Joy Waithera.

Joy Waithera

Challenges of the destitute child Joy Waithera.
Joy Waithera, my journey as a destitute girl child

My name is Joy Waithera, and I was born in Kenya, Nairobi County in a slum called Mkuru Kwa Njenga on 17/09/1999. That is where my life began. My early childhood is not very vivid to me, all that is known is that it was very terrible, with a lot of tribulation as I was a girl. My mother had no stable job; she worked as a casua labourer washing clothes for the rich in neighbourhood prime estates like pipeline.

My mother would leave me unattended, with just some food and lock me in our small mud house thatched with iron sheeting. Mukuru Kwa Njenga is a slum situated on the eastern side of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. It is adjacent to Kenya’s main industrial area where 99% of all Kenya`s manufacturing processes take place.

Because of this, Mukuru is the most populated and congested slum in Kenya. This is because it provides skilled and unskilled labour to the industries. Mukuru has dingy houses built with mud and thatched with waste iron sheet or polythene. Most of the houses have standard measurements of 3m by 6m which can host up to 6 family members. There is no kitchen or toilet. To deal with a of call of nature, one has to relieve oneself in a piece of polythene sheet and dump the waste in a trench, or the Nairobi river which passes through the slum, or even on a neighbour`s door step. This kind of environment makes children’s life dangerous since there is no playing ground, the children end up playing around the same ditch where human waste and other garbage has been dumped. The smell in the slum is unimaginable which emanates from rotting garbage, human waste, industrial smoke and gas from the industrial area. Only dwellers can withstand the stench.

These hazardous environments have a negative impact on the slum dwellers’ health but no one has enough voice to air their predicaments to the national government. Clean sufficient water is like a dream to Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum dwellers. Water is sold at the outskirts where a 20 litre bucket of water costs 100kshs which most of the family would use for 3 to 4 days for all their daily use. Living in this notorious slum one would expect anything since it hosts all kind of people and crimes. These come as a result of the high level of poverty where the entire family live below 100 Kshs a day. Prostitution is rampant in the slum and the old, the young and children are involved .Children are commonly used to peddle drugs even in broad daylight for a small fee of 50 Kshs a day, since the majority of children do not have the opportunity to attend school due to lack of school fees. The area is manned by organised armed criminal gangs, who invade houses at any time of the day or night and take away anything that can be valuable or even
demand protection fee. These criminal gangs are feared even by the crime prevention unit and regular police. None of those units patrols in the area since the gangs are armed with more sophisticated weapons than the Kenyan police force. If you are born in the Mukuru slum, it is a miracle to attain the age of 35 years. Many cases of water borne and air borne disease kill most of the young children in these slum. I recall when I was young living there, I witnessed the deaths of three children who I used to play with; and no one had a clue what the cause of death was. Dugs are the second killer, and HIV related diseases like TB follow. Others are killed by thugs or fire. It is a place where only people with no options in life can dwell. When I look back and visualise the kind of life I spent in that slum my only tribute and heartfelt thanks is to Miriam, Charles and UK family for rescuing me. I would have died an immature death a long time ago had I stayed. Being in slum there were many dangers that faced my life as a girl child but due to poverty my mother had no choice. I recall one time when my mother had no money to buy food. One chill night she told me to accompany her to a street inside the slum. We went straight to one unmistakable house which looked quite different from the other houses in the area. She knocked at the house and a tough-looking man came out. They talked in low tone and he gave her something tied up in an old newspaper. As we left, he told me that we had to sell the commodity before we went back to the house otherwise we would have nothing to eat that day. I had no one I trusted like my mother. I felt very safe being with her under all circumstances. We visited several places like bars and some houses; little did I know we were selling bhang, (cannabis). We sold successfully and it was time to return the proceeds to the owner of the drugs for our pay. On our way we were attacked, beaten mercilessly where I had two cuts on my head, my mother had several cuts and lost a tooth; all our cash was stolen and we were left in pain and confused. We went into a government clinic where we received treatment and proceeded home. We did not get back to the peddler that night since he would have thought we were lying to him. To my surprise the peddler come to our house very early in the morning.

He called my mother, held her by her collar and pulled her outside; they talked for some minutes before he raised his voice and become furious. He made a clear demand for his money and threatened that there would be consequences if the money was not submitted within 12 hours. My mother explained to him what had happened and promised him to pay as soon as she got well. But the drug baron had a different motive. He told my mother that he had to take me to assist in more sales until all the money is recovered. Fortunately, my mother did not accept, and insisted that she would pay in 3 days’ time despite her injuries. Well I cannot explain how events turned out because I did not see the drug baron in our house again; I can only guess that she kept her promise. When I was five years old my mother got a bit lucky and was employed as a house help to do all the house chores which included hand-washing all the family clothes, cooking, cleaning house and washing their car among other tasks. She happened to have met this family from a referral from one of her usual casual employers who was impressed with her good work. It was a small family which was staying in a gated community maisonette, I guess the house had more than 4 bedrooms, also a kitchen, sitting room, dining room, store wash room and staff quarters. They had two children who were studying in an international school which not many Kenyans can afford. The employer was good-hearted as he allowed me to stay with my mother in his servants’ quarters. Life was not easy for me, even then though, because my mother was occupied the whole day. She never had time for me because she had to concentrate on her employer`s duties and on his children. The employer was very compassionate with her own children and very protective. I used to envy them because they were given everything they asked from their parent. They used to have medical cover, and would be taken to the best hospitals in the county. In my case, my mother used to have a plastic container containing my medicine like aspirin, piriton and antibiotics and other drugs whose names I did not know, since she could not afford either the money or the time to take me to hospital. A word father to me is a word that I read in a dictionary. I did not have a chance to see or know my father. Seeing other children with their fathers made me always ask my mother where my own was.

I missed the love of a father, but my mother usedto tell me that my father had travelled, and he would come one day. Time passed and I realised my mother was constantly telling me that my father would be coming home to shield me from the anguish of realising that unlike other children I do not have a father. This realization opened another wound in my heart as I later came to realise that my father walked out when I was two days old. To this date it fills me with painful unanswered questions:
– Is my father alive or dead?
– Does he exist somewhere in this world?
– Why did he leave me to suffer like this?
– What does he think of us today?
– What mistake did I make at that age for him to leave?
– If it was one of my parents’ mistakes why couldn’t they reconcile for the sake
of me?
– These and other questions linger in my mind making me feel very devastated
in my life.

Days went by and the time reached for me to join school. The school was partially sponsored by donors, so the school fee was half the cost of other schools. Although my mother was supposed to send me, she still had a problem raising the required fee. There was no playground, but just like structures in the slum the school was constructed of mud walls and old iron sheets. There weren’t many desk and chairs, some of us used to sit on the floor as we wrote or did examinations. I would listen to the teacher carefully and do my homework before I left the school. This was because at home we had no table or any chairs, only a mattress, blankets and a few utensils. At night we relied on light from the stove but when the cooking was done,we used to eat in darkness.

As the journey of growing up continued my mother lost her job as a house help, for reasons that I don’t know. We tried to relocate to the Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum since that where I was schooling and house rents were comparatively cheap, if you ignored the dangers there. Life become hard for me and my mother without her job. I started noticing different male visitors in our house on different occasions who would spend the night in our house. At first I thought my father had come back but I was wrong. They were her clients in prostitution. Sometimes my mother would leave our house after supper and return home before I left in the morning for school. I didn’t work out how much she used to earn but my assumption is that it must have been quite low because our life didn’t change; actually it deteriorated. On one occasion my mother came home in the morning crying, she was not in the mood to prepare me to go to school as she was used to do. I noticed that she had a swollen face but I had no courage to ask her what had gone wrong. She pulled me close to her and held me tight and whispered into my ears, “Sweetheart, we are leaving.” I remained silent because I knew there was something wrong as I had never witnessed my mother shedding tears. She made up her mind and decided to relocate to her grandmother’s somewhere in Meru. That day we stayed indoors without doing anything; all day my mother had a gloomy face and kept on covering her face and clicking as if she had some deep- seated regrets. We packed those few items that we actually owned: dilapidated bedding and a few utensils that fitted in a gunny bag, and left very early in the morning. As we had not paid our rent for that month we had to run away before the landlord was aware. We eventually arrived in Meru where she was looking to see if life could have a more meaningful purpose than that in Nairobi.

In fact, life proved harder in Meru than in Nairobi. In Meru a woman has no say and cannot inherit anything from her parents. For that reason, we faced a lot of resistance from my uncles and two of them approached my mother and asked her why we had come carrying all her belongings. My mother told them that life in Nairobi was excruciating without a stable income and that that was the reason she had come home to seek refuge. Immediately they took our belongings and threw them outside the gate and told her that there was no space in the family and that she would have to go back to her child`s father. They took machetes and ran after her.

My mother took to her heels and ran for dear life and left me in the hands of my grandmother, crying. My mother did not take me with her, she decided to leave me behind without caring what kind of life I might face. Meru County still upheld very traditional cultural gender roles which are unequal and oppressive towards women within the family hierarchy. Men are the decision makers and contribute very little or nothing towards the family well-being, putting more strain on their wives and children. women are supposed to provide food for their family and have some income to support the family on top of their responsibilities at home: cooking, attending to livestock, cleaning, faming, and taking care of the children. Because of these overwhelming burdens, children take the responsibility of helping mother to perform some of these duties. However, at the age of 14-15 the boy child is circumcised. This ritual, according to Meru custom, is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Afterwards, the boy is assumed to be a man, which means he will rarely take instructions from his mother any more or complete any chores assigned by his mother.

Therefore, the baby girl assumes the task and responsibilities previously carried out by her brother. This puts a greater workload on the girl, which in most cases leads to her dropping out from school. This in turn leads to early pregnancy or marriage as the girl gets into unfortunate relationships with young boys (men) where love is not involved. It can also lead to the girl disappearing from home to the street life. Men have a common lifestyle here; they just wake up take breakfast and proceed to the nearby town where they hang out with other men and watch the day go by. This kind of lifestyle and habit leads to boredom, which frequently ends in alcoholism. These destructive habits need financial support and men end up taking money from their wives by force which may lead to domestic violence, putting still more financial constraints on the family and further reducing the woman’s quality of life or even leading to divorce.

Cultural traditional practices can have a positive social change by changing cultural habits. During circumcision boys should be taught how to be responsible adults. That would bring up responsible family men who would be involved in bringing up a healthy family and responsible children of their own – especially boys. Since this lazy habit of Meru men is leant by young boys from their father, it is not hereditary and can easily be broken by bringing up healthy boys and giving a boy`s circumcision a better meaning, like being a responsible family man and not just a man.

One of my aunts based in Maua some month later, decided to take me to her home to live with her. More pain engulfed me after being separated from my mother and I wished there was a way I could communicate with her, but she never showed up again. By this time I was nine years old I and could understand almost everything surrounding me. On arrival in Maua I was enrolled in Maua Primary School as a day scholar in class five. That was in 2010. At my aunt`s place everything went well and smoothly. They treated me as one of their own children. I happened to be in same class as one of their daughters and at the end of the year I was among the top three in our entire class. But that December things started taking a wrong direction from my expectations; I was not given Christmas gift like their children. I did not take this lack with a heavy heart since I knew I was not one of their own. Then my aunt started giving me some extra household chores, but still I took this as a normal way of learning family life.

After school opened the following year 2011, I was given a duty schedule that I was to follow before and after school without fail. I would wake up and prepare breakfast for my aunt’s children, with stern instructions that I was not supposed to eat breakfast until they had eaten. I had to wash dishes, clean the entire house, polish her children’s shoes and carry their lunch boxes to school. It became a routine for me to go to school without breakfast. For me, I had neither lunch box nor shoes to polish. After school I was supposed to fetch water, since in Maua there was no piped water; and later cook dinner for the entire family and serve them. I could only eat when the entire family had eaten and was satisfied, in case there was not enough food for everyone. Usually I was either given leftovers or slept on an empty stomach. All this time when I was doing those duties, their children were busy studying and doing their revision. By the time I finished all the night chores it was late at night: 10 or 11pm, and I wasn’t in any position to do my homework given in school. Little did I know all this was orchestrated to make me fail in school so that I wouldn’t be in a better position than her children in class.

As time went on, I could be caned if the house was not clean, if the utensils were unwashed, or food was not cooked to their satisfaction. My performances at school started to deteriorate every term and my class teacher started complaining and questioning about me what could be the course of the decline. I had to lie since I knew that if I told the truth my aunt would be summoned to school and that would mean an even bigger problem for me. But as problems escalated from bad to worse, I started sharing my tribulations with some of my best friends in class who became so concerned that they sometime even brought an extra lunch box for me. Some tried to offer me their extra shoes but I could not take them since my aunt would have questioned where and in what circumstance I had received them. I was extremely happy when I was in school but when the time came to go back home my mood would sink and sadness would fill me as I contemplated what I would have to face there.

After two years of this, there was a time when I was not able to finish cooking dinner in time. My aunt came to assist me to cook while caning me with a cooking stick. It was at this time that I realised my mother had died previously and no one had bothered to let me know. My aunt uttered words which made me understand that my mother had died of HIV related diseases, which made me cry the whole night since I knew she had contracted the disease just to make sure I had food on the table. At that moment I decided to take my life. When I went home I pretended I was cleaning a cupboard but I was looking for any drugs which could have been stored there. I found a sachet with tablets that I did not know the name of or what the prescription was for, and I took all of them at once and went on with my normal duties. After approximately two hours I started feeling dizzy and my head ached,and I knew my time had come to join my maker. I kept it a secret and withstood the headache and I don’t know how long it took before I collapsed while I washed the dishes that night. I found myself in a hospital bed and I was informed that I had taken something that was contaminated, leading to food poisoning. I was discharged from hospital after five days. I could not believe I was back to the same kind of life. Everyday became terrifying to me, At the weekend my aunt organised for me to wash clothes for some neighbours regardless of their moral values or status and she would collect money on my behalf. This was one of the worst animosities I faced. After I had washed their clothes, some of the men would attempt to rape me and tell me my auntie had organised the whole ordeal and negotiated the price and therefore I was not supposed to question it . The pain was unbearable I would bleed for almost two days after an occasion like that and since I had only one underwear sometimes I would stay all day night like that and even go to school the same way. When the bleeding became worse, I would use a piece of old cloth to act as a sanitary towel. I was very dehumanised, traumatised and confused and I felt my dignity as human being had been ripped apart. I lost my self-esteem. I did not know what to do or who to tell due to the embarrassment associated with such acts, so I remained silent. These inhuman acts went on every weekend for three weeks until one Sunday I got news from one lady whose clothes I was washing, that my aunt had organised how I was to be forcefully married at my tender age of twelve years old to an old man who already had two wives so that she could get a dowry at the expense of my human rights. But the plan was that I was first to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) so that the old man can accept me for marriage.

This finally broke my heart. I couldn’t handle the anxiety and depression that had just filled my heart. I knew it was the right time to run away before her plan matured; I couldn’t understand why I was living through all this, especially at the hands of my own relative. She had girl of my age and she didn’t subject her to such pain as she did me. That night I made up my mind and decided to run away and stay with one of my classmates with whom I had shared all the hell I was going through. My plan worked well: after school, I proceeded to my classmate’s home. I stayed in their house without going to school. After three weeks my aunt found out where I was staying and came for me. She accused me of getting married secretly and beat me mercilessly This was the moment I realised that I was worthless and wished I had not been born. Nobody wanted to rescue me despite knowing the animosity I was being subjected to. I returned to school and I made up my mind that I would share with the head teacher what I was going through since my aunt had lied to her that I was married, and that was why I had not gone to school for three weeks. By then I was in class eight which is the final year in primary school. The head teacher talked to my aunt and told her to give me a space to study for my final year exam. That was 2013. Things were not good: day after day was marred with disagreement and argument with my aunt as she was trying to resist the instruction given by my school headmaster. I studied hard but circumstances did not let me and eventually I scored 287/500 marks which was a big disappointment to me. For the second time I ran away from my aunt’s home. This time I had my mind set on looking for anyone who might have a good heart and help me. I informed my head teacher and because this was my final decision and I was not turning back he gave me an assurance that he would help me if I should need it; and to prove his commitment he wrote down his telephone number that I memorised in case the paper got lost. I decided to start searching the Nairobi slum where we used to live before but there was a dilemma, I did not know where to start because the slum was quite big and I could not remember our location but I remembered well the name of the slum.

When I arrived in Nairobi, I went to Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum but much had changed and I could not trace where we lived before. I was totally a stranger to ceveryone, and no one wanted to associate with me; they all treated me suspiciously. I stayed all alone and hungry, my stomach groaned but I had nothing to eat but to starve. I shivered all night in the cold with constant sexual harassment in the street, but I was determined to search for someone to rescue me from the misery of my life. Days went by and I got used to searching for food in the garbage collection point. One day a lady saw me scavenging through the refuse and requested me to tell her my name, I did not hesitate, and she asked me if I would accompany her to her house. We went to her house in Umoja estate in Nairobi where I narrated to her all that I had been going through and she asked me if I had any contact of anyone I knew whom she could contact for help. I gave her my head teacher`s number whom she called. Fortunately, I was able to communicate with the teacher who informed me that I could go back to Maua and join a certain children’s home where he had organised for me to stay with the help of children’s officer in Maua. The lady organised with my head teacher how I would travel and arrive in Maua. This meant I was supposed to join a children’s home. It was not easy to accept but I had to accept because I had no other option. This was another beginning for me and another stone to step on with courage and determination, but a cold blood kept running in my veins when I would hear the word Maua and remembered what I had gone through in that place. However, transport was arranged, and the lady took me to the bus station at around six am, ready to board the Maua bus. She was very kind and understanding.

What saddens me most is that I did not even ask name, she just waved me goodbye and went her way. After travelling for 8 hours I arrived in Maua, where the head teacher received me and took me to a children’s officer in Maua. There I was handed over to the New Life Nyambene children’s home. The circumstances forced me to repeat class eight – that was in 2014. I was delighted to meet other children with whom I shared common status especially that we are orphans and destitute. New Life Nyambene Children’s Home is a wonderful place with wonderful people which any child would love to call a home. It is situated on outskirts of Maua town, in close proximity to the Nyambene hills. In the morning when the sun is rising, we enjoyed a magnificent view of the Nyambene hills as we enjoyed the sunshine. The home has two buildings facing each other: on your left side upon entrance is a vocational school and on the right-hand side is our kitchen, hostel and dining hall. Between the two buildings is our playground, which we all treasure so much. Thank you to Miriam, Charles and UK team for providing us with so great an opportunity which is hard find in Kenya. The Vocational collage was constructed and initiated to provide us with important courses and to include outsiders as well, at a fee. The courses, included hair dressing, clothing and design, knitting and carpentry. On the upper side of the same compound, we had poultry farming and a garden both of which were started by our project manager Benard Mwangi to supplement our diet and to sell the surplus to generate income. Benard is a caring, understanding, hard working person. He understood our need without even asking.

He was being assisted by Patrick Munene who I don’t have enough words to describe; he is our spiritual father and provides us with guidance and counselling.

My eye problem history.
My eyes developed a problem that I have been battling with since I was young living in Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum. I have been struggling to read my notes, or textbooks which made me drag behind in terms of school performance. Normally they become itchy and swollen during the day. I would go to public hospitals for medication but I was only give pain relief drugs and some allergy drugs. Sometime my eyes would turn scarlet red and swollen in a way I could not open my eye lids. In 2016 the situation become worse and I was taken to the Kikuyu eye specialist hospital and the doctor broke the news that if I did not get eye surgery, I might turn blind soon. I was taken to Lions Eye Hospital where I received surgery on my both eyes. I sincerely thank the UK family who came to my rescue, together with Miriam and UK team who contribute for my medical bill. You all gave me a second chance to have my eye sight. If it were not for them, I would be blind and absolutely miserable. In Kenya there is no special treatment for blind person. One has to depend totally on someone to guide them in everything they do. With no family to look after me, I would have died a long time ago. There is, however, a second and final surgical operation that may require over 1,000,000 Kenya shillings.

My Future aspirations.
I have looked back over my shoulder and realised how much the UK community have been instrumental in my entire life; and I have thought what the best way would be to give back my local the community. I surely feel so much indebted to Miriam; she has been there for me more than my mother and I want to fulfil her wish; to be an independent responsible adult. My passion has directed me to Thika School of Medical and Health Science. I have enrolled for HIV Aids & Guidance and counselling; this is because most of children in Kenya become orphans because of the HIV Aids related death of their parents; and if the children are left behind they suffer a very hard psychological trauma to overcome. I would wish to stand in the front line to make an impact to save a parent and a child from undergoing what I went through with my mother. For this reason I have decided to take these course, which takes 4 years at a total cost of 460,000 Kenya shillings.

My special dedication and special thanks to Mr. and Mrs.
Charles and Miriam; to my UK family, especially the couple who paid for my eye surgery, and my local Kenyans who took part in rescuing me. If it were not for your big hearts and generous contribution, my life would be no more. To my mother Miriam, “the art of giving to others is the art of flowering your heart; that is why the happiest heart is not one that receives but the one that gives”.

Bless you Mum.

With love,
You daughter Joy Waithera

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