Sex for food in Nyeri slums
[Daily Nation] Nyeri may be considered the land of plenty, but in these times of famine, that label means nothing in Witemere slums, where girls trade their bodies for food.
The slum on the banks of River Chania is barely two kilometres from Muringato, which was recently in the news for all the wrong reasons - hungry villagers eating pig food to survive.
Now, residents of Witemere say hunger is driving their daughters, some as young as 10-14 years, out of school and straight into the arms of sex pests.
They say theirs is a forgotten village, where hunger is the order of the day. Amidst that misery, predators prowl the dusty lanes, seeking desperate girls who are only too willing to give their bodies in exchange for a few coins to buy food.
Mothers with nothing to feed their children actually tell their daughters to make the best of it.
“Some mothers encourage their daughters to go out and sell their bodies, so long as they bring back some food,” said Ms Janet Mueni, 26, who lives in Witemere.
During the day, young men are a rare sight in these slums. They are out in the town looking for casual jobs, we were told. The few left behind are mostly drunk on the cheap chang’aa.
Most of the time, therefore, only mothers and children are left behind, to spend long hungry days inside the poverty-ravaged mud-and-wood hovels, easy prey for sex pests high on illicit brew.
“They openly stop the little girls and offer money to buy food in exchange for sex,” said Ms Janet Nyokabi, 45, another resident.
As shocking as this phenomenon is, it is not new. Five years ago, an elderly man in Witemere was convicted of sexually assaulting three girls aged 10, 8 and 7, and infecting them with a venereal disease.
When he was caught, the culprit is said to have retorted: “I do not go for them; they come to my house on their own volition.”
And although the old man is cooling his heels behind bars, the games he played still go on, driven by hunger and desperation.
“I fear for my daughter; I dare not leave her alone for a minute,” said Ms Leah Gathoni, 30.
She is HIV positive, and on anti-retroviral drugs. Her husband, Joel Chiira, used to provide for the family by selling chang’aa. Two years ago, he was killed when, according to Ms Gathoni, residents stormed the den. Now the widow is among the hundreds of hungry residents who fear for their young daughters.
“I wish I could get my daughter out of here. There are too many bad men here, and of late they have been luring little girls into sex in exchange for food, “she told the Nation.
This gut-wrenching scenario, which is likely repeated in many communities across Kenya that are hard hit by drought and famine, has not gone unnoticed in high places.
Barely three weeks ago, Nyeri Town MP Esther Murugi visited the slum and warned parents against condoning sex-for-food.
“She was here last month, and when she asked if it was true that little girls were engaging in sex with their parents’ blessings, a number of women said ‘yes’,” Ms Nyokabi recalled.
Ms Murugi is also the minister for Gender and Children’s Affairs.
But even from within this appalling setting, three women have been serving hungry children free lunch for the last three months.
The three, a local farmer, Ms Eunice Maina, 51, and two community health workers – Mary Kariuki, 29, and Jane Kagure, 26 –rented a one-room shanty in the slums and converted it into a community kitchen. From here, they feed hungry children, as well as a few ailing and elderly adults.
It all began when the three women visited the slum in August, and found one villager boiling a piece of cowhide for her four children. “We had been visiting her for several days and always noticed a small sufuria on the fire, always covered,” said Ms Maina.
Only much later did the three women discover that their host usually scavenged the slaughter house on the outskirts of the slum for bits and pieces to prepare a meal for her children.
On that particular day, all she got was a small piece of cowhide. She said she was boiling it to make soup for her children. That pitiful image sparked the idea for the slum kitchen.
The three started by mobilising resources to buy some flour and a few vegetables to make what, to many children in the slum, was the first decent lunch they had had in days; ugali and fried cabbage.
Since then, hungry children troop to the kitchen every lunch hour for a meal. Some even skip classes, to wait for the food. Slum residents have enthusiastically backed the community kitchen. They may not be able to contribute to the budget, but both men and women help fetch water from the nearby river.
“We help where we can,” said Mr Joseph Ndirangu, 32, bringing in a 20-litre container of water.
But the meal, once ready, is strictly for the children, and in a few cases the elderly and the ailing.
“We are unable to feed everyone, though we wish we could,” said Ms Kagure.
But the adults do not mind. They bring their children to the kitchen and watch from the sidelines as the little ones eat. After all, hunger, they said, is doing more damage to the young ones than the adults.