep and goats.
Winding through ankle-deep piles of scattered garbage and skipping over open sewers, the journey takes us first to Kisumu Ndogo, an area of Langas largely inhabited by the Luo community. Wanjure pauses to recount the horrific stories of men whose manhood was cut off and were forcibly circumcised.
There is also a Kikuyu-inhabited area whose mud-walled and tin-roof structures were razed by fire in the battle for power that was translated into ethnic fighting because incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and opposition challenger Raila Odinga, a Luo, had both claimed victory.
Finally, at Yamumbi, after the trip into the past, we board a matatu to Wanjure’s home, off the Eldoret-Kapsabet route.
Until 2007, life in the tiny village of Malel, within Kapkechui in Uasin Gishu, was better than normal. Wanjure’s Kikuyu family enjoyed warm relations with their Kalenjin neighbours – they went to the same church and their children played together.
Wanjure had just returned home from a casual job in a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Eldoret town.
“It was around 2 pm when we heard people screaming in this area. We, Kikuyus, were told to move out of our houses or we would be killed,” she recalls.
She grabbed her two youngest children and started running, not knowing where the roads would lead to. Her mother fled with the two older children.
At first, they ran in groups but at some point, the attackers would scatter them in different directions. Weary from the running, and unable to see far in the dark, Wanjure and her two sons sheltered under a tree. A gang she suspects had been trailing them surrounded them.
“They were carrying flashlights. They first spotted my children and later saw me,” she says, her body shuddering at the memory.
The young men undressed, and then raped her in turns, all the while fighting for her body. She had lived among the Kalenjin since her childhood and had no difficulty understanding their language. She knew the men were local residents and pleaded with them to stop, but to no avail.
“My body became numb. I lost count of the many times they did it.”
Her face streams with tears as she gropes in the dark recesses of her mind for the right words. Recalling her trauma at the hands of rapists discomfits her. Her limp body was dumped in a hole and left for dead. When morning came, the chilly cold brought her to and she climbed up and continued running.
She neither cared about the excruciating pain she was in nor bothered to wipe her thighs.Her first priority was to search for her children.She worried about her children. Had they seen what had happened to their mother?
If they had, would they understand? When she saw them, her heart skipped a beat.
“They were eating dog feaces,” she chokes on her tears. They had not had a decent meal since fleeing home.
She struggles to shut out thoughts of what else her children might have endured when she was being violated. She consoled herself that because it was dark, her boys might not have seen or heard what had transpired. It is a hope she clings to up to today.
“It pains me a lot. That is why I don’t talk about it.”
Wanjure says she would rather talk about the common challenges victims of the violence faced on the way “because everyone encountered them.
She and her children walked for weeks, hitching lifts from police vehicles and sympathisers when they could, until they reached Nairobi. It was a journey fraught with many perils.
Even as her experiences angered her, she tried to push the rape ordeal to the back of her mind.
“I was acting as if it didn’t happen,” she says, but in reality, she worried about the aftermath. What if the rapists had infected her with HIV? What if she was pregnant? What would she tell her husband?
Once in Nairobi, Wanjure borrowed a mobile phone to contact her aunt for help. She and her children were picked them and settled in her aunt’s house in Ndunyu, within Dagoretti.
“I was too traumatised to speak, let alone tell her I had been raped.”
Wanjure’s fears began to receive confirmation. She missed her period. She was sure the pregnancy was not her husband’s because they had not been together for two months.
She carried the rape pregnancy to term, but did not receive any counselling after she was gang-raped. On the day of the delivery, she says she was looking forward to see how the baby would look like. But she had vowed to accept the outcome either way.
“When I held him, the feeling erased all the bad memories,” she recalls her emotions after delivery. This was her baby, her flesh and blood and she was going to shower him with love.
Her mother, who had fled to Nakuru with Wanjure’s two older children, even came to see the baby.
“The two bonded immediately and this has remained so till today.
Months later when Wanjure’s husband reunited with her family, but when she told him what transpired, he walked out on her never to be seen again.
“He told me I had taken myself to men. He refused to believe I was raped in the post-election violence,” she says.
Now, an eight-year-old boy stands in the doorway sucking on his thumb and doodling in the sand with his big toe. Wanjure’s eyes well up with tears as she introduces the youngest of her four children.
Back in their home in Malel, their house had been burnt to the ground but they were happy to return to the place they called home.
Wanjure’s maternal uncle built the family a two-bedroom house in the same village. In February 2014, they relocated back to Uasin Gishu, still haunted by ghosts they had fled from but ready to start afresh. They are the only Kikuyu family living in the village because many members of their community were afraid to return. Wanjure’s mother shows me all the homesteads that surround them, now all occupied by the Kalenjin.
“We don’t feel so safe but we have no choice. This is the only place we call home,” says the 75-year-old woman.
Her husband, Wanjure’s father, disappeared without a trace during the violence. The post-election violence displaced his family and dispersed its members in different directions. He would later slip into depression and die.
“We did not even bury him. We just heard from his people that the violence affected him so much that he died.”
Wanjure’s mother is worried that the chasm between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin is growing bigger. Even if she is at peace with her neighbours, she adds, “One can’t really know what they are thinking. We try to persevere but my heart is not here at all,” she says.
She fears that if the Kikuyu fail to vote as the local Kalenjin community expects them to, there will be trouble again.Wanjure’s mother says she sold her piece of land in Nakuru so she could educate and feed her daughter’s children. Now dispossessed, she performs wage labour on farms to care for her grandchildren and lessen her daughter’s burdens.
She registered for the Inua Jamii programme, a government social protection fund that seeks to shield the elderly and the disabled from extreme forms of poverty through monthly stipends.Unfortunately, she says that her name is always struck off the list because she is not Kalenjin. “They look at my last name and decide that I don’t belong here.”
Mother and daughter appear to be close. Wanjure says her mother has been supportive of her even when she was married.
“We find comfort in each other. She has sacrificed a lot for me and my children,” she explains.
“It’s like we were sailing in the same boat. She lost her husband (my father) and I lost my own husband, who abandoned me. We were finding comfort in each other.”
Wanjure was recently admitted to hospital with severe pneumonia. She juggles two jobs –working on a construction site and washing clothes. Doctors recently diagnosed her with arthritis. She had been complaining of joint pains, particularly in the hands. Her fingers are bruised and swollen.
“I wash clothes in areas that are very cold. My fingers are so painful.”
Feeding the family is a big challenge here. Wanjure skips meals, particularly lunch, but they make sure the children have something to eat at night.
“We make them understand that this problem will end.” She, on the other hand, is not sure how long her problems will last.
Wanjure’s daughter has a seven-month-old baby she delivered in her first year of secondary school. She does not see it as a burden. She embraced the new member of the family with love. The toddler clings onto Wanjure’s arms, drooling and giggling as his mother comes to breastfeed him.
“He brings a lot of joy in the house. He makes us forget our miseries,” Wanjure says.
Only recently, Wanjure joined a support group in Langas that meets every two week. Women who were sexually violated during the post-election crisis assemble in a room to share their experiences.
“What we basically do is cry our hearts out. We are like minded, so there is no shying away.”
She says many women in the group were infected with HIV while others became pregnant.
“There is a lot of somberness. The fact that we hold the meetings in Langas does not make matters easier.”
Wanjure has once attended the National Victims and Survivors Network convention in Nairobi to review progress on the implementation of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report.
She says such meetings are important for survivors like her. She felt at home among the other victims and survivors.
“I knew I was not alone in this situation. I also realised that my situation is not any worse than that of the women who were sexually violated.”
Wanjure has waited for justice a long time and almost despaired of its coming. Although not enthused by the establishment of a Sh10 billion Restorative Justice Fund, Wanjure acknowledges that the money could go some way in palliating the troubles she continues to endure.
“Well, I will accept the money because it will seal many loopholes in our lives,” she says. Still, no one can compensate her for the violation visited on her body.
Wanjure e expresses hope that things will get better: “All I want is peace,” she says, but is alive to the fact that justice may not be realised soon.
She says that if she were to meet the president today, she would like him to apologise directly to victims of the post-election violence, more so, women like herself who were robbed of their dignity and saddled with children.
As part of picking up the pieces, Wanjure hopes the government can compensate her, so that she is able to give her children a good life. She also looks forward to employment.
If she were to meet those who raped her today, she says: “I may or may not forgive them. It would depend with how I would be feeling at that time.”
Wanjure says that Kenyan women need to be protected in times of elections. She hopes to see greater security but, most importantly, cohesion among Kenyans.
First published by The Star here