Yesterday was a particularly hard day for me. It started off normally enough: we were playing with the kids outside when Wombogo came and got me, explaining that there was a girl who had fallen out front and needed to go to the hospital. We had been having an especially exasperating week disciplining some of the village kids this week (they are attending a day program this week before the start of school on Tuesday), and physical violence had been escalating among the boys. It’s typical end of summer fever I think, boys and girls alike pushing the boundaries of their teachers, seeing how much they can get away with. I had just finished putting one child in a time out, trying to instill a sense of right and wrong (it is WRONG to punch a girl in the face just because she is in your way) and, exasperated, I assumed he was referring to the girl who had just been punched in the face (let’s be honest, she was fine after a “make it all better boo boo kiss“). He explained that there was a child outside of our front gate who had collapsed and since we had a vehicle, the neighbors were asking if we could drive her down to town.
Upon assessing the situation, I ascertained that it was not, in fact one of our children, rather she was a girl from Njabini who happened to be outside of our front gate when she collapsed. Fully aware that picking up an unconscious child could cause any level of permanent damage had she injured her spine, I quickly realized that I have not seen one ambulance since arriving in Kenya. I‘m sure they exist, but if we wanted to get this girl help, we had to take our chances and pick her up. I hopped in the front seat, while the three neighbors who had found her cradled her across their laps for the 10 minute bumpy, pothole ridden dirt road to the clinic. Since nobody knew who the girl was, we stopped multiple times during the drive to inquire as to her home and her parents. One woman recognized her, and informed us that her parents were away working outside of town. While she worked on contacting the parents (to no avail), we brought the girl into an examination room; by this time, the girl was conscious, but had not spoken a word. After minutes of Kukuyu conversation (of which I understood not one word, and nobody thought to translate), it was determined that this girl had been here before and had a file.
The nurse brought in the child, Julie’s, file. This being Kenya, and not the states, HIPPA be damned, I was able to flip through the chart myself and determine that the girl had been diagnosed with epilepsy in September. She had missed her checkup on the 17th, which most likely explained the most recent seizure. All of this seemed pretty self explanatory, and I assumed that once the parents arrived, I would feel confident enough that the crisis had been averted, and make it back to the centre in time for lunch. Shortly thereafter, a “child advocate” arrived, which I believe is the equivalent to a social worker. He began talking with one of the nurses, who apparently knew this child, and they began gesticulating wildly, turning the girls hands palm up and gesturing to them. Again, only after my repeated attempts to interrupt was I acknowledged. They explained to me that the girl is known around the village, she often sleeps outside and has been known to beg for food and money.
According to the word on the street, the child’s mother beats and burns her repeatedly (the girls palms were covered in cuts and burns from the abuse), and turns the child out of her home. Incidentally, she is the youngest of 5 or 6 kids, but is the only one treated in such an abusive manner (apparently this is not an uncommon phenomenon in an abusive household). The medicine which is prescribed for epilepsy (and administered free of charge thanks to a partnership with a British advocacy group) must be taken every morning, and, at the advocates urging, the girl had admitted that her mother often withheld the medicine as a form of abuse, which also provided an explanation for her episode that morning.
Every time she opened her mouth to speak, her voice cracked with anguish, and tears ran freely down her cheeks. While I had only a vague idea what was happening, the girl’s mannerisms spoke to me more than the hurried translations I was given every 10 minutes. After about 45 minutes the girls aunt arrived, being the only relative we were able to locate who could come out. Relief flooded my heart when the woman recognized me from Christmas Eve, when we were out delivering food to needy families. She was the treasurer for the SWORD group, and also, incidentally, the guardian of Beth, the quirky child with Down Syndrome we had so much fun with last week.
The two of us conference for a bit and then she directed her attention to the child. She and her “advocate” began speaking to her sharply, and her aunt began wagging her finger and using the English word, “misbehaving” repeatedly. Thinking that Julie was getting in trouble for causing such drama, I demanded to know what was going on – were they yelling at her when it was her mother who should be receiving the scolding? Her aunt told me that she had on good authority that 14 year old Julie was being “kept as a wife” by a neighboring man. Julie was reluctant to admit this information, which was why the adults voices had escalated.
At one point, I counted 8 adults in the room, male and female, all talking heatedly over this girls head, while her eyes darted from one adult to the other, her expression a spitting image of a deer in headlights. At one point, her eyes locked with mine, and her expression seemed to plead with me for help. That was the first time that morning my own eyes filled with helplessness. I had less of an idea what was going on than she did, yet I felt like I was letting her down by not intervening.
The nurse finally asked us all to leave so that she could be alone with the child and her aunt. After a few minutes, they emerged, with confirmation that the child’s mother and father had dropped her off at her neighbors house with a nylon bag full of her things to become a child wife to this sick, perverted individual. When he was finished with her, he too turned her out on his doorstep, leaving her to beg her way back into her home, where she was greeted with nothing more than a hearty beating. I understand that this kind of sexual abuse is not endemic to Africa – it happens in first and third world nations alike, but that knowledge does nothing to stifle my outrage. What kind of twisted, sadistic, devil people does it take to conspire against a child in such a way? What kind of world do we live in where these atrocities are committed with such regularity? How can we ensure that this will not happen to even ONE MORE innocent child?
Once this information had been confirmed, I knew that there was absolutely no way this child could go back to her house that night. It was bad enough when I knew she was getting beaten and that her lifesaving medicine was being withheld, but to know that she may have to go back to a grown man’s bed against her will was more than I could bear. I called Sarah in tears, hoping she could advise me on what we could do. Flying Kites has a lot of contacts in the community; if it took us pulling a few strings with the local authorities to save this girl’s life, that is what we were going to do. Fortunately, Sarah was with Francis, another SWORD group founder. He told me he’d call his wife Jane who was at their nearby home to come and see what she could do.
An hour later (even in an emergency situation, everyone is still on Kenyan time), Jane walked into the clinic, where I hastily explained the situation, and she sat down with the aunt. Once Jane spoke with the girl, I was able to learn even more about the gravity of the situation.
[A word about the “firewood children.” Firewood is not easy to come by in this area; trees are sparse in the village, but as we are nestled in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range, there is ample firewood in the region. These firewood children set off from their homes bright and early every morning, and trek through the streets of Njabini, and up to the national forest. I always see them walking on the roads, children of all ages, with a sack of firewood on their back, held up by a string, which is balanced on their foreheads. Many of the children have laced the rubber of the sole of a flip flop through the string, so that they can rest the flip flop on their foreheads to avoid the strain of the rope. When full, their sacks must weigh 20-30 pounds, and these children walk for probably at least 6 hours a day carrying this burden. We took a drive out of Njabini towards the mountains last week; we had been driving uphill for 25 minutes and we were STILL seeing children going back to town with their burdens. Francis pointed them out, explaining that these were children from the village; we had seen these children around, but didn’t understand the gravity of the task they undertake every day. They must walk 25 miles round trip, 12 of those miles, laden with a 20 pound burden. When the children get to town, they sell the firewood for just enough money so that their families can eat that night. They do not attend school, they do not play with their friends, they do not eat breakfast or lunch, and dinner for the entire family rests on their shoulders – literally. All obvious negative effects of this aside, the weight of the firewood bearing down on their heads day after day must stunt their growth]
Julie is a firewood child. Jane explained to me that one day, she did not get a receipt for the firewood (I have no idea where and from whom they obtain the wood, but apparently a receipt stands as proof that you paid for it at the national park area) and upon her journey home, she was robbed of her livelihood. When she arrived home empty handed, without a receipt to prove that she had in fact, made the trip that day and not played hooky, the intensity of the beatings increased. Jane was vaguely aware of the case, as the girl is a neighbor, and as part of her SWORD group outreach, she has been going door to door to assess family situations. She said that on December 23rd, the beating began at 6am, and did not stop until 7:30am. She could hear the child’s cries through the window: “please stop beating me mother, please don’t burn me, I’ll be good, etc, etc…” However, this was the first Jane was hearing about this girl’s “husband.”
It’s hard to condemn Jane and her neighbors for their lack of intervention in the beating of a child; unfortunately, in Kenya, it seems that there is an unwritten rule against speaking out against events that happen behind closed doors. It’s as if there’s an understanding that a family’s business shall remain a family’s business, even at the expense of the children and the wives, who are often the recipients of the “business.” However, I knew unequivocally in my mind that there was no way, no how that I would allow this innocent, scared child to return to the living hell she called home that evening. Jane agreed, and with tears in our eyes, we began to brainstorm solutions.
[In defense of the clinic nurses (we saw the doctor for a total of 10 minutes – some things are the same in every culture) and the social worker, I don’t think they would have wanted to send her back either; apparently there are steps that they can take to remove a child from such a situation. Everyone was in total agreement that what this girl was being subjected to was unequivocally criminal and illegal. I was definitely impressed that there did seem to be protocols in place for dealing with vulnerable child situations, and I was heartened by that realization. However, I don’t think my presence hurt in this particular situation. People know Flying Kites, and we are respected throughout the community, and together with Jane and Hannah (the aunt) from the SWORD group, we served as a solid advocate for the child.]
I asked Jane if her aunt, Hannah could take her in; by default of her status as a founding member of the SWORD group, Hannah is a compassionate individual, and her relation to Julie made her a prime candidate to be a guardian. Jane advised me that she is already taking care of 5 children (orphans of her daughter, who died of AIDS), one of whom has Down Syndrome, and the added burden of such a physically and emotionally abused child would be significant. Hannah readily agreed to take in the child, and I didn’t hesitate to offer to subsidize a proportional amount of her expenses. However, I wanted to ensure that this support was directly administered through the SWORD group, as it is crucial that these community organizations are credited with the good work they accomplish.
With the question of where Julie will go solved, our only obstacle was her parents; if they agreed to let her aunt take her in, we would have no problem. If, however, the parents objected to this arrangement (the only reason I can imagine is that the man might have been paying them for Julie‘s “company“) we would have to involve the Chief (like the mayor), who would intervene on the child’s behalf. Jane and I left once it was clear we could do nothing else for Julie until they got a hold of her parents, with the promise that as soon as we had an answer, we would meet up again to buy the supplies for Hannah and her family.
As Jane and I walked up the road toward her home, I asked her how she handled this kind of heartbreak on a regular basis. She said that often, after visiting these families she would go home and cry for hours. She smiled wearily and said that at least this afternoon she knew someone would be sharing the burden of her tears.
When I got back to the centre and regaled the other volunteers with my tearful account of the morning’s events, I just collapsed inside myself, utterly exhausted. While nobody doubted that I did the right thing by sponsoring this child, Sarah accurately pointed out that the way I have been reacting to these situations is not sustainable. Just a few days ago, our neighbor approached me with her grandson. She gave me a quick summary of their situation (that’s a lie – nothing in Kenya is quick except the Olympic runners); essentially, her daughter got pregnant at a young age, and abandoned her son when he was born. Her mother had no idea where her daughter and grandson had gone, until she found him again living at a neighbors house 8 months later. The boy was so malnourished and sick that he spent a year in the hospital, but is now a healthy 9 year old child. The child attends a primary school down the road, and until this year, the headmaster has been helping her with the school fees, however they go up as the child gets older, so she is no longer able to support him.
She was initially asking for the boy to be admitted to our school, but he is going into standard 4 (which is like 3rd grade?), and our school only goes until standard 3. She offered that the boy could repeat the year, but when I looked at his report card, I saw that he had been first in his class since standard 1. There was no way this boy needed to repeat STD 3; what he needs is to continue at the academy he is currently attending. While Flying Kites doesn’t yet have the funds to sponsor these individual cases, I knew that it would be a crime for a boy this bright to have to drop out of school for lack of funds. So, once again, I pulled out my metaphorical wallet and offered to meet with the headmaster of the school and find a solution for the situation. The woman was ecstatic, and when his grandmother explained it to him, the boy simply glowed. In fact, the next day, he was in the yard playing with some of our kids, and Sarah entered the house and said she had been given a special request to “greet me” by the child in the yard – my new charge.
While I understand Sarah’s point that I can’t respond to every situation by pulling out my wallet, I also know that the amount of money it takes to help these children is so minimal in proportion to the impact that it makes, that it would take a real scrooge to deny these children such basic human rights. I worked for 8 months to save money to come here, and if helping these children means that I may have to live at home again when I go back to the states, than so be it (sorry mom and dad!). It’s a small price to pay, and one that I will continue to pay until I exhaust my resources, to save a child from sexual exploitation and to allow a gifted child to get the education he deserves.